If you belong to a warm, embracing, encouraging and fun church congregation, today’s post is not for you. All I can advise is this: keep it that way, and you do this by limiting the size and power of leadership/management. When these people control as opposed to serve, you lose what you have.
We did, and so have many others: a long time ago, for a short time, we attended a quirky fun church that despite its informality, taught and empowered its members because much of the discipling came from the members themselves. For awhile it functioned, brilliantly, without a supreme leader.
And then the leader arrived. He spent the first year watching and laying plans (doesn’t this sound like what’s going on in many “free” governments today?), but once he moved, it was fast, and before the next year passed, all that was left of the church — our church — was its outer shell.
I didn’t begin to realize this until one day, at a “fun,” yet newly structured, family camping trip, a recent attender commented to me,
“This isn’t a particularly friendly church.”
I blamed her, because she was different, you know, not really upright in her life and with a sketchy past (you don’t have to slap me — I slap myself as I write that) — but she was right.
Our church had changed: it had been stolen.
Is this happening to you? It’s hard to tell, because like most takeovers, the really good ones are done slowly and subtly, but there are a few signs you can look for:
Take Me to Your Leader
1) New leadership. Any time there is a changing of the guards, be wary. I find it intriguing that in our churches, which are supposed to be intimate, communal, and embracing, we draw upon outsiders to lead.
And by leadership, I’m talking pastor, because rare is the good-sized church where the elder board makes the mandates. In small, very small, churches they can make life a nightmare for the pastor, but once the business gets bigger — with administrative staff and letterheads and podcasts — the pastor is the CEO, and the elders function as presidents and vice presidents. Yes men, I think they’re called.
You? You’re in the mail room.
Education, or Wisdom?
2) The pastor gets his PhD. I’ve seen a few thesis papers put out by Reverends who want to add Doctor to their titles: “Authentic Intentionality in a Communal Setting,” or, “Creating and Empowering Leadership Skills within the Laity Class.”
Wouldn’t it make sense for a doctoral candidate in theology to expound upon something from the Bible? Oh, yeah — that would be like a doctoral candidate in teaching — science, literature, art — researching something practical to do with his theoretical expertise, as opposed to the teaching of that expertise. Is your pastor getting his doctorate to learn more about the Bible, or techniques on how to run — and grow — a church?
You Are What You Read
3) Your Pastor’s library contains books especially written for pastors. What’s he reading? Books on apologetics, archaeological finds proving Biblical historicity, the Bible itself? Or does he have volumes of the latest on discipling reluctant attendants, pumping up the worship team, and increasing community and religious volunteerism?
You can get a clue through the sermons: one leader we lived through for too long saturated his sermons with the word “community.” It sounded warm and fuzzy and full of grace, until we started mentally replacing the word “group think” with “community.” Then it all made sense.
Fast and Furious
4) Changes happen fast, and you have no say in them. We feel stupid now, but the Norwegian Artist and I attended a “church community meeting” in which we were encouraged to “speak our minds about the proposed changes.” We did, but it would have been more profitable to head to the kitchen and eat stale doughnuts. The front runner speaker’s body language made it clear that the decision was already made (and it had been).
Looks Like Government
5) Bureaucracy increases. At one time, you, with your indifferent singing ability, were able to stand in front and lead songs. Now, all worship team leadership staff have to take classes and be approved by the board. “We need to exhibit a higher level of professionalism,” you are told. “We will review your gifts and skills and find an appropriate outlet for them.”
We knew we were in trouble at one church when the new leader arranged Leadership Seminar Training, complete with workbooks, multiple meetings, and tests. Within six months, the church had been divided into “leaders” and “non-leaders,” or management and staff as we preferred to call it. And as with the cubicle corporations that churches increasingly mimic, there were way too many middle managers doing . . . what?
Listen to Yourself
6) It just doesn’t feel right. When you say this, aloud, the general response is, “No church is perfect. You need to just be patient, and maybe be a bit more flexible in not wanting things all your own way.”
Trust your instincts — you’re not stupid.
So . . . what do you do if your beloved local church is slipping away from you? You either stay and try to make changes (good luck), give in and accept that this is how things will be, hop to another church and hope that the infection isn’t epidemic, or leave the system.
Because that’s what it’s becoming my friend, a system, and Christianity is not a system.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I still belong to the church. It’s just not in any building. It is a church of individual believers, pursuing a strong relationship with Christ, and some of the people are busy in building on Sundays, and others are sleeping in.
But when we get together — in person, online, over the phone, at a house, or meeting in the street — we grab onto one another and say (and truly mean) — “How are you? What do you need prayer for? What have you been learning? Do you have time to sit for tea?” Jesus talked to people, not at them.
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The Misfit Christian — my book, written for people who don’t fit in, and are tired of feeling like spiritual apostates. Paperback and digital at Amazon.com.