Once, many years ago, I sat in a windowless room overstuffed with whiteboards, stacks of printer paper, and all the other bland ephemera of a corporate office, debating with others how the name of our church would look on the back of a city bus. If we purchase advertising space, should the panel include only the name? Maybe a tagline? What about an image? If we go with an image, should it be a cross? Or a coffee cup?
I laugh now at how ill-equipped I was to answer questions like those. I was young and didn’t know the first thing about advertising. I knew only a little more about the cross yet couldn’t have explained what the writer of Hebrews meant by its “shame.” Always more diffident than bold, I’m fairly certain I voted for a cozy picture of a coffee cup.
If our pastor had been intent on finding “the right woman for the job,” I would have never been invited to contribute.
There is a beautiful irony in the memory of that meeting in our small church office. Though we were gathered to brainstorm the merits of an advertising campaign, my presence in the room was proof our church didn’t operate like a business. If our pastor had been intent on finding “the right woman for the job,” I would have never been invited to contribute. But my pastor wasn’t afraid of failure. It did not matter to him that I had yet to prove my competency. He invited me to try. He invited me to serve. His repeated invitations nurtured my spiritual growth. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.
Though our churches may use tools from the corporate world, from spreadsheets to photocopy machines, and though they may speak the language of business, communicating through marketing and branding, the church is fundamentally not a business. It’s a body—the body of Christ in the world—and try as we might, it can never be reduced to a brand. We should take care not to confuse it with a corporate machine or a commodity sold on the marketplace.
Yet when we use a business professional’s tools and speak a business professional’s language, we might forget who and what we are—and that the church is embodied in amateurs, too. We might forget that the aim of the church is not to produce some perfect, shiny product but rather to foster the growth of its members—all of whom serve the world by the power of God, a power that has always been perfected in weakness.
The aim of the church is not to produce some perfect, shiny product but rather to foster the growth of its members.
Human beings learn when they stretch beyond their current capacity and even when they make mistakes. Every wise parent of a developing child knows this is the messy path toward maturity. But thriving businesses minimize mess, and successful brands depend on consistency. Our churches need to use a different criterion to evaluate.
In Hebrews, we read that Jesus “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). Those words remind us of a historical context too easy to lose: The cross, like a hangman’s noose or an electric chair, was shameful. It was a torture device and a tool of execution reserved for criminals and slaves. No wonder I cast my vote for the image of a coffee cup. Surely that’s a much more inviting picture for someone stuck behind a bus in rush-hour traffic.
I moved away from that city years ago, and I can no longer recall if we came to any consensus regarding crosses versus coffee cups. But one recent Sunday I sat in a pew of my current church, studying the large wooden cross that hangs at the front and thinking about those words from Hebrews. With its rich brown wood, our cross is beautiful. Next to me in the pew, my teenaged daughter wore an equally beautiful cross around her neck, not wood but silver. For a moment, I held a central paradox of Christianity in my mind and admired it, the way you might admire smooth wood or shiny silver: That which was shameful has become beautiful; that which represented ultimate failure has become the representation of victory and hope.
The many paradoxes of the upside-down kingdom of God aren’t easy to communicate via billboard, but they invigorate the ongoing life of the church, continually inviting us to imagine the many ways our congregations can and should upend the conventional wisdom of the wider culture. Can our churches become communities where excellence is seen and recognized but failure isn’t feared? Advertising might grow the size of our congregations, but it will never grow our hearts, minds, and souls. That kind of growth happens when we stumble and then get back up—or when we make a mistake and try again. If our Savior embraced the shame of failure associated with the cross, why then does even the appearance of failure strike such fear in our hearts?
I have a good friend who attends a church very different from my own. As an outsider looking in, I would say this church has a consistent and compelling brand. It has a reputation for effective ministries and enthusiastic worshippers. I’ve even recommended it to a few acquaintances, feeling sure it had both the substance and a style that would fit them well. However, in quiet conversations, my friend has shared her struggle to find a way to serve as a ministry amateur within a culture of professional excellence. Again and again, her offers have been either refused or derailed by one bureaucratic hurdle after another. “I’m tired of being told I need to attend one more ‘training,’” my friend confides. “My boss gives me new responsibilities in order to help me make progress toward my goals. Why won’t my pastor? I think my church values the reputation of its programming more than it values me.”
We need training programs. We need thorough background checks. Churches around the world are learning, to our collective grief, how important it is to make our gathering places safer. But once we have prayerfully and shrewdly protected the most vulnerable members of our congregations, how do we make space for every member of the body of Christ to grow? Is it possible that a church’s path to success might sometimes look like courting failure? That perhaps the excellence we’re striving for in professionalizing our churches is not the kind that matters most to God?
I share my church pew with four children, so I know firsthand what a messy process the road to maturity can be. My home is littered with such messes, and one of the hardest things I do as a parent is let my children fail. Moment by moment I have to discern: Are they safe enough? Are others around them also safe? Has the time come to let them stretch their wings, though I know they may fall?
“My boss gives me new responsibilities in order to help me make progress toward my goals. Why won’t my pastor?”
My pastor, all those years ago, repeatedly gave me responsibilities that nudged me far outside my comfort zone. And the margin for error in our church culture was wide and hospitable. I was invited into that space and transformed by it. I wish my friend had been trusted in a similar way. I nod in sympathy when she admits she’s begun visiting other churches. However, I also remember one particular member of our city church who was elevated to a leadership position despite a past that would have given many serious concern. We had hoped she was like the tax collector Matthew, despised and mistrusted yet remade by Jesus’ welcome. For a while this seemed to be true. Until it no longer did. When this person was finally asked to step down from leadership, many of us struggled with painful feelings of self-doubt. Our church moved quickly to mitigate the damage of her poor decisions, but her failure (and ours) still stung. I think the hurt was intensified precisely because we were more like family than professional colleagues.
The same gracious invitation Jesus extended to Matthew, He also extended to Judas Iscariot, whose treacherous kiss ushered the Lord nearer to the cross. We might promote a risk-averse culture in our churches because we have made an idol of our own reputation. But we might also do this because we fear the pain of disappointment and betrayal. Perhaps one way we pick up the cross of Jesus and follow Him individually and collectively is by holding our leaders accountable, protecting the vulnerable, and welcoming people as imperfect as the thief on the cross into a shared life of transformation.
How do we do this? We do it with wisdom. We do it with courage. We do it knowing that we cannot be both faithful and exempt from pain. We do it knowing that we must remain vulnerable even to the pain of our own failures. Perhaps one of the most significant ways we can cultivate a culture of grace in our churches is to extend that grace to ourselves. The irony of our growing maturity is that we can lose it by overprotecting it.
We are never too mature to fail and never too old to learn from error. Newly committed to the value of failure, I recently volunteered to serve at a weekend-long youth group retreat. Thankfully, my offer was accepted even though “dynamic youth mentor” is nowhere on my resume. I’m more than a little nervous. Truthfully, I’m terrified. I suspect faithfulness sometimes feels exactly like that.
Illustration by João Fazenda