Thursday, December 08, 2016

Exploding the Myth of the Dynamic Church

If you were to randomly look up a series of church websites--particularly evangelical churches here in the US--you would almost certainly notice a pattern emerging. Quite a few of these churches claim to be "dynamic," "vibrant," "passionate" for some ministry objective, or replete with "exciting" outreaches. One wonders if the same impression would hold if you actually attended these churches. A similar pattern appears if you scroll through lists of ministry jobs. Back when I was looking for a pastoral position upon graduating from seminary, I was struck by how many churches were looking for a "dynamic leader" who is "passionate" about every single part of the mandate and mission of the local church, as well as being highly skilled in every conceivable area of ministry. I suspect that if there actually are any pastors out there who try to maintain that level of passion for every area of their work, "dynamic" might well be a good description of their potential for explosive flame-out.

Where did these words come from? One thing's for certain--they don't come from the Bible. Never in the Bible are any of these words used, either for churches or pastors--not "dynamic," not "vibrant," not "passionate," not "exciting." No, not even once (unless you're reading a modern-language paraphrase instead of a translation). The only use for any of these words, "passionate," is clearly a negative use, describing the nature of heathen lusts (1 Thess. 4:5). In fact, most of the early church would have recognized "passionate" as a very negative word, indicating someone who was rather low on self-control. 

I can see the reason behind using these words, though. We want to project an image of ourselves as churches that God is using to change the world. And that part is actually true--God can, and does, use the church to change lives and change the world. And it's clear from the stories and letters of the New Testament that Paul and some of the other apostles were indeed dynamic and passionate (in the modern sense), at least at times. (But it should also be noted that Paul was apparently so un-dynamic as a public speaker that he literally bored one poor young man to death--see Acts 20:7-12, cf. 2 Cor. 10:10.) Even while acknowledging all of that, we still need to realize that using "dynamic" to describe one's church is probably an example of over-zealous marketing.

So really, we need to stop using these words in our self-descriptions, and not only because they're setting up our all-too-human pastors for spectacular cases of burnout. We need to stop using them, first and foremost, because we are people of the Book, and these are not biblical ways of describing the church. Now, they can be true descriptors, if taken in the right way, but we need to realize that we're choosing to put our emphasis on aspects of church life that Scripture does not emphasize, and in doing so, we're missing out on emphasizing those aspects that Scripture actually does highlight. 

What are some of the biblical descriptions of an ideal church? Here are few: compassionate, gentle, missional, doers of good, loved by God, called to holiness, faithful, perseverant, prayerful, united in love, humble, thankful, bearing one another's burdens, joyful in persecution, hopeful in hardship, peace-loving, obedient, submitting to God and one another, and called and chosen to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. You might notice that while we prefer to festoon our church websites with words about emotional fervency, the Bible is much more interested in what the church actually is and does than what the church feels like. We need to keep that in mind. 

The second reason to stop using words like "dynamic" and "passionate" are that they're not true. Or, at the very least, they're not true all the time, and they're certainly not true of all of us. I'm Exhibit A in this regard. My parishioners might tell you that I'm a dynamic speaker, but that's really just thirty minutes per week, and my wife and friends would tell you that for the other ten thousand and fifty minutes of the week, neither "dynamic" nor "passionate" would be good descriptions of me. "Reserved," and even "impassive," would be a better description. But you know what? I would testify, and I think my congregation would agree, that God can use remarkably un-dynamic people in surprisingly effective ways. Some of the most incredible saints of God that I've met in my life are among the most un-dynamic. In fact, I've found that Christian dynamos, for all their obvious gifts and eye-catching charisma, are usually not the first people to look to when seeking true Christian maturity. (That's a generalization, obviously, but my experience suggests that it's a fair one.) The markers of Christian maturity that I look for first are a spirit of peace, gentleness, and patience. The reason that these are good markers of maturity is that they tend to be among the hardest fruits of spiritual growth to attain in one's life, unlike dynamism, which is often just an aspect of temperament that certain people are born with. 

The truth is, church can be boring, and church people can be really boring--especially if you're expecting dynamic, passionate excitement. But there's nothing wrong with that--church can be boring because church is an authentic part of real living, and real living, as we all know, can also be boring. Real life has a lot of waiting, a lot of responsibilities we'd rather not think about, and a lot of need for patience and perspective. Church is like that, because it's authentically real to our lived experience as human beings. Oswald Chambers once wrote, "The snare in the Christian life is in looking for gilt-edged moments, the thrilling times; there are times when there is no thrill, when God's [blessing] is in the routine of drudgery on the level of towels and washing feet." 

So if you find a church that does not require any exercise of your patience, your careful attention, and your conscience, then you've found a church that is shallow enough to keep you comfortable. The reason you're comfortable there is because a church like that is never going to ask you to grow in your Christian life. You'll be pleasantly entertained by dynamic leaders and passionate worship, but you'll probably never have to walk the long and trying journey toward deep-rooted Christian maturity.

I like dynamic people. The church needs them. And we should all be passionate for the work of God in the world. But if we're setting our expectations for constant levels of passionate dynamism, then we're missing out on the fact that the real depth and power of Christian experience comes in the slow, patient road of endurance and love--a road that you can often only access by being part of a local church that is filled with regular, un-dynamic people. 

Depth is more important than dynamism. 

(Images - Top: "Portrait of Man in Church," by Giovanni Boldini, 1900; Upper inset left: "Paul Raiseth Eutychus to Life," from Figures of the Bible, 1728; Middle inset right: "In the Church of Aussee," by Emanuel Stockler, 1882; Lower inset left: "Sonntagsmorgen-Gottesdienst," by Eduard Schulz-Briesen, 1883)