What Can Pastors Learn from Donald Trump?

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A couple of weeks ago Donald Trump came here to Omaha before our state’s GOP Primary. True to form, his rally attracted thousands of people. His visit also prompted a number of questions in my mind about those who would support him. Political conviction aside I find it fascinating and instructive that so many support such an unconventional candidate. In their coverage of the rally the Omaha World Herald gathered a number of reasons why his supporters are so adamantly behind him. What is interesting here is the fact that so much of why they support him pivots on how he talks. People appreciate his straight talk. They like that he is not politically correct. He says what he means and means what he says. I don’t think that his supporters in Nebraska are unique in this way. The guy has made a connection with people. And, by most accounts, it is not so much what he says but how he says it that matters.

Armed with this observation, I’d like to (if possible) cleanly and gently segue from Donald Trump to pastoral ministry. I am not suggesting that we necessarily learn from Donald Trump in terms of homiletics or public speaking, however, I am suggesting that we as pastors can learn something from the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. We can learn about the people that we reaching and endeavoring to reach with the gospel; and we can be reminded of the pitfalls of aiming to cater to them.

If you observe and listen to the people talking about what they like about Trump they fit into a few categories. They like his straight talk, passion, showmanship, self-confidence, and triumphalism. Obviously some of these are not a problem while others certainly are.

As an evangelical pastor I can look at these categories and ask, “Where have I seen these things before?” Do we ever see pastors claiming to “tell it like it is” with passion? Do we see guys that appear to have unflinching if not almost appalling levels of self-confidence? Have you heard of any pastors talking bragging about the size of their church, accomplishments, or influence? The answer is a resounding “yes!” We see this all over the place. Trump reflects many of the church-growth, mega-church practices of the influential pastors. The last 10-15 years have included many “successful” pastors who made a name for themselves by planting and / or pastoring large churches, some even among the Reformed wing of Evangelicalism. When you hear them speak they often sound like they had some of Trump’s talking points with an evangelical rinse. We hear about the size of the church, the number of baptisms, how many churches they have planted, the different books they have written, and their takes on various issues. Brimming with such confidence they rarely reflect humility. This often, though not always, gets accompanied with a sophomoric, low-brow, and even harsh language.

From a sociological standpoint, we can see how this has worked and something of why it works. People are attracted to these things. But this is where ministers of the gospel have to take a step back and draw a distinction between what may work and what is right. There is a difference between drawing crowds and seeing the church built. (After all, we should note that all crowds are not churches, some are circuses!)  Pastors have to be very careful to remember that their job is not to gather crowds and renown for themselves but to make disciples and gather renown for Jesus. Have you ever heard Trump talking about the size of his rallies and thought, “Reminds me of an evangelical pastor bragging about the size of his church.” I have, cringing with embarrassment.

Instead pastors have to remember that our primary calling as ministers of the gospel is that of faithfulness. It is faithfulness that is the barometer of our ministries not accolades, attendance, or any other apparent “success”.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2)

Part of this faithfulness is the humility to remember that the church is not our own personal reality show. Christ is the hero, we are the undershepherds, the stewards, the servants of Christ.

Another aspect of this faithfulness is seen in trusting that God’s means brings about God’s ends. God desires to be glorified by people coming to faith in Christ and then growing to maturity in Christ (Matt. 28:19-21; Eph. 4:11-15). He does this through the ministry of the Word in the local church. We pray, preach, disciple, counsel, rinse and repeat.

A warning to us in the midst of a culture that craves a triumphalist showman with straight-talk has to be a reminder that, “…the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” (2 Timothy 4:3). People will want and perhaps even flock to this type of thing. However, in face of temptations for success and fame pastors must choose faithfulness. In the next verse Paul exhorts Timothy to “…fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). There it is. Do your job pastor Timothy and do it right.

Obviously this post is not about whether you should or should not vote for Donald Trump. Instead I am attempting to observe the phenomenon surrounding the man’s presidential bid and ask if there are lessons here for the church. In so doing I am discouraged by the similarities among some ministers, fascinated by what people seem to want and how they want it, and am provoked unto biblical faithfulness because of what God wants and how he wants it. This is what ministers can learn from this season that brings us Donald Trump.