‘Success’ myth places church in peril


Editor’s note: This series was initially a sermon preached on the gospel lesson appointed for the Sunday following Annual Conference (June 15). It reflects the pastor’s opinion and some, but not necessarily all, the opinions of the thoughtful folk at The United Methodist Church of Richton.

By Lamar Massingill
Guest Columnist

I suppose it was Vince Lombardi who summed up in a phrase our national myth: “winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.” Be it in a corporate boardroom or the sports arena or any number of areas, it always rings true. We live in a culture which tells us to win and succeed at any cost, and worse, has not dealt adequately with inevitable failure which is also part of our common life together.

We don't realize how many times that success ethic seeps ever so subtly into the church. We’ve swallowed the corporate myth. It is no wonder that sermons from many American pulpits are chocked full of sports metaphors which advocate winning at any cost, and applies such metaphors to the church. Rightly understood, they're fine, but sadly, most of the time the message is that failure is wrong and to be avoided at any cost.

Consequently, many clergy and laity alike live and die by the numbers they can enter into the conference minutes. Statistics become a gauge for success and a sense of worth in the denomination. In western culture, we simply have a difficult time understanding success in the context of the church, which is a spiritual journey, not a religious activity.

During Annual Conference, however, in the halls and in the sanctuary, I heard much about what we can “do” to “gain our denominational numbers back,” but nothing about a journey which enables us to be who we are, which is much more inviting than a “program.” God knows we’ve suffered through too many programs which sit like a wasted prize fighter in too many church basements. 

Many churches honestly believe they are worthless to God if they don't have big numbers and big programs. We've swallowed hook, line and sinker our cultural standards for success, trying to convince ourselves that bigger is better and more is merrier, and as a result, we are left with a lingering sense of worthlessness, because in our culture human worth is so miserably tied up with the anxiety of accomplishment.

Often pastors are left to deal with the damage that such thinking fosters. I've had to deal with that little country church which hasn't had a new member in years, but because of such a damaging success ethic, could not celebrate the growth which was obviously happening with the members it already had.

We have forgotten an extremely important reality: Dying churches need to be cared for pastorally also, perhaps even more so. Many churches need hospice pastors. We haven’t realized yet that everything and everybody on the created side of eternity will not be here forever, and that fact motivates everything we do. Hence few clergy people want to be hospice pastors. The reason is that the denominations we created (these are not God’s creation) are now returning the favor. Our corporate side, obsessed with numbers, has given birth to the greed existing in many clergy people and the offspring of that is the sad competition between us regarding big money, big churches, big numbers and big budgets. We prevent our own community.      

Realistically, success is a moving target. We are called to different things, both small and large. There are many who are successful in the biblical sense that have not swallowed our corporate myth and, therefore, are considered failures in the cultural sense. But too many have swallowed the myth, and it’s killing us, not to mention our smaller churches.

Consequently, we are in danger of becoming emotional cripples, dependent upon a success ethic which embraces the anxiety of accomplishment at the expense of the fulfillment of self-worth - that worth with which we were created; that worth which says to every human being in the church that we are the light of the world, independent of our doing anything to earn that place. Regardless if we are two or 2,000, we are still the church. But if we insist on using this success ethic, then we become dependent on what we’ve done, what we've won and how much we possess, instead of who we are and who we are becoming.

Massingill is minister at The United Methodist Church of Richton and religion editor for the “Magnolia Gazette.” His latest book is “Soul Places.”