I recalled these familiar words from “Kung Fu Panda” as I was touring the facility of a church pastored by a colleague in a different state than mine. The congregation is disbanding, selling their property to a megachurch seeking to set up a satellite campus in the same neighborhood. The facility is beautiful. It was completed less than 10 years ago and has all the trappings of an attractive (and therefore, we believe, successful) church. The sanctuary is ample and lovely. It has carpet and sound absorbers for the contemporary band, but it doesn’t look like a warehouse church. The architecture and the large Celtic cross are enough to make the traditional folks feel at home. It has two projection screens, a large sound booth and a hip looking table full of candles for people to light in prayer.
In the lobby is a fully loaded coffee bar, able to make lattes along with the standard cup of joe desired by American Protestants on a Sunday morning. The Christian education wing is ample. The bathrooms are well lit and clean. It is the type of building that congregations with old facilities might dream of having, thinking they could grow and thrive if they just had the finances to improve their buildings.
This congregation, with a brand new building, was full of promise, but the debt was big. When the leadership of the church made a change to the worship structure (before my colleague arrived), dissatisfied “customers” drifted away, seeking refuge in another church with a beautiful facility that had the kind of worship they wanted to consume. And as the congregation shrank, the anxiety and conflict rose. Through a series of painful and unfortunate events, the congregation can no longer pay its bills. The outside of the cup may have been clean, bright and new, but that hid immaturity, anger and unacknowledged grief (to borrow from Jesus in Matthew 23:25).
My heart broke for this congregation, especially for those members who faithfully stuck around and now have to experience the pain of disbanding. At the same time, I was angry, particularly at the notion (which I still see preached sometimes) that if a church simply “got it together” and followed the right formula, they would succeed.
A beautiful building, an entertaining worship service, a charismatic preacher, and dynamic programs for children and youth do not guarantee that a congregation will succeed to grow or survive, let alone thrive. Prophets such as Reggie McNeal have been relaying this message to us for years. But, too many of us were shaped spiritually by the era of attractional church – of pouring money, time and love into building programs and buildings to draw people, but failing to develop those people into spiritually mature followers of Jesus. Now we are reaping the fruit of our folly.
As you can tell, I get really discouraged and sometimes bitter about the reality that “there is no secret ingredient” that guarantees a congregation’s success. Could this also be freeing? What if pastors and ruling elders let go of the pressure of growing the church and invested most of their energy, intelligence, imagination and love into growing the people of the congregation? It could still mean leading churches who eventually have to close their doors. But, I believe spiritually rooted and excited Jesus followers, released into their communities to alert people to God’s Kingdom, are far closer to fulfilling Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples” than those consumed with building bigger and better buildings and programs.
What do you think?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.