Awakening from the Dilemma of the Lazy Laity

Amos Jones

Posted on

May 1, 2023

In the book “The Rise of the Laity in Evangelical Protestantism,” first published in 2002 and edited by Deryck W. Lovegrove, a striking call to action comes forth, following a seminal calling out of a problem endemic to the church entering the modern age.  

“Between the ordained clergy and the laity, the so-called laypeople could scarcely avoid being lazy,” one author notes. “The result of this was a woeful ignorance leading to irreligion. Such neglect of the spiritual priesthood also meant that ministers were able to do whatever they pleased without fear of effective control or even criticism. Yet it was the duty of Christians to edify their neighbours and for the parson to play a part in this. If the clergyman were negligent he should be admonished in a brotherly way.”

Minister and Theologian Malcolm B. Yarnell III called the study a “comprehensive investigation into the involvement of ordinary Christians in Church activities and in anti-clerical dissent” that “considers how evangelicalism, as an anti-establishmentarian and profoundly individualistic movement, has allowed the traditionally powerless to become enterprising, vocal, and influential in the religious arena and in other areas of politics and culture.”

In a contemporary church culture where even acts of worship themselves can be reserved, for example, as duties delegated to “praise teams,” and in a contemporary popular culture where anything goes morally – with hardly a critique from the pews – this 20-year-old survey is ripe for our revisiting.

Pastors at the forefront of the disputes, debates, and decisions of our time seem to be going it alone. A 2022 study by Barna, a Christian research organization, found that pastors are struggling with burnout at unprecedented levels. According to the study, in March 2022, “the percentage of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year sits at 42 percent.” That was a sharp increase that harkened to November 2021, by which time the number of pastors reporting that they were considering resignation had surged up nine percentage points from January 2021.

Barna found that burnout was a problem particular affecting the younger pastors: “46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older.” There were even higher levels of burnout among clergy women relative to those for men.

Anglican Church in North America minister Tish Harrison Warren characterized Barna’s findings thusly in her helpful New York Times commentary published Aug. 28, 2022: 

In the Barna study, the top reported reasons for clergy burnout were the same ones that people in the population at large face: stress, loneliness and political division. But these stressors affect pastors in a unique way. Pastors bear not only their own pain but also the weight of an entire community’s grief, divisions and anxieties. They are charged with the task of continuing to love and care for even those within their church who disagree with them vehemently and vocally. These past years required them to make decisions they were not prepared for that affected the health and spiritual formation of their community, and any decisions they made would likely mean that someone in their church would feel hurt or marginalized.

These studies, along with qualitative accounts garnered in conversations with ordained ministers, identify a dilemma pastors and faith communities are facing as complex questions engulf the church and the world: that of an absence of strong lay hands to help strategize, articulate, and mobilize the community around shared values for spiritual health and social transformation. 

It is time for the urban Black laity to read and heed these tealeaves. Lay Christians need to step it up and to provide real, action-oriented service to their pastors and churches as the culture finds itself at a treacherous socio-political crossroads. 

A church with ill-equipped pastors is a limited church. The laity needs to come back into play, in a big way. Accordingly, this space in (IVI) will serve as a catalyst for activating lay energy within our congregations by offering concrete church policies, spotlighting exemplary ministries, and expositing strategies proven to work in transformational kingdom-building. Original interviews and other reporting will inform the presentation of models of ministry to augment the work of pastors to make churches and denominations as consequential as they ought to be for such a time as this. 

Amos Jones

Amos N. Jones is an American lawyer and law professor who lectures and advocates widely. He is known for issuing early but accurate political and Supreme Court predictions involving race, religion, and American government. A constitutional populist, he is regarded as a true moderate, operating almost uniquely in the American legal academy today. His work is inspired chiefly by the writings and examples of Carter G. Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Felix Frankfurter, Martin Luther King, Robert Bork, Alan Dershowitz, Randall Kennedy, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Albert Mohler. More: