What’s “Killing the Church”

It seems that every day I see another article (or two or three or five) about what’s “killing” the church. Today was a twofer. The first installment, courtesy of the Huffington Post, is entitled “The Fandom of God Is Upon Us and It’s Killing the Church”. The second is entitled “Very Sick Churches”. While reading the two of them, I was struck by three thoughts in quick succession:

  • The analysis is spot-on.
  • It’s not news.
  • Maybe what’s really “killing the church” is all of these articles about what is killing the church.

Think about it this way: say you were invited to join an organization, and you went to a couple of that organization’s meetings, met some of its members, read up on its core values, commitments and beliefs. If, in the process of that investigation, all you heard was negativity about the organization from itself, would you want to join?

I served my first call in northern Minnesota as what my denomination calls a “mission redeveloper”, that is, a pastor who is specially trained to help a declining congregation “turn things around”. Looking back on that experience with the benefit of hindsight, I can say this in all honesty: I got as many things wrong in that call as I got right. Armed with a seminary education and all kinds of training about the difference between healthy and unhealthy congregations, armed with all kinds of knowledge about the things that were “killing the church” back then (here’s a shocker: it’s the same things we say are “killing the church” now), I started working mightily to try to turn things around. The problem was, I spent most of my time talking with folks in that congregation about that congregation, and about the things that we needed to do differently. We spent very little time talking about the world, or our state, or our community, and the entry points for the gospel in that community. We spent very little time talking about the things we were doing well, or what our strengths were, or how we could build on them. With the shadow of financial insolvency hanging over our heads, the knowledge that my salary and benefits were the biggest singles expense in the budget, and the ticking clock of time-limited grant support always in the background, we (or at least I) operated out of anxiety and fear more than out of love, optimism and hope. And while anxiety and fear can sometimes make people change, the bottom line is that fear really sucks as a motivator.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t constantly seeking ways to do things better, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should be reticent about acknowledging the ways we have failed as church. Confession is good for the soul. There comes a point, though, where confession becomes self-flagellation, and for many “mainline Protestant” communities of faith, that point is far behind us. I don’t think any pastor ordained in the last ten years is really unaware of the grave dangers an insular, inward focus or a “country club” mentality pose to a congregation. I’m pretty sure most congregational members are at least subconsciously aware of those dangers, too. So do we really need more articles diagnosing the problem?

The other problem with this self-diagnosing, self-flagellating self-examination is precisely that it is intensely focused on self. Yes, we need to be self-aware, but we dare not be self-centered or self-focused. Conversations that are all about what’s wrong with the church are just as self-referential as a blithe, self-satisfied pretending that all is well as long as the members are happy. If the problem is that too many congregations have become too inwardly focused, becoming inwardly focused on what’s wrong with us doesn’t solve the problem any more than being inwardly focused on our own wants and desires does. There are plenty of challenges facing the church in the 21st century context, but constantly diagnosing them and making ourselves (or worse, others) feel like crap about them doesn’t move us any closer to a solution.

So what does move us toward a solution? As with so many things, I believe in balance and hope. What is needed, I believe, is a particular kind of leadership, one that I find lacking in a lot of the “death diagnosis” conversation. It is leadership that celebrates what is going RIGHT in our churches at least as much as it addresses what is going wrong. It is leadership that acknowledges the things that need work, but does so out of a sense of hopefulness, joy and love. If leaders don’t exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), how can we expect our congregations to? If all our congregations hear from their leaders is, “We’re dying because you  (fill in the blank) ”, why would they be motivated to change? Leadership that harps on what is wrong all the time doesn’t tend to motivate anyone. Worse, leadership of that kind easily slips from being diagnostic to accusatory; that is, it’s easy for pastors to go from “we need to change this” to “you need to change this, you stiff-necked, hard-hearted Pharisees!” While Jesus never hesitated to call the Pharisees on their nonsense, I’m not Jesus, and neither are you, and the fact is that we all need redeeming, even pastors. (It’s also worth noting that while Jesus wasn’t shy about confronting the Pharisees, in the end he loved and died for them, too.)

In my lifetime, I’ve gotten to observe a lot of different examples of leadership, on sports teams, in the military, in retail, in health care and in the church. Without exception, the leaders I have seen get the best results have been those who didn’t sugar-coat the problems, but didn’t harp on them at the expense of the strengths, either. When I was a freshman Navy ROTC cadet, I had a squad leader who was great at that. He expected a lot of me and my squad mates, and nothing that fell short of his standards escaped his notice. He was also quick to praise what was praiseworthy, though, and to encourage where needed. At the end of the year, all four of us in my squad were still there, and had grown enormously. We wanted to excel, and to live up to his standards. By contrast, in another squad whose squad leader led primarily through fear and punishment, three out of four squad members quit before the year was up. The guys in my squad weren’t better cadets; in fact, on paper, the guys in that other squad had better qualifications to be cadets. My squad wasn’t better because of what we brought to the table, but because of what our squad leader did with what we brought to the table. I saw the same contrast, both in leadership style and in results, as a naval officer. Commanders and other leaders who harped on the negative wound up with subordinates who did the bare minimum to get by; commanders who addressed the negative while building on the positive inspired greatness, even in organizations that had previously suffered from poor leadership and poor morale.

I saw a similar dynamic at play in my work as a hospital chaplain. Nurse managers who exhibited excellent, positive, high-standards leadership not only got excellent outcomes for patient care, they attracted more excellent nurses. Moreover, you could feel the difference in the air between units with excellent leadership and units with negatively-focused leaders. Finally, I have seen the same outcomes in churches with positive leaders. Congregations with healthy, positively focused pastors and lay leaders seem to thrive; congregations with pastors and other leaders who are constantly telling them what’s wrong with them don’t.

Granted, it doesn’t always work. Some congregations can have all kinds of positive leadership, all kinds of revitalization help, and still remain inwardly focused “fandom” congregations. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if some congregations die off. If a congregation has been given the facts about what is killing it, has been given positive leadership to call it back to its true identity as part of the body of Christ, and still refuses to change, then maybe we need to be okay with that church eventually withering away and dying, and maybe we need to be okay with not pouring massive resources into saving a body that is beyond saving. After all, we claim to hang our hats on resurrection, and there’s no resurrection without death first.

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