Hard Realities: How Churches Delude Themselves
There is a psychological phenomenon where groups of people engage in mass mutual delusions, and do so not only willingly, but at times enthusiastically. Individually, we have all had the experience of trying to convince ourselves of something. (“It’s only the car battery, not a catastrophic engine failure!”) Magnify that kind of tendency in a group setting, and whole organizations can begin to believe in something that is not true (ask the Donner Party about making it over that pass).
Churches are no different, they also engage in self-delusion to varying degrees, and often do not recognize when they are doing it. Even if a member suspects that there is an active delusion in a congregation, they usually also have a sense that there is no real use challenging it, as the weight of the sheer number of people invested in the delusion will crush their voice.
It is no secret that the American Church as a whole is in decline. While only about 1% of churches close each year (http://ministrytodaymag.com/index.php/features/17090-the-american-church-in-crisis), many more cross the line into being impotent as well. Still, it is useful to spend some effort in identifying some common delusions, as these delusions have the power to at least cripple a congregation (or denomination, for that matter) if not kill it outright. Below are some common delusions, along with some hard realities and positive options to consider that congregations could or should face to get their heads out of the sand.
Delusion: Our attendance is poor because of the bad weather. (or it’s because of sports, or it’s because of vacations).
Hard reality: This is a routine delusion; it’s not those things. People decline in their attendance because the programmatic offerings are not pertinent to their lives and the worship and sermons are not culturally comprehensible to those attending. This does not mean that there needs to be programs to hit every possible ‘niche’ of need, or that worship needs to be produced into ‘worshiptainment’, but that programs and worship need to be attending to real needs and genuinely feeding the sheep nutritious food.
Positive option: Routine, continual use of multi-axis assessment tools to evaluate ministry effort effectiveness.
Delusion: It’s a national trend that young people are abandoning the church.
Hard reality: While this is true, copping to it and accepting it is disingenuous. Teens and young adults are leaving because congregations (and whole denominations) do not have a clue about the culture in which this demographic lives in. Offerings and efforts at ministering to them are being done by many under-skilled, inexperienced draftees, and then insanely underfunded by the congregation. The myth that all is needed is a part time ‘youth pastor’ who is charismatic and plays guitar is only the beginning of this particular delusion.
Positive option: Seek out knowledge of the micro-culture of your own youth community and dedicate adequate funding for ongoing study and support of meaningful ministry to teens and young adults.
Delusion: Young families are just so busy.
Hard reality: You bet they are busy, but they are very, very hungry for relevant spiritual food and support as well. The reason they stay away is that while congregations pay lip service to how ‘important young families are to the future of the church’, there is often sparse little in place to feed them or attend to their real needs. Like quality marriage support, (young) men’s groups, places for young mom’s not to volunteer more exhausting hours, but having a place to go to relax and refresh themselves, and a congregation that is genuinely kid-friendly.
Positive option: Learn about the different models of family ministry, chidlren’s ministry, and youth ministry, carefully select one and support it for a period of two years, making use of continual evaluation tools. Be willing to adjust if needed to improve mission outcomes, and fund it properly so that it has real chance to succeed.
Delusion: It’s a rough economy right now, so giving is down.
Hard reality: Most people feel they should pay a fair price for what service they are getting. If your income is low, it’s because either programming is weak, preaching and worship is dismal, there is not enough paid (ministry) staff, or the overall morale of the ministry team is in the can. Don’t forget to do a thorough exam of the emotional, mental, and behavioral health of the paid ministers as a clue to what is really wrong as well.
Positive option: Stop talking about money and focus on the mission, if you are doing that the right way, the money will come.
Delusion: We have always survived; we will survive this too.
Hard reality: You very well may, in fact, survive, but do so in such a vegetative state as to make the congregation ‘dead in the water’ as a viable, vital, mission-clear ministry of God’s Word. But you can certainly continue to self-protect and lie to yourselves about just being a nice, quiet, graying Christian community.
Positive option: Re-examine and update your mission statement, and do the visioning work to accomplish it.
Hard Realities Always Have Options
Delusion: We have always done it this way.
Hard reality: Yes, you have, and you can continue to do it that way, until there are only a dozen or so left in the first few pews at worship on Sundays! Congregations that are not intentional and assertive about constantly looking for changes that serve the cause of the prime directive (The Great Commission) will surely shrivel up and become shadows of what they are meant to be, and what God is calling them to do.
Positive option: If you do get an active, enthused, willing younger person into your church who wants to do something, clear the way for them to do it.
Delusion: We are doing well, just look at our stable weekly attendance!
Hard reality: You ought to know by now that numbers of people in pews do not make a mission successful; lives changed and engaged in active ministry for Jesus Christ do. And double check those numbers, as a classic ruse is to inflate them in order to inflate egos and keep the membership in a trance.
Positive option: Do the math and figure a ratio of person-hours in your congregation of time spent in organized internal care of members to organized external care of those not yet connected to a congregation. If you were honest, be startled and ashamed.
Delusion: Our Sunday-School programs take care of people’s spiritual development.
Hard reality: The Sunday-school model, which most congregations adhere to as a tradition on par with the Trinity, is well over a hundred years old, and for many congregations, does not work in this millennium for kids, adults, or families. God forbid any other format for feeding people spiritually is mentioned, or that there might be a need for (gasp!) outside sources of learning, development, and spiritual stimulation.
Positive option: Find someone qualified to help you study and understand your demographic, and make your programming lifestyle-friendly to those you want to reach.
Delusion: But we have small groups!
Hard reality: What most often passes for ‘small groups’ is a sad repeat of Sunday-School, just not done on a Sunday morning. Either tired-old-pastor takes a turn playing theology professor (or repeats a sermon from the archives), or someone who has read a really, really fascinating book wants everyone to read the book and ‘discuss’.
Positive option: Consider that people are hungry for things like ways to repair their wounds, how to move forward after trauma, deepen their prayer skills, and gain genuine, spiritual intimacy with others and God. Then find someone to train your volunteers on how to do those things and teach them to others.
Delusion: We are so blessed by our pastor, he/she can do just about anything!
Hard reality: I have met dozens, if not hundreds of very multi-talented ordained people, but the truth is, no one is good at everything. Pinning the success or failure of the mission on the pastor is both unfair and unwise. It’s a set up for everyone to become at least exhausted and frustrated, and usually burnt-out and hopeless.
Positive option: Since most churches hire professionals to replace the roof, fix the plumbing, or to even clean the carpets, maybe consider hiring someone with skills to fill the gaps in your understandings, programs, skill sets, and ministries.
Delusion: ‘Ministries’ equal ‘Mission’, right?
Hard reality: While most congregations have mission statements, just as many do not know how to execute actions to satisfy it, or know how to measure success in carrying it out. Just as often, favored, wizened old programs that have long ago died are wheezing along on life-support and are not progressing the central mission. Or, the plethora of special interests has never been purged over the years, and there are too many programs for the number of lay leaders and participants to effectively care for or even attend.
Positive option: Do some research or get some training on how to refresh your mission statement and do solid, forward momentum visioning.