I pastor a church in rural Iowa that I’ve long described as an introverted church.
The people of my congregation tend to see our religion as a private matter that might influence their public lives, but that is not too directly tied to the ways that they run their businesses, how they vote, what they think about the news, and so on. It sometimes seems like we barely like talking about our faith with the people who we know—the people who are already a part of our congregation—let alone people who we don’t. And that means that we’re reticent to talk to people outside of our congregation about who we are; and we’re almost allergic to the idea of inviting them to try us out.
We are a lot like an introvert at a party, standing by ourselves sipping our drink, waiting for someone to talk to us. Once someone does approach, we’re happy to have a deep conversation, but until then…
(And I should point out that, like a lot of clergy, I’ve been the introvert at the party. I’m speaking from experience here.)
The problem with that, of course, is that there are fewer and fewer people at the party who want to talk to the church. So, as people leave our congregation—for whatever reason—they aren’t being replaced by people who are finding our congregation. Whatever we might think about the long numerical decline of the mainline church and its numerous causes, that’s an organizational problem.
But, while I think that it is absolutely true that we are an introverted church, lately, I wonder if I’ve misdiagnosed the problem.
What if, instead of being an introverted church, we are an insecure church?
Here’s what I mean by ‘insecure church’: a church that might invite someone to try it out, and that sees rejection of that invitation as a problem.
Some insecure churches are bully churches; they imagine that the problem in a rejected invitation is the person who refused the invitation. We all know about these churches. It’s an image of the church that has purchase in the popular imagination. They’re the churches that say, “We have the absolute truth and the keys to a fulfilling life, and if you turn us down, that is because you are a degenerate sinner who wants to hold on tight to your sin. You’re going to hell, and you deserve to go to hell.”
(And I should point out that, like a lot of clergy, I’ve experienced this kind of bullying. I’m speaking from experience here.)
Other insecure churches are timid churches; they imagine that the problem in a rejected invitation is themselves. These are the churches who wonder if they’re too liberal, too progressive, too focused on social justice, too open about welcoming LGBTQ folks, and so on. These are the churches who try to play down who they are in the hopes that they can get along with everyone.
And, yes, I think that I see a lot more of the first kind of insecurity among conservative evangelical congregations, and a lot more of the second kind of insecurity among liberal mainline congregations.
And, to be honest, I wonder if my own congregation has taken every rejection that we’ve experienced so personally that we’ve decided not to stand for anything, in the hopes that people will stop rejecting us, even if that also means that no one joins us.
I wonder if we’re a little bit like the kid who hides the fact that they likes comic books and roleplaying games because if they hide that fact, then no one will pick on them for it. Even if that means missing out on being friends with the other people who like comic books and roleplaying games.
There’s an alternative to being an insecure church, of course: being a confident church.
There’s a quote that I’ve only ever read second-hand. Michael Kinnamon, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, once said something like (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here), “Every denomination exists to perpetuate some aspect of the gospel that, but for them, would be in danger of diminishment or extinction.”
I don’t think that’s quite right, if only because I don’t think that any aspect of the gospel can really be in danger of extinction. But I think that Kinnamon was onto something. And I wonder if something similar is true for ever congregation: that every congregation exists to embody some aspect (or aspects) of the gospel that, but for them, the people in their community would not have the opportunity to experience.Every congregation exists to embody some aspect (or aspects) of the gospel that, but for them, the people in their community would not have the opportunity to experience. Click To Tweet
No congregation is the entire church, and it is possible that my congregation—and your congregation, and the congregation down the street that is totally different—is embodying aspects of the gospel that some people in our community need right now. It is only between all of us, in all of our wild diversity, that the church can truly embody the gospel and provide a home for everyone.
And that’s where we can find some confidence. Rejection is not a problem, it’s a mismatch. Some congregations are congregations for the people who are into comic books and roleplaying games (or who want to try those things out). Other congregations are congregations for the people who like football and raging parties (or who want to try those things out). And that’s okay. Every congregation—including my own—can extend its invitation, and take any rejections as an opportunity to help that person find the embodiment of the gospel that’s right for them.
That kind of confidence—the kind of confidence that leads a congregation to proudly recognize the ways that it embodies the gospel, and not to worry that it isn’t going to be a home for everyone—is important. It’s important because it helps every congregation stand up and invite people to come and join them; and it’s important because it helps every congregation avoid the traps of insecurity: becoming a bully or wallowing in timidity.
So there’s a question here: is the challenge that my congregation faces—and that mainline congregations in general face—that it is introverted or that it is insecure? Probably both. But, I suspect that the insecurity is a bigger challenge than the introversion.