It’s disturbing that the “religious industrial complex” is cashing in on the desperation of many churches today. It’s common for struggling churches to look to more “successful” churches for the answers. What’s their secret formula? Will it work for us?
While it makes sense to learn from innovative churches that are effectively connecting with people, trying to copy what they’re doing is rarely successful because it undermines creativity and context. Growing churches are effective because they’re creative in their particular context. Churches are usually better off experimenting on their own than purchasing the latest “success and growth” products.
Of course, not all churches try to copy “successful” churches. Instead, many congregations condemn growing churches, branding them as “selling out to consumerism,” “abandoning community for numbers,” or “trading in the gospel for cultural appeal and entertainment.”
It’s important for us to examine our true motives for criticizing other churches and evaluate what’s triggering our reactions. Is it pride, envy, a superiority complex or defensive inferiority complex? Are we making uninformed assumptions or succumbing to a critical and negative spirit? Are we really just upset because they “stole some of our sheep”? Instead of making judgments, it would be more constructive to ask why people are leaving churches like ours to attend churches like theirs, if that’s what they’re doing.
The reasons for both copying and condemning usually stem from the same root: identity crisis. When people are not confident in who they are, they try to be somebody else or they tear others down. Becoming a self-aware congregation that understands its complicated relationships with success and why it resists or desires change, is key to being a healthy Christ community.
The “change or die” mantra cycling through the church world these days might be profitable for the “industrial religious complex,” but it’s not particularly helpful for churches in identity-crisis mode. In fact, our growing obsession with changing and fixing our churches might be part of the problem.
I recently had an interesting conversation with a thirty-something named Bill (a pseudonym) about dating. He told me he’d experienced a breakthrough he wanted to share with me.
“I’ve discovered women are more attracted to me when I’m confident and comfortable with who I am,” he said.
“Really? That’s your big epiphany?” I asked.
“Let me explain,” Bill said. “For years, I had lots of dates and a number of short-lived relationships. But none of them worked out and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized I was trying too hard. On dates I was always trying to be more intelligent, more exciting, more interesting, more ‘manly’ . . . than I was. Of course, it didn’t take long for the woman I was dating to see who I really was and the gig was up. Then it hit me. I was communicating to the women I went out with that I needed to upsell or upgrade myself in order to be worthy of a relationship with them. I was telling them I wasn’t enough as I was, that I needed to be ‘more’ to be good relationship material.
“When I started being myself, accepting my faults and limitations, but also being confident in who I am and what I have to offer, my dating life totally changed. Women totally respond to me differently now,” he said. “And here’s the kicker. I didn’t change myself at all, just my attitude towards myself. I’m the same guy, but women see me differently because I view myself differently.”
Bill’s story made me think about the church.
Are we trying too hard to be more than we are?
What if our incessant striving to be more relevant, more current, more exciting, is inadvertently communicating to people around us that our church doesn’t really have much to offer as it is? Perhaps people perceive church as some antiquated and broken entity needing to be fixed and updated because that is how it sees itself.
What would happen if we took Bill’s advice and accepted our faults and limitations, but also became more confident in who we are—the body of Christ—and what we already have to offer?
Of course it’s more complicated than this. It always is. I’m certainly not saying churches don’t need to change. No doubt, we have a lot of work to do. But maybe changing our perspective of ourselves as the body of Christ, and what we have to offer—the gospel—is a good place to start.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite, Stratford, Ont.
--Posted Sept. 24, 2014