Overreaching. How a Mighty Church Falls.

In Gordon MacDonald’s article How a Mighty Church Falls, he talks about research by Jim Collins (Good to Great and Built to Last) on organizational decline. One of the reasons for the decline of a great organization surprisingly, wasn’t complacency, it was hubris. A sense that because we’re good at a few things, we should be good at everything. He calls this “Overreaching” and defines it as the undisciplined pursuit of growth accompanied by the neglect of those core principles upon which an organization was originally built. It is about getting larger and larger, more and more expansive, even if it costs the organization its soul.

Overreaching is definitely an issue of today’s contemporary church and it’s the offspring of the idea of excellence. I’m not going to get started on excellence because I’ve just got too much to say on that one! Overreaching is what contributed to my burnout and it’s based on several things. I won’t unpack them too much, because naming and shaming will probably be enough to get you thinking.

1. A conquest or revival mentality. Brian McLaren discusses this well in his “A New Kind of Christian”. The idea that church is going to conquer the world and take over and be victorious isn’t much different to the conquistadors who sought world domination in the name of religion. Ours is a little more subtle obviously, so we roll our conquest ideas in a veneer of revival, even though the bible never mentions revival. Sure they happen at times in history, but they’re never sustainable, and visit any place that revival took place today and they’re usually pretty dark places. How often have you heard “we’re going to take this city in the name of Jesus”? I’ve said it. Loudly.

2. Pseudo faith, or should that be hyper faith? We’ve moved on from the “name it claim it”, “blab it grab it” kind of faith, but the idea never went away. It’s still there. You only have to listen to contemporary preaching that asks “what are you believing for? You’re insulting God if you aren’t believing for a miracle. Your God is too small, God is attracted to great faith etc. etc.” So if we are faith-filled leaders, we’ll be believing God for massive churches and we’ll preach about it and cast the vision, and come hell or high water, we’ll kill ourselves attaining it.

3. Our personal needs for identity, significance, recognition or acclaim (depending on where you’re clingling on that slippery slide). Ahhh so much we can say here right but we probably don’t have to. Personally, my identity was wrapped up in my performance. I was driven to perform so I could feel ok about myself. When our church is growing and getting bigger than other’s we feel successful, and significant. The pats on the back and acclaim of the people who attend the biggest church in town doesn’t feel too bad either. If you get big enough, you get more invitations to speak abroad and wait for it – you get to go to the green room at major conferences. This all sounds ridiculous when to me now I’m out of the system, but it all made lots of sense when I was in that little bubble.

4. Wrong theology – Living things grow. Heard that before? This theology (call it what you will) suggests that if the church is healthy it will or worse SHOULD experience limitless growth. Last time I checked, I was alive, but I’m not growing in size. Eugene Peterson is famous for saying that he’d rather pastor a small church where he could know everyone than a large one where he couldn’t know all his parishioners.

5. Consumer mentality – more is better, when sometimes less is more. We get sucked into consumerism and import its’ values into ministry and figure that bigger is better, having the latest and greatest is necessary, and we spiritualize the importance of it.

In all of this hubris, we overreach and just as Collins suggests, it does indeed cost the organization its very soul. That’s why you’ll find that if you scratch the surface of many churches who are overreaching, you’ll find angst, anxiety, tiredness, striving, desperation and burnout underneath the thin patina of faith, growth, excellence, busyness, and the whiff of victory which is always just out of reach.


2 Responses

  1. Sooo..paint me a picture of a constructive alternative….

  2. Since the overreaching is done by the leader, I say, sack him as per my last post. https://thescrapheap.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/sack-the-pastor/ The old joke about the pastor who eats his lunch at the train station every day just so he can see something move that he doesn’t have to push is funny but telling.

    As far as churches overreaching goes, I think we have to be more organic about what goes on and allow “life” to evolve and develop as God leads. Perhaps we could see ourselves as the junior partner in this endeavor and allow God to drive things where He wants to take them and we just follow.

    The corporate mindset has its limitations. Yes, some corporations can potentially grow very large (Microsoft and Apple), and so do some churches, but by and large, the majority who try, lose their soul from overreaching. Rather than have an corporate or “organism” mentality, perhaps a “journey” mentality might be more useful for a group of God’s people.

    I like some of the ideas at http://www.smallboatbigsea.org/

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