Idol worship is not only in the form of carved images; modern-day idols can be benign-looking desires. And U.S. Protestant pastors have identified at least eight such idols that are negatively influencing church members, according to a new study by Lifeway Research.
On the top of the list of those idols is “comfort,” which about 67% of pastors said is significantly influencing congregations.
“It’s easy to think that those in Christian churches have chosen their God and are faithful to Him,” said Lifeway Research Executive Director Scott McConnell. “However, pastors quickly acknowledge how divided their congregations’ allegiances can be. These gods don’t have a physical shine, but they compete for the hearts of Christians.”
The next on the list is “control or security,” which 56% of pastors believe is an idol.
The others include “money,” according to 55% of pastors; “approval,” as per 51% of pastors; “success,” as believed by 49% of pastors; “social influence,” as identified by 46% of pastors; “political power” said 39% of pastors; and “sex or romantic love,” as per 32% of pastors.
The study found that younger pastors are more likely than older pastors to identify several of these modern-day idols in their churches, particularly political power, money and control or security.
“Pastors ages 18-44 are the most likely to say political power (55%) and control or security (72%) are idols they see in their congregations. The younger pastors are, the more likely they are to see money as a rival object of worship. Pastors ages 18-44 (63%) and 45-54 (58%) are more likely to say money is an idol in their churches than pastors 65 and older (46%).”
Older pastors are less likely to identify any of these potential idols among their congregants, Lifeway said. “Pastors ages 55-64 (18%) and over 64 (19%) are more likely to say none of these are idols in their churches than pastors 18-44 (9%) or 45-54 (10%).”
McConnell said the study could not definitively explain the large differences between younger and older pastors. “There are signs that younger pastors are of the mindset that idols are rampant today, whereas older pastors may be slower to classify one of these as having significant influence on their people, or they may define idols more narrowly.”
The study further found that ethnicity also plays a role. For example, white pastors (41%) are more likely than African American pastors (29%) to identify political power as an idol in their churches. Similarly, in identifying “approval” as an idol, it was 53% versus 40%.
Furthermore, African American pastors (25%) are more likely than white pastors (13%) to say none of these are idols in their churches.
Pastors’ education also has a bearing on their perception, the study said, noting that those with master’s degrees (64%) or a Ph.D. (57%) are more likely than those with no college degree (43%) to say money is an idol in their churches.
“In many ways, the top three idols pastors recognize in their churches are related,” McConnell said. “Comfort and security draw the hearts of the most congregations, but they are often enabled by the pursuit of more money. Pastors of higher socioeconomic levels are quicker to recognize the influence of security and control while pastors of lower socioeconomic levels more readily see the draw of comforts.”