Two recent experiences stay in my mind that cause me to question some of the current values driving many of our churches. Three values specifically call for some reflection:
- do we prefer substance or do we prefer style?
- are we more concerned about our identity or our image?
- is being popular more important than being prophetic?
The first conversation happened a few months ago while I was consulting with five churches from a small district in the southeast. The pastors of the five United Methodist churches were furious with a new, independent church that came into their area and was attracting young people at an amazing rate. All five pastors claimed that no matter what they tried, it was impossible to grow, that evangelism just wasn’t working. Yet, this new church — only one year old — was drawing almost as many people each week as the five UM congregations combined. The comments of the five pastors were both angry and incredulous —
“you should see the church. It’s this little tar-paper building that doesn’t even stand straight.”
“…and the parking lot is all gravel and mud and puddles…”
“…and it’s impossible to drive down the street in front of it. There are so many cars parked out on the street, morning-noon-and-night, seven days a week….”
“…and the lawn is cluttered with all these kid’s toys…”
“…and the NOISE…”
“…and some of our people have even started to go there…”
“…and the preacher doesn’t have a seminary degree!…”
and on and on and on. Finally I asked, “So, why is it so popular?” After some hemming and hawing, one of the pastors said,”Well, they do a lot of work projects around the community. They work with some of the social service agencies for poor families and the homeless. They focus a lot of attention on lower income and poorer educated people. They have a lot of fellowship events for the poor. They expect people to really get involved.”
A few moments of silence passed, then one of the pastors said, “They really focus on a different class of people than our church. I can’t imagine our people doing some of the projects they do.” Another chimed in, “If some of the people that go to that church came to our church, some of our members would probably leave.” Yet another all-too-honestly confessed, “You know, some of the people that go there, I wouldn’t want to see come to our church.”
The longer I listened, the more clearly I understood the disconnect. These pastors felt threatened by a faith community that was doing work they didn’t want to do, with people they didn’t want to be in ministry with, that they felt wasn’t as good as they were in facility, looks, or leadership. It didn’t matter that this church was also doing good work that they weren’t willing to do. They resented a “lesser” church making them look bad. I made this point to the group — who received it about as well as you might expect. They could not fathom why people would want to go to a shabby, dirty, ill-kept, inadequate facility with less-than-academically/professionally trained leaders. Forget about the wine — what the church was really all about; focus on the wineskin — what the church looked like on the surface.
This leads me to reflect on a conversation I had with another United Methodist pastor who led a workshop for other pastors saying, “Image is everything. Your building, your parking lot, your sanctuary says a lot about who you are. And you as pastors — the way you dress, what you drive, where you live says a lot about the God you serve. We serve an awesome God, so we as leaders need to be awesome, and our churches need to be awesome. When we talked later, this man confessed to me that “his church” would be in debt for decades, and that they probably would not be able to pay their apportionments or do much missionally “beyond the congregation” during his entire ministry, but those were some of the sacrifices that needed to be made to grow a successful church. Now, I confess that this is a basic difference of opinion about the definition of “successful” church, but I disagreed with this completely. If making sure we look good is more important than what we do, we have completely missed the point. Another pastor joked to me recently, “We don’t need new members to transform the world; we need new members to pay the mortgage.” I failed to see the humor in the statement.
Where we worship, what we own, how nice we look — these things should not matter like they do. We whitewash the outsides, while the insides decay and corrupt. What goes in isn’t nearly as important as what comes out. Making disciples isn’t dependent (or shouldn’t be) on how big, bright, new, and shiny our buildings are, and transforming the world shouldn’t have to wait until we pay for all our expansion and improvement. What we do should say more about who we are than what we look like.
We live in a culture enamored with image. We are a society that adores size, sound, and sensation. We love celebrity and popularity. We can’t wait to jump on the latest craze and grab the newest gadget. But the church should not be defined by the culture, but stands in a unique position to provide a counter-cultural alternative. The church should be about substance, not surface. Our faith should be about depth, not just breadth. Our identity should be grounded in Christian values, not projecting a popular image. We waste our wine while focusing on the wineskins and we mortgage our mission, deferring our “real” work to some unforeseeable future. (A friend of mine actually said to me, “Just wait. Once our Christian Life Center gets built, then we’re going to do some great ministry!”
The problem we face is that the world needs us now. People need the church to be real. They don’t need promises that we can’t deliver. They don’t need our congregations to be continuously “getting ready” to be in ministry — they need churches in ministry. It’s not enough to “want” to be the church, to “try” to be the church, to “become” the church — we’re called to “be” the church — right now. It breaks my heart when many faithful, well-meaning, and truly loving people get so distracted by the less important things. It would be wonderful if we could stop worrying so much about how we look, and turn instead to doing what needs to be done.