The Unconscious Goals of Established Churches

mayflower_churchAs we enter a new year there will be many reflections on past failures as well as victories. There will be new determination to do better, accomplish more, and grow deeper. Preachers across the land in the next few weeks will attempt to utilize these reflections to sound forth a missionary vision.

I once asked a traveling evangelist friend if he normally saw big changes in churches. His answer did not surprise me at all. Most churches stay about the same size over the years, or decline. There are relatively few breakout churches that grow like crazy! How about your church? In spite of the many efforts, programs, and events … is your church essentially the same as it was ten years ago (or perhaps even declined?). Do not be dismayed as if you are the only one. You aren’t. Most churches are in decline.

There are many answers out there. Books, seminars, and traveling experts can tell us all the reasons for our decline and offer unique ideas to turn things around. Often what works at one church is a disaster at another church.

I think church growth efforts are a lot like diets. Most of them work. Most of them work on basically the same principles. And most of them work long term – only if you can effect significant changes in your habits. Just like eating habits, church habits are mighty hard to change. Most of them seem to be short-lived. And just like eating habits, there are unconscious elements at work that push us into actions we previously resolved not to do.

So this is not written to be a stinging critique as much as an an attempt to expose the unconscious goals of established churches – the ones that remain essentially the same, in spite of expressed desires to grow. Perhaps there is some value in at lease acknowledging these, recognizing them for what they are, and being motivated to move beyond them. I will characterize each of these unconscious goals in terms of preservation.

1. Preserve Our Atmosphere. There are just things about our church that make us us. Doing things that disturb that natural feeling causes distress. Phrases like “we’re not here to entertain” or “it’s just a fad” are meant to tell us that we shouldn’t do something because it disrupts the atmosphere. Every church has an atmosphere, and most of the members enjoy it – else they wouldn’t be there.

2. Preserve the Worship of our Precious Memories. Related to the first item, but distinct, is not only preserving our current worship atmosphere, but attempting to retain the worship we remember in our younger years. The hymns of our youth take on new meaning to our aging hearts, and to lose those is to lose a treasure. The location of the communion table, the particular order of worship, our favorite seat, and even the quietness of the congregation are all things that many would like to preserve. This is not done out of doctrinal conviction at all, but out of reverence for the church of days gone by.

3.  Preserve a comfortable distance from others. For many people “church” is a place to go. There, we sit alongside other believers and engage in mostly an individual and personal worship. We may arrive late and leave early to avoid having to engage in conversation with others. It will be a week for most of us before we will be in the company of believers again. This is not only acceptable, it is preferred. There is a merry band of believers who loves to visit and talk and be involved with others in the church, but it seems that many people do not prefer this type of fellowship.

4. Preserve Our Number. Every new person changes the mix … upsets the atmosphere a bit. Every new person invites a set of cirucmstances to be served, prayed over … demanding time and service. It’s just easier if we tend to each other – and don’t we have enough to keep us busy already? No one that I know would say these things out loud. But the evidence is pretty strong that this unconscious goal of not bringing too many new people into the number exists. I think our lack of bringing guests with us to worship is one indicator of this. Another is that we are not teaching people the gospel of Christ. And if I’m not wrong, very few churches have a plan in place for when they outgrow their facility. We expect to preserve our number, in spite of all of our talk otherwise. Is evangelism our number one priority? What happens when outreach conflicts with comfort? Which one wins out in the end?

Maybe you can add to this list. Please feel free to do so in the comments. Again, I’m not being pessimistic. I recognize that most of us would scowl at these goals, and have a hard time admitting to them. But I challenge us to look at them, honestly think about ourselves in light of them, and then try to pinpoint ways to grow beyond them.

When we understand the preservationist motives flowing beneath the surface of our churches, we can understand better why young people abandon the church so frequently, why new people do not feel welcomed in immediately, and why we respond so aggressively against any changes that attempt to turn the ship around.

If I’m wrong, let me know.

Thanks for Reading.


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