“He had no awareness that the nakedness of his needs and the tragedy of his incompetence were the signals he broadcast the loudest; he had no idea of the ocean of space between the ideal image of the self he wished and pretended to be and the tragic, limited, feckless little twerp whom he forced the world to see up close and instantly. He was a mess.”
(Stephen Hunter, The Third Bullet)
The above description is of Lee Harvey Oswald in Stephen Hunter’s novel about the investigation of the Kennedy Assassination. “Tragic, limited, feckless little twerp.” Hunter paints a picture, doesn’t he?
Part of the way the story gets framed is through the investigator’s contempt for Lee Harvey Oswald—not so much because of his participation in the assassination plot against JFK, but because his general incompetence and neediness come across as smothering.
Which incompetence and smothering got me to thinking: Man, that sounds like a lot of churches I know, a lot of churches I’ve worked with—in particular, “the ocean of space between the ideal image” and the reality. Neediness that smacks you right in the face when you walk through the door.
Have you ever been to that church? Upon entering you’re swarmed by people with that look in their eye. You know the look, that shipwrecked “we-haven’t-seen-another-person-outside-the-Skipper-and-Gilligan-forever” look. You anxiously search for a seat, only to have three people clinging to you like grim death with a cup of coffee and a card to fill out.
The whole experience of being stalked so assiduously strikes people as creepy, like an ecclesiastical Fatal Attraction, that once they walk back out the door, they know they’re never coming back. Nobody wants to feel at the beginning of a relationship that they’re going to be responsible for keeping the other person alive.
The irony is that congregations that need people the most tend to repel those same people because their need is the thing they project to the world, and not their willingness to give themselves away. The thought life of a dying congregation is focused so much on itself that it can lose perspective on the ministry of selflessness it’s supposed to be committed to. It’s a near world class gymnastic contortion to go from “We have to do something or we’re going to die” to “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Incongruity. I learned about it in Pastoral Care class in seminary. Incongruity is saying one thing with your mouth, while living like something else is the truth.
If you call yourself a writer, for example, but you never actually write anything, that’s incongruity.
If you say that the most important thing in the world to you is your family, but you spend all your waking moments with everyone except your family you’ve got yourself some incongruity.
If you announce that you’re committed to following Jesus—who, when it came to it, gave away his life—but your consuming preoccupation revolves around your own survival, incongruity has set up shop.
I think that’s the dead giveaway: neediness in a congregation bespeaks incongruity. It suggests a genuine lack of self-awareness that signals to potential friends that if they have any sense at all they will run, not walk, in the opposite direction.
I’m not saying that dying congregations are evil or bad; they’re often filled with wonderful, but scared people. I’m saying that they’re their own worst enemies. For the most part, their neediness is unintentional, flying beneath the horizon of their awareness.
Here’s the paradox: Until congregations can manage to stop worrying about dying, they will drive away the very people that might otherwise find a home with them.
As harsh as it sounds, only other profoundly needy people want to be pals with Lee Harvey Oswald.