Monday, January 11, 2016

Church Envy

A few weeks ago, a pastoral colleague was sharing with a mutual group about her church's plans to renovate their sanctuary. She showed us pictures of the new wood that would cover their floor in place of their present green carpeting that had outlived its aesthetic usefulness, in favor of something a little more modern and that wouldn't wear for quite some time.

I confess that I felt a slight twinge of jealousy over this. My church's sanctuary was built in the 1960s, and our burnt orange carpet and matching pew upholstery may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it certainly has not withstood the years very well. We've needed an upgrade for quite a while, but other more essential projects demand that we forego that for a bit longer. Still, whenever I enter other places of worship, I tend to notice their floors, noting especially when they lack anything so dated as what we have.

Based on my experience with human nature in general, I'm not the only one to ever have such feelings, let alone specifically church-related. Over the years, I've been part of many conversations with both clergy and congregants about what they wish was different about their churches. We dream, we share ideas, we think about what we could be able to do if we had resources in greater abundance. And at times, we're inspired to share after seeing what someone else has.

If only we had the classic sanctuary the cute clapboard church has. If only we had more Millennials like the church down the road. Imagine the size of our youth group if we had a climbing wall like the big community church. It'd be wonderful if we were more social justice-oriented like the Open and Affirming congregation on the corner.

Every church has a list of things they wish they had or did better. Maybe parts of the building need to be renovated or people dream of adding a new wing. Maybe the top of their list includes younger families or a contemporary service (inasmuch as people still see that as The Thing To Do). Maybe people pine for a larger or cooler youth ministry. Desiring these isn't inherently wrong.

When churches compare themselves to others, there comes the danger of becoming fixated on what they don't have. This affects our self-image as we focus on who we aren't rather than who we are. Among other things, this can lead to:

  • A mentality of scarcity, where everyone focuses on how little the church has and how little the church is capable of, even if it does way more than people think.
  • Attempts to be like The Other Church that may come off rushed, poorly planned, and not true to where the congregation's energy is.
Rather than focus on what someone else has or is doing, it's important for a church to take proper stock of and appreciate its own assets; what it can offer congregants, visitors, and community members, and what might be possible given its own situation.

I occasionally get comments about how beautiful our sanctuary is. It takes me a moment to be able to see what they see: the stained glass windows, the high wooden ceiling and beams, the banners and flowers behind the choir loft. There's so much more to the room than the carpet that I sometimes subconsciously choose not to see; that I'd rather ignore because I'm too preoccupied with the features of sanctuaries other than my own.

A church wishing for more of a certain kind of person attending may fail to appreciate those who show up and contribute to the congregation's life. A church wishing for a larger youth group could instead focus on building deeper relationships with the youth in their midst. A church wanting to be more mission-minded could start with a small group getting involved in a cause that captures its passion and see where it goes.

Instead of becoming overly preoccupied with what other churches are doing, why not instead spend that energy on being the best we ourselves can be? If you're a struggling inner-city congregation with a mission to the neighborhood, be that as best you can. If you're a modest country church with limited resources, stand your steeple up straight and be that with all your strength. If you're a suburban congregation that maybe isn't what it used to be in terms of size, be what you are now with complete love and commitment.

Churches that spend their time envying others can't always see what's right in front of them. They miss out on what's possible if they take more joy in who they are.