We are fortunate to live in a county rich with churches offering different opportunities for people to worship. Yet, we must be humble and honest enough to realize that often people who walk through our front doors see very imperfect organizations, and unfortunately that can turn them off to the whole idea of organized religion and church.
In an effort to foster the recognition of insidious and potentially damaging dynamics in a church, I offer the following 10 danger signs. Certainly, this is not a complete list. I simply write these from my own experiences. I hope they are helpful.
1. The pastor is operating out of fear. This typically happens when he feels his job is threatened and he has little other training or opportunities to fall back on. His self-concept may be wrapped up too tightly in his job. While no one likes to have his job on the line, the problem here is that when a person operates out of fear, that person tends to make very poor decisions.
2. The congregation closes in on itself. Sure, new folks are smiled at, but not really welcomed. It’s as if some litmus test must first be passed before the new person is fully accepted. To be clear, we need those members who feel a deep-seated identity with the church (they are the ones cutting the grass on a hot Saturday afternoon), but we must be careful that this “identity” does not become “possessiveness.” When a person has been worshiping in a church for a year and still feels like an outsider, that’s a problem.
3. There is little financial transparency. Financial information is not made available to all. Members need to know they have at least some voice in how the church’s monies are spent. When people feel their tithes are going into a cosmic black hole, they tend to become disengaged from the work of the church.
4. The pastor and/or leadership are incapable or unwilling to recognize problems and deal with them in a timely manner. Sure, sometimes waiting to deal with a problem is the best option. But it seems to me that those times are relatively rare. Most often, waiting appears to be nothing more than ignoring, and in the end this turns out to be a poor excuse for indecisiveness. The “head-in-the-sand” approach to church leadership can be cancerous.
5. The pastor and educators do not teach the breadth of scripture. Like a musician who plays only one or two notes well, a pastor who tends to focus on one part of scripture or a particular theme does not avail the entire symphony of the Bible to members. This can result in a generation unfamiliar with God’s past interactions with humankind, and therefore potentially unable to appreciate God’s involvement in their lives now. Moreover, learning the entirety of scripture is vital for children’s Christian formation.
6. The congregation has become too denominationally-dependent. The primary identity of people who follow Christ is “Christian.” Problems occur when congregations become too closely aligned with a denomination that may change in a way that is inconsistent with that congregation’s beliefs or identity. Those in the congregation may be confused as to where their identity lies. Similarly, when a congregation forms around a particular issue and does not establish its identity primarily as that of Christians (but rather that they are for or against something), danger looms. Guess what else dies when that issue dies down (and it will)?
7. There is no clear way for members to express their opinions, suggest changes, or become involved as volunteers. The latter is particularly important as this not only leads to a feeling of estrangement on the part of newcomers but also eventually leads to the burnout of those doing the work.
8. When there is a lack of balance between seeking new members and caring for the present ones.
9. When the church is informed by society, rather than society being informed by the church. In trying to be relevant, the church strives to reflect society. Yet, this has never been the role of the church. Decisions made to reflect social changes outside of scripture can only be divisive in the church. Newcomers will be confused and wonder if the church is a social club with a political agenda or a place of worship.
10. Look at the budget. Does building always trump outreach and evangelism? If so, the church may have lost sight of its mission.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” If people who walk in our doors are to see Christ in us, then we must be aware of and fix any problem that might get in the way of them engaging the church. So, when reflecting on your church it never hurts to ask, “What would Jesus do, and what would he not do?”
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.