evangelical christianity

Tell Yourself: Why Congregations Need to Stop Looking for External Affirmation

By Derek Penwell

We walked to the YMCA yesterday, my four year-old son and I. The snow fell on us as we made our way to the entrance.

“That’s called a snowflake,” the boy said.

“That’s good,” I observed. “You’re pretty amazing. Has anyone ever told you that?”

He stuck out his hand to catch a snowflake, and said, “I tell myself that.”

If true, at four he’s further down the road to maturity than a lot of people I know—myself included sometimes.

Indeed, he’s further down the road than most congregations I know, which seem constantly to pursue the kind of affirmation that comes from some external source.

“We’ve got xxxx people. We have a bazillion dollar budget. Our new parking lot features a helipad. We’ve got dedicated space for Christian Aerobics, a Starbucks in the vestibule, and an anointed unicorn that cries magic jelly bean tears that have little Jesus fish embossed on them. Please tell us we’re amazing.”

It’s hard. Human beings—even (perhaps, especially?) suitably zealous Christian ones—look for a sign to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the signs they’re busy reading often have as their goal a destination the gospel finds unintelligible.

I think about the recent pageantry surrounding the exodus of Pope Benedict XVI. The Roman Catholic church, which has undoubtedly done some wonderful things to meet the needs of the world’s poor and oppressed, has enough wrapped up in real estate and financial holdings to end world hunger. People on the outside looking in read the Gospels and hear Jesus speak about a commitment to those on margins, then they look at the ostentation of grown men (and I say “men” advisedly) draped in gold and finery roaming about multi-billion dollar ecclesiastical compounds, and they wonder how did the church get from “store not up for yourselves treasures here on earth” to … well, this.[1]

The Catholic Church is an easy target, right? However, popular Christianity has its own versions of conspicuous ecclesiastical consumption—only, rather than museums, the Evangelical Protestant versions look like consecrated shopping malls or sports arenas.

And the mainline church doesn’t get off easy either. Mainliner’s need the external affirmation that comes from believing they’re on their way to reclaiming the societal hegemony that abandoned them in the 1960s. They like to track their contemporary worth against the sepia toned memories of their moment in the cultural sun.

Ok. I’m piling on. But here’s the thing, those are precisely the sorts of accoutrements that make for a winning scorecard in the estimation of many looking to demonstrate success on the road to Christian faithfulness. The problem, as I say, is that according to Jesus these things are difficult to explain as faithful to a world already skeptical about Christian intentions. Consequently, if you look to most external measures to know whether or not you’re succeeding as a congregation, you will very probably alienate the very people who already view the church with a gimlet eye.

This morning I read an article about Michael Jordan turning fifty. I’m a huge MJ fan, but I must confess, this article left me feeling sorry for a man tortured by his need to recapture the glory of his, admittedly, much celebrated youth. The articles paints the portrait of a man for whom no good thing is ever good enough, no amount of success ever satisfies, no affirmation quite brings peace.

In the final section of the article Michael is pictured sitting alone in the media room in his home after everyone else has gone to bed, reflexively turning on the Western channel to escape the silence. Apparently, there is no peace in the silence, no way to measure a life without the input of of human voices to recount his superhuman feats for him. Given all he’s accomplished, even Michael Jordan appears to need someone else to tell him him he’s amazing.

How many churches sit around replaying the old game tapes, wanting a glimpse of what made them great all those years ago, needing someone else, some external measure to reassure them that they’re still valuable, that somebody thinks they’re amazing?

The problem is there aren’t enough “young families” to fill the new family life center to make a church successful. There isn’t a church budget big enough to assure meaningfulness. And, without question, there’s no future in the past.

External affirmation, the way the church is accustomed to keeping score—with numbers, and bodies, and dollar signs—leaves very little room for the cross. And that’s deadly because the church ultimately measures itself against the cross, against its willingness to die to all the external affirmation that its worth is rooted in something other than its commitment to following Jesus down a dark alley in search of peace, justice, and love.

“Somebody, please tell me I’m amazing.”

Tell yourself. Or at least try to remember that that’s what God was trying to tell you in Jesus.

If you need external affirmation, that’s a pretty good place to start.

  1. Look, again, I know the Catholic Church has an argument about why all this accumulated wealth is necessary. All I’m drawing attention to is the fact that to most onlookers it doesn’t make any sense, given the other commitments Catholic Church purports to hold.  ↩