“Naughty” is a great word.  Today it often means risqué, improper, bad or inappropriate, but in its origin it was an all-purpose word that could mean bad, evil, worthless, of no value, unhealthy, unpleasant, disagreeable, adversarial, contrary, difficult, improper, or hypocritical.  At its heart and essence was the sense of opposition for opposition’s sake — acting in ways that cancelled out other ways of action so that efforts were “for naught (or nought).”  It is this level of contrariness and opposition that I want to reflect on when it comes to the church — the thoughts, words and actions that transform Christianity into Christianaughty.

It has always troubled and perplexed me that we have so many church members who oppose mission and ministry — in fact, oppose any and all positive change and development.  They don’t want new people to come in and disrupt the status quo, they don’t want the pastor or other church members active in the community, they don’t want to spend money on new ideas (and many old ideas), and they vote against any new ministries or programs.  Yet, they believe themselves to be faithful supporters of the congregations — pillars, if you will.

There are also, in almost any church I’ve ever been part of, those who sow seeds of discord and disruption — gleefully engaging in bad-mouthing, criticism, gossip, and sometime outright slander and lying — all in the name of Jesus the Christ.  These people (I refer to them as “toxic influencers”) poison the entire congregational well, and they do more damage than openly vocal opponents.

Then there are the Time Lords, who have one motivation and one only: returning the church to the mythical golden age of the 1950s (when all the Sunday school classes were full of perfectly behaved children, where they had to set up extra folding chairs EVERY Sunday for worship, when they never had any financial worries, and where the pastor visited everyone in their homes, attended every church meeting, preached the most MARVELOUS sermons, taught four Sunday school classes, three Bible studies, never missed a WSCS (Women’s Society for Christian Service — prior to UMW) meeting and took the whole Epworth League (pre-UMYF) on mission trips to Appalachia every year…).  Time Lords don’t like the present, don’t believe in the future, and only desire a past that never actually existed.

There are also the Holy/Wholly Bovine — Christian cows chewing their cud and waiting.  Waiting for what, we never know.  They don’t want to DO anything, just be present in case something happens that they shouldn’t miss.  They really don’t care if the church does anything for anyone else, as long as it provides them a place to gather and graze.  They sit serenely blinking and chewing and only make a noise when someone steps on their tail.  Their Christianity is one of complacency and comfort.

None of these groups is “naughty” in the sense of being “bad.”  But all of them bring the best efforts of a congregation to naught if they are allowed to call the shots and have their own way.  Church, by definition, is to be a living, breathing, active entity.  It exists for a purpose, and that purpose lies beyond the walls of the congregation’s gathering space.  For too long, the “naughty” have defined for many congregations what their ongoing life will be.  They cancel out the positive impact the community of faith might have — or at the very least they greatly diminish the impact.

So what can be done with our naughty church?  Nothing simple, I’m afraid.  Every step is fraught with peril.  We will actually have to talk to one another and say “no,” from time to time.  To those who oppose all change, we need to thank them for their input but remove them from influential positions.  Anyone who prevents us from growing as the Body of Christ cannot be given power.  To those who spread poison throughout the faith community, we must name the bad behavior, confront it, and work together to eliminate it.  To our Time Lords, we must lovingly remind them that our future cannot lie in our past and once again remove these folks from positions of authority.  I know this is hard, but almost every change in our Book of Discipline for the past thirty years has been to put in place safeguards and processes to get good people in leadership and remove the less effective and downright destructive.  The system supports such action.  To the apathetic and complacent, we simply cannot organize our efforts around their comfort.  A little creative tail-stepping is in order to get some of these folks up and moving.

Regardless, as leaders in a congregation we need to constantly focus on moving toward a positive instead of coping with a negative.  We spend so much time trying to figure out how to get through the wilderness that we lose sight of any kind of Promised Land.  We work so hard to escape pain and discomfort that we rarely attempt to build a safe and secure future.  We expend so much energy managing people and problems that we have nothing left for creativity and innovation.  We get stuck in the now and miss much of where God is calling us in the not yet.  We are so busy watching our feet that we miss the vision being revealed on the horizon.  This isn’t an indictment, but an observation.  Most leaders want to create something better, they want to grow and move in healthy, positive directions.  They are frustrated by the dissipation of effort and energy.  Those who suffer most are those trying to do it alone.

Of all the things I have learned in thirty-plus years of ministry, the most important is this: church requires and demands community for effectiveness and success.  Pastors can play an important role, but it is only when a congregation begins acting like a true community that “church” happens.  Together, we need to decide how we will act and behave.  Together, we need to agree on what it important and what will define our life.  Together, we need to hold each other accountable and to encourage and support growth and development.  Together, we must seek and discern, discuss and pursue God’s vision for our whole community.  The needs, desires, and demands of individuals must be subsumed and transformed into the hopes, passions, and performance of the community of faith — many members, one body.  Church is defined by unity (common unity… comm-unity) and it is when we care more about God and each other that real miracles occur.  To be the Body of Christ — that is the whole meaning and reason of the church.  And that Body must move through the world to fulfill its purpose.

11 replies

  1. Worth waiting for! Thanks!

    A question, which comes across more as an observation maybe: how can a pastor find/activate the action necessary to step on tails, confront the poison people, etc.–even gather folks together for earnest conversation? What does this path of action mean for the ongoing financial support of the institutional congregation? From whence cometh the support for the pastor/leaders attempting such things? (Are the circuits helping in WI?) Is there value in trying this across congregational lines, or ought it to be done within each congregation?

    • This is what I meant about dealing with these things as community rather than depending on the pastor or key positions to address behavior, values, practices, and prejudices. The healthiest churches I have encountered create covenental processes where everyone is responsible for everyone. Churches that become healthy “WEs” are much better off than those who are collectives of “MEs” where everyone demands to be served and accomodated. The greatest challenge to the modern church is to get participants to take responsibility for themselves. Bad behavior rarely changes unless the dominant culture says “enough!” Sedentary congregations seldom move until a critical mass pushes for change. Conflict is least destructive when individuals realize that the majority won’t put up with any crap. Harmony comes from a declaration of zero tolerance for gossip, back-stabbing, bad-mouthing, unfair criticism, etc. Groups can achieve this; individuals cannot impose it. You are pointing at the crux of the matter — we need to operate differently, in distinctly counter-cultural ways.

      • So…more questions. You write, and I agree: “The healthiest churches I have encountered create covenental processes where everyone is responsible for everyone.” And you write a bit later that “The greatest challenge to the modern church is to get participants to take responsibility for themselves.”

        What does that “covenental process” look like? Any tools or templates to suggest?

        I recall the “church covenant” of my Baptist youth, read in unison at communion sometimes. The folks who didn’t abstain from alcohol just stopped reading at that point. I don’t think we need more of THAT kind of covenant….

  2. Thanks for this, Dan. Your reply above is helpful, too. My first thought as I read was of churches where “community” becomes either a fetish or the motive behind holding tight to the status quo.

    But, as your reply indicates, you are speaking of a covenental community formed around a shared sense of God’s call and will for the congregation and its members.

    Community is easy. Just threaten a sacred cow. You’ll get community in a second. Covenental community requires effort and the grace of God.

  3. You come up with some of the greatest titles. I’ve stolen a couple of them for sermons, and I might have to steal this one too.

  4. Dave, Alban Institute published a book by Gil Rendle entitled Behavioral Covenants in Congregations. You might find that helpful as a template for putting together a covenant in your congregation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s