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Hallmarks of the Unhealthy Church - Part 1

Every one of us has probably seen the phenomenon of a mediocre team unexpectedly winning a game and the players and bench sitters alike madly jutting their index fingers in the air while screaming “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Proclaiming yourself Number One does not make it a reality. Unfortunately, churches are vulnerable to the same enthusiastic delusion.
To claim uniqueness or greatness by necessity requires defining who we are, as well as defining the “other,” which is who we are not. Jose Bruner argues, “Throughout history, as bonding has gone on and as identities have changed, the Other has been necessary in this process. Rome required barbarians, Christendom required pagans, Protestant and Catholic Europe required each other. Thus, while serving as a foundation of love among ‘us,’ the more pathological form of narcissistic collective self-love inevitably leads to rage against ‘them,’ that is, against those who fail to be part of ‘us’ because they differ in some significant way. . .” (Bruner, Pride and Memory).
Almost every church proclaims its uniqueness as a means of attracting new people. Branding, rebranding, and church growth have become a major industry. Every church needs members and every church tries to figure out how to attract new members, and so we ask ourselves, how are we unique? What’s our brand? No church I have ever seen advertises that it is dull, bland, and boring, and is probably a good fit for dull, bland and boring people.
In looking at church slogans and taglines, we see the effort to be different. Here are a few we found in a quick Internet search: “A place where miracles happen.” “Walking in faith; discovering a community.” “Molding believers, influencing the world.” “Transforming our city. . . one life at a time.” “We’re boldly going where no faith has gone before.” “On our way to changing the world!”
There is a certain amount of increasing grandiosity in each of these statements as they progress, particularly when a local church proclaims that it is influencing the entire world, transforming a city, going where no faith has ever gone before or even on their way to changing the entire world. You get the point.
The problem really is not in the slogan, but in the essence of the leaders and congregation and the intensity of belief in their uniqueness. One pastor regularly proclaimed how unique his church was and how many young pastors were shaping their churches after “his church.” Many took his words with more than a few grains of salt, but many others believed him, even though there was no supporting evidence. They became proud and looked down at other churches in the area, and would have nothing to do with them. Most of them have no idea how others in the community referred to them and their church as the place where the theology was “an inch deep and an inch wide” and where they preached “Gospel lite.”
A true quest for uniqueness can be a major spur to creativity, but it can also be a means of isolating the group from other churches and outside influences.
One of the first things I do when called in to help a wounded church is visit its website. I want to know the message the church is projecting to the world, and I often find some very interesting things.
Remember, to the narcissist, bragging about how exclusive his club is comes naturally and he is tone deaf about how it is received. It is no different for churches. One website proudly proclaimed that hundreds of people attended every Sunday, but only a few were actually members because the membership process was exhaustive and lengthy. The inference was that this was an exclusive club and only very special people were admitted. You had to be dedicated and willing to go through their initiation process. The Senior Pastor made the final decision on who was admitted into membership and who was not, so it was a clear possibility that you could give months of your time, energy and study and still be denied. This approach appeals to narcissistic grandiosity. One man I know personally talks constantly about how his church is the best, most biblically accurate, friendliest, wealthiest. . . keep adding superlatives. His own narcissistic needs are met at least in part by being a member of this particular church.
We actually encourage pastors in self-aggrandizement by the ways in which we treat them, invite them into our most intimate and difficult moments, and place them on a higher plane than where we ourselves are confined. While a majority of pastors understand that this is not fair to them or us, the narcissist expects and demands it as his due. Remember, it is easy to proclaim how humbled we are by praise and attention while secretly gushing with pride.
If there is one place where entitlement should be loathed, it is the local church. Jesus had very strong words about entitlement. Take a moment and read Matthew 10: 35-45. Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to serve rather than be served. But even here it is not so much about serving as it is the attitude of the servants.
The North American culture is in many ways a culture of entitlement and church members bring that sense of entitlement with them. It is common for people to make various demands because they have been members for a long time or to withhold their tithes and offerings because they are unhappy with a decision made by the church leadership. When a narcissistic pastor comes together with members who also believe they are entitled, it can create a culture of entitlement in the church.
The Church at every level from the small group to the largest megachurch is called to one form expressed in many ways: servanthood. Like Christ, we are called to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45).
The narcissistic church may serve, and serve very well. It may be exemplary in its service to those in need. That is not the point even as Jesus’ words to James and John were not about service—they were about the attitude and spirit of service. So the question is, why do we serve? So that we can feel good about ourselves? So that we can get together and talk about how well and how much we serve, and then congratulate each other on our service? So that we collectively as the local church can proclaim our service as a reason for joining us? That is unhealthy narcissism as it brings acclaim to us and not the Lord we serve. Jesus said in Matthew 6:3, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
So the question is not, Do we serve? It is, Why do we serve?

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