Success as a Less Faithful Goal

Last week I went with a friend to a conference in Lee’s Summit, MO. It was fantastic, by the way. The 3 main speakers at this conference (“The Crucified God”) spoke with us from 3 different perspectives about what it means for a community or a person to hold to a theology of the cross (as Luther called it), or a cruciform theology, if you will — however you want to slice it, we’re talking about beginning all theology with the reality that the God we worship … died. Gave himself up to death. By the world’s standards, this looks like failure, like weakness. But the crucified God stands at the very center of our faith.

I may wind up writing about the overall conference at some point in the near future, but today I wanted to focus on one of the break-out sessions that the organizers offered for us. The one I attended had to do with the church growth model we’ve been following for the past 40 years (give or take). Author and pastor Tim Suttle led our session, which he based on his book, Shrink. (Here’s a link to a video overview of the book, in case you’re interested.)

Before I talk about the meat of our session, I wanted to mention a little side remark that Tim made regarding a study of Olympian medal winners’ emotions. In the study, it came to light that Gold Medal winners were the happiest, which makes sense. One would expect Silver Medalists to be the next-happiest, since silver means that they placed second of three, but it turns out that Bronze Medal winners were happier than Silver recipients. Why? In terms of “success,” the silver placers outperformed the bronze placers; however, it seems that the Bronze Medal winners were thankful that they placed, realizing how precarious their victories had been, while the Silver Medal winners focused more on how close they came to getting gold. (Here’s an article in the Washington Post that alludes to the study, and here’s a link to the study itself.) Ah, comparison to the other. Such a treacherous beast, eh?

So, to the session:

Tim was talking about how, for the past 40 or so years, most of our approaches to church growth have been based on business models. We came about it honestly as people like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and other megachurch pastors took the talents they had been gifted with and tried to apply them for the sake of the church. NB I used a lot of their wisdom back in the days when I worked for not-for-profit museums — especially management strategies that they and folks like John Kotter and Steven Covey offered for us to move from Good to Great and all that jazz.

They base their approach on business models, strategies, and techniques that aimed to bring about success. Bigger, better, faster, more efficient, yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with using these models – these pragmatic models deigned to increasify our effectability and embiggen our impactfulness (yes, I know those aren’t real words, but if you’ve worked in business, you’ll know a lot of the jargon they use aren’t real words, either) — specifically in the Church, well … they’re all models of Empire, aren’t they? The biggest concern is the bottom line, the profit margin, the return on investment, etc. Those are business/Empire values. “Success” charts under those models show a straight line of increase, moving left to right in an upward direction.

In contrast, the Church — the cross-shaped community, gathered around a crucified God — looks different. “Success” for us looks like compassion. It looks like human flourishing and a healthy creation. Our success chart isn’t a straight arrow pointing up, but rather an undulating wave that reminds us of inhaling and exhaling, like a pumping heart, like a living thing, not a sterile growth chart or something.

Tim recalled for us the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, that he might increase.” The church isn’t about bigger, better, faster, but about obedience and faithfulness. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered” looks a lot different than a successful business, yeah?

So, Tim is suggesting that we move away from “growth models” to a healthy ecclesiology. You know: What IS the Church, anyway? What do we exist for? What did Jesus command?

He suggests that we move from “growth strategies” to telling stories and trying to understand meaning.

He suggests we move from “growth techniques” to the Church’s historical virtues (and we could just as easily say “values”): Broken-ness, Self-giving (kenosis), gentleness, humility, co-suffering, patience, and all those other things Paul talked about.

The faithful approach isn’t pragmatic (whatever it takes in order to be effective) as it is meant to be practical, embodied by real, living people, who are called to be the image of Christ for their neighbors.

It’s less about doing, and more about being.

It’s less likely to produce anxiety, and more likely to bring peace.

Being a business/Empire requires conformity, uniformity, order. Living under the lordship of Jesus is often chaotic; it frequently involves conflict (which is NOT a bad thing, fellow Lutherans! Without conflict, nothing would EVER change! Wait, maybe that wasn’t a strong selling point. Hmm.) And yet it can be very, very productive.

This was the gist of the presentation. It wasn’t so much a take-down of megachurches and the last 40 years of church growth efforts as it was a way of calling us back to think about what’s necessary NOW. We can’t compare ourselves to megachurches. We’re just not like them in any way. In our small communities, there’s no way to stay anonymous. If you’re not in community with us for a couple weeks running, we’re going to notice. That means we’re also vulnerable, because our lives are more laid open to the other folks who do community with us.This is a Good Thing!

It also means that we can’t be mere spectators. The church of Now is a participatory church. It HAS to be! We need every man, woman, and child – and everybody in between — to help any way they can. This is also a Good Thing!

As society changes, the church needs to change. And the church needs also to remember that God is trustworthy. This “shrinkage” (apologies for the image for all you Seinfeld fans) could very well be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is shrinking our numbers SO THAT we will: lose some of our baggage; reach out to one another; grow spiritually; learn again to trust that God knows what God is doing.

The old model has been, for the past century or more, primarily about US. The church is no longer an alternative way of life compared to Empire, but has come to mirror the thing that God calls us to “come out of” in Revelation. People outside the church see this about us, and they’re opting out. Let’s give up, as Tim Suttle suggests, on the idea of “church growth” and begin thinking more about the flourishing of lives, the flourishing of our communities. Let us be, as Jesus calls us in Matthew’s Gospel, to be salt and light. It only takes a small amount of salt in a recipe to flavor an entire dish. It only takes a bit of light to scatter darkness.

This is what the world needs from us. This is what God has called us to. Let’s be faithful to that call.

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