Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

The Christian Art of Incivil Discourse

John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio used to be compatriots. Until they weren’t. Calvin was initially so impressed with Castellio that the iconic Reformer invited him to serve as rector at the college of Geneva. Things changed when Castellio started to disagree with Calvin. The two Reformers began to take aim at one another, with Castellio publishing tracts that criticized aspects of Calvin’s theology and Calvin answering him in kind. One of Calvin’s responses was entitled A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person. The first line reads, “There has come to my notice the foolish writing of a worthless individual, who nevertheless presents himself as a defender and vindicator of the glory of God . . . .”

I thought of Calvin’s essay recently, when the furor over John MacArthur’s dismissal of Beth Moore’s ministry erupted. When MacArthur was asked what he would say to Beth Moore in one or two words his answer was, “Go home.” MacArthur’s remark was relatively tame compared to Calvin’s, at least when you consider that in the Reformer’s day theological disputes often ended in prison or even death for those who disagreed. I guess we live in a kinder and gentler age by comparison. But that doesn’t make disagreement more comfortable for us. Especially when it is between people that we look up to. Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight. We aren’t sure whose side we should take. We just want it to stop.  

Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight.

In our digital age, where it only takes a click of the mouse to enter the fray, it is easy to turn a disagreement into something more. Like players pouring out of the dugout to protest a bad pitch, each side piles on the other using their words as fists. The fact that our theological brawls are mostly verbal may not be as much of an improvement over the old days as we thought. It is true that we no longer burn people at the stake. But we do occasionally burn one another in effigy via social media. Words can be weapons. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

 I suppose it might be different if our verbally violent exchanges led to mutual agreement. But they do not. How can they, when the views in contention are mutually exclusive? Neither side can capitulate to the other without compromising their convictions. Each finds it equally difficult to speak in moderation. The greater the conviction, the stronger its expression. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that both will eventually agree to disagree, but neither side can say that the other is right.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tone certainly matters. 2 Timothy 2:24–25 warns that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if we are going to disagree, and we are going to disagree, we need to learn to disagree like Jesus. But what does that look like? Is it the gentle Jesus of the children’s hymn, who is meek, and mild? Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels. The Jesus of Scripture called those who rejected His teaching “blind fools” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7; 23:17). He grew angry when the religious leaders tried to accuse Him of Sabbath-breaking for healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple courts (John 2:15).

Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels.

Likewise, the same apostle Paul, who wrote that the Lord’s servant must be gentle, is the one whose disagreement with Barnabas over ministry personnel was so sharp that the two of them went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). Was their dispute a sin? I guess it might have been, but the Scriptures don’t call it that. Paul also said that he wished those who were preaching circumcision to the Galatians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

If we look beyond the New Testament, we can find other examples of strong disagreement expressed in passionate language. There is Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets, of course. When the returned Jewish exiles compromised their lifestyle, Nehemiah rebuked them, called down curses, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair (Neh. 13:25). I am not saying that moving forward we should adopt Nehemiah’s behavior as a pattern for our disputes, only that we shouldn’t be so shocked to find believers with opposing views expressing themselves with conviction.

For those who already agree with his views, MacArthur’s remark was simply a tersely stated biblical correction. For those who disagreed, it was a case of mean spirited bullying and prejudice.  But given the nature of MacArthur’s convictions, it is hard for me not to see the resulting outrage as somewhat disingenuous. How could MacArthur have said any different, given what he believes? Of course, he might have said nothing at all. I suppose that would have been more polite. But when he said that Beth Moore should “go home,” I suspect he meant it literally. Likewise, I think Beth Moore was right to be equally dismissive of John MacArthur’s suggestion. Her implied response to him, posted on Twitter, stated, “I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God.” In a subsequent tweet, she added, “Whether or not I serve Jesus is not up to you. Whether I serve you certainly is. One way or the other, I esteem you as my sibling in Christ.”

The real rancor in this dispute didn’t come from MacArthur or Moore, so much as it did from their followers and other observers who piled on via social media. Those who took issue with MacArthur criticized his tone, but what they ultimately objected to was his view. Would they have felt any better if he had expressed his remarks with a sweet smile and a soft-spoken explanation, supported by extensive Scripture references? I doubt it. What was really at issue for them was not whether he should have used a different tone, but whether he had the right to hold his convictions at all. The same is true on the other side. In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away. Neither is likely to do so anytime soon.

In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away.

So how should we manage disagreements like this in the church? We can start by recognizing that complete agreement is unlikely, if not impossible. Our differences matter and they are not always able to be reconciled. If merely holding the opposite conviction is incivility, then incivil we must be. But it may help to recognize that not every doctrinal disagreement is a matter of life and death. It has helped me to sort through these matters by drawing a distinction between three levels of doctrine. First, there is a basic shortlist of fundamentals. These are the truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. They are so essential that if you eliminate them you no longer have Christianity. These are the truths that show us which hill we should die on.

Second, there are those truths over which Christians disagree and which are important enough to warrant a separation in fellowship or practice. These doctrines are essential to one’s theological identity or express convictions which shape essential ministry practices. But we would still consider those who hold views different from ours to be Christians. The difference between MacArthur and Moore falls into this category.

Third, are doctrines that we might call disputed matters. These are doctrines about which we will agree to disagree. We cannot all be right about them. Perhaps we are all wrong. But we will fellowship and minister together in spite of our differences. These truths are important, but they are not so important that tolerating those differences does damage to our identity or compromises our practice.

Of course, distinctions like these, which look neat on paper or in a diagram, are always messier in practice. One person’s disputed matter is another’s distinctive and sometimes even their fundamental. We will not always agree. Where convictions are strong, we should expect that their expression will be equally strong. Beth Moore is right when she observes that even in our differences we remain siblings in Christ. And anybody who has taken a long trip in the family car knows that siblings don’t always get along.

Monotone Worship

The worship wars are over. In church after church that I visit, we all seem to be singing the same handful of songs. To me they seem more like chants and shouted slogans than anything else. Melodically uninteresting and lyrically unimaginative, the music we are singing in the church these days isn’t composed, it is compiled. It feels more like the work of a committee than it does the creation of an artist. That’s because the songs we sing are often the result of a production process that might best be described as creation by committee. If you doubt this, count the number of names listed at the end when the song’s credit appears.

Instead of reflecting the personal faith experience and artistic skill of an individual, today’s church music has the feel of mass-produced goods of a marketing machine. There is plenty of enthusiasm. What is often missing is imagination and beauty. Today’s measure of what makes for good worship music rises no higher than the aesthetics of what used to be called top forty radio. As the teenagers observed on American Bandstand in the ’50s and ’60s, “It’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” But the result of such an approach inevitably tends toward banality and cliché. This is true both for the music and the words that the music frames.

In an essay entitled “Thoughts about Music,” theologian Josef Pieper makes three observations about the music of the post-modern era, which also apply to much of the church’s music today. First, Pieper notes that the most common and pervasive feature of today’s music is its triviality. Pieper describes this sort of music as the kind whose primary function is entertainment and mood management. According to Pieper, its chief characteristics are “a happy sound” and a “numbing beat.” Second, Pieper observes that the music of the post-modern age is, “frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely ‘skin-deep.’” Third, and most important, Pieper explains that post-modern music “lays bare man’s inner existential condition.” Or to put it in other words, the music of a culture exposes the soul of that culture.

We have been conditioned to believe that all cultural artifacts are morally neutral. We not only see music as amoral but as something whose value is so subjective that it cannot be criticized. In the practice of the church, this post-modern perspective has resulted in a kind of cultural tyranny which demands that worshipers embrace the latest musical style uncritically, no matter what its effect might be on their experience of worship. Some may dismiss Pieper’s observations because his mention of the beat is reminiscent of a kind of musical criticism that was once characteristic of certain branches of Fundamentalism and which condemned modern worship music for its “jungle beat” or employed a pseudo-scientific argument to warn of the psychological and spiritual effects of rhythm on the listener.

But this is not what Pieper is criticizing. His point is not about what music does to us but about what our music says about us. If the music we use to express ourselves in worship is trivial and sentimentalized, it is because our thoughts about God and the Christian life have become trivial and sentimentalized. The danger with this kind of worship is not merely that it exposes our shallowness to the world but that it reinforces that shallowness. George Orwell makes a point in his essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” which seems pertinent here.  “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell notes.  

The aim of worship is not merely to express our feelings. It is also intended to shape our thinking. According to Ephesians 5:19, when the church sings together, it is talking to itself as well as to God. Colossians 3:16 speaks of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as modes of instruction and admonition. We serve God when we worship, but the music we use to worship with also serves us. My complaint about the church’s culture of contemporary worship is that it often does neither.

Instead of serving God, the worship of many churches inadvertently pushes God to the margins by employing music as a marketing tool. Rather than serving the congregation, our worship is aimed at those we want to visit the church. Our songs usually speak of God but often in a sentimentalized and even a narcissistic way, so that the message is more about us than it is about God. There is a place in worship for speaking of our own experience. The Old Testament book of Psalms often speaks in the first person. The Psalms also show that worship should have an emotional dimension. Nor is it wrong to hope that outsiders and seekers might sense God’s presence when the church worships. The problem here is one of perspective. The church’s marketplace culture objectifies God by treating the reality of His presence liking a commodity and using it to increase its share of the religious market.

At the same time, the church sends a mixed message about the importance of worship. Even as it spends considerable resources to put on a display that will attract people, so much so that in some churches the worship pastor can be paid more than the preaching pastor, church leaders are dismissive of congregational worship. Pastors often chide those who “only come to church to worship.” Such language gives the impression that congregational worship is the least important thing a church does and that those who make congregational worship the center of their week are self-centered spiritual deadbeats.

Ironically, the Greek terms that are the basis for the term “liturgy” originally referred to a work undertaken for the sake of the community. Apparently, worship is for the sake of people as much as it is for God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these same terms were associated with the kind of service rendered by the priests and Levites. In Acts 13:2, this language is used to speak of the worship of the church at Antioch. The apostle Paul uses a different term in Romans 12:1 when he expands the New Testament idea of worship to speak of the offering of the whole self to God as a living sacrifice.

It is not just the tyranny of contemporary style that has flattened our corporate worship to a monotone; it is our view of worship itself. Congregational worship is not the least important thing the church does. Worship is the church’s primary vocation. Indeed, if the first article of the Westminster shorter catechism is correct, worship is humanity’s primary vocation, since “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.”

The worship wars are indeed over, at least where the battle over musical style is concerned. But I am afraid that in the end, none of us is the victor.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.

Added Value

The leaders of a church I know were discussing the membership roll. It is the sort of thing that congregations have to do every once in a while. People move away or they decide to attend somewhere else. If the constitution calls for a certain number to be in attendance in order to hold a business meeting, a bloated and inaccurate roll makes it difficult to achieve a quorum. I get it. I really do. From time to time a church needs to purge its list of members.

But more than once during the meeting, as various candidates for removal were discussed, the same observation was made: “Well, they don’t contribute anything anyway.” The comment didn’t have anything to do with money. They weren’t even talking about attendance. Not really. They were talking about involvement.

I have found this to be a common way of thinking in churches these days. It is a perspective which believes that the value of those who claim to be a part of the church is shaped by what they produce for the church. It is not enough to simply show up on Sunday or even to worship. You must somehow add value to be of value. Serve coffee or sit in the nursery. Teach Sunday school or go on the church’s latest ministry trip. Serve on a church committee. Do whatever you like but don’t just sit there. I thought the same way when I was a pastor.

I was wrong. Our value is derived not produced. We are of value to the church simply because we belong to Christ. Even those members who seem to contribute nothing are essential. As 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” “But that’s just the point!” some of us will want to reply. “Everybody knows that eyes and hands are important. They make a contribution to the overall well-being of the body. The problem with these deadbeat members is that they are atrophied limbs. They just sit there. They don’t do anything. They are just dead weight!” Yet Paul warns that we cannot even say this. Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The parts that seem to be deserving of less honor are to be treated with “special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22).

We, of course, tend to do just the opposite. We value the strong and award special treatment to those that we think contribute the most. But God’s assessment is radically different. He has “…put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:24). His standard of measure is not what people contribute but their need for someone to be concerned about them. We are not the best judges when it comes to determining whose presence adds the most value to the church, especially when we are in leadership. Our motives are too mixed. Our assessment is shaped too much by our own goals. Those who are worthy of the most attention are likely to be the ones we notice the least. Those who add the most value are liable to be those in whom we see little or no value at all.