It is possible you have noticed that I have not posted any new content in a while. There is a reason for this—I have just relocated to Nashville, TN. As you might imagine, I’ve been quite busy both preparing for the move and in working on settling into my new residence. This leads me to catalyst for this post. I’ve just spent a number of hours reviewing forty-some website of churches in the area. This exercise led me to some thoughts which I can imagine some people might find to be of interest.
Most churches have a statement of beliefs, and most of these contain a list of doctrinal affirmations. Why do churches feel the need to do this? My guess is that clergy specifically have had the importance of doctrine impressed upon them by their seminary, training, and denomination or other group to which the church is related. They’ve been told that doctrine is super important and that they can’t compromise on what they consider their core beliefs.
But what do these statements communicate? I recognized that statements of belief stuck me as functioning more like statements of exclusion*. What I heard when I read these is “We won’t really like you or fully accept you unless you think like us, and our goal will be to make you think this way as well.” On the other hand, if a church is really going to be this way, it is nice to be able to learn this ahead of time from their website.
Often a church’s website will say something along the lines of your church being open to everyone and recognizing people aren’t perfect so come as you are, etc., but I don’t believe you. I know churches want to say the right things and I believe they generally mean well, but too often the actual experience doesn’t match the idealized lingo you write out on your site. I’m more interested in what your church is in reality rather than the ideal in the pastor’s mind (though I am curious about this too). I’m more likely to be convinced if what a church’s site says seems more authentic and less of a perfectly polished standard line about the church.
This brings me to another similar point: please don’t use stock photos, especially not those of people. And yes, it’s fairly easy to distinguish between photos which are stock and those that are not. I realize a church wants to present a slick, polished website (or other social media outlet), but you may not realize what this communicates. Stock photos say that you are dissatisfied with the real, actual group which you have. You have a vision for something better, so you aren’t comfortable with real people being authentic. “Please have a big white smile to attend our church!” Your reality isn’t as glamorous as you want so you are painting a false picture in an attempt to impress me and “sell” me on your product*. I’m not impressed.
Another pet peeve of mine is how so many churches seem to jump on board whatever the latest church trend is. While the original idea was usually good, often the copying church ends up doing some watered-down version of the original. It seems like a large percentage of the churches I checked out have something labeled “life groups”. My impression is that pastors (or whomever are making the decisions) hear about something good happening in another church through a conference or book. Too often, what seems to end up happening is someone thinks, “Oh, people want ‘life groups’—well we can label our Sunday school classes (or bible study groups or small groups) ‘life groups’!” The end result is a lifeless caricature of the original.
It’s also interesting to be how churches seem so intent on subdividing people. Most churches, under their ministries heading, have children, youth/student, men’s and women’s ministries, and some times young adult and or singles ministries also. I was a bit surprised by how often small groups were divided by gender. And there was at least one where I was trying to find a place among a list of things like “young married couples, young adults (20s), families”; there was maybe only one group in which I could fit with this compartmentalization. There are times when it is good to connect with other similar people, but it seems sometimes that the church practices more segregation than it does bringing diverse people together.
* Note: I feel that I had a couple of moments of unusual insight when considering these things. I’ll go ahead and blame that on God. I say this half jokingly (about blaming God). However I’m really not trying to be flippant when saying this. Mainly, I want to be humble and recognize that I don’t know for certain if it was God or not. The thing is, when someone plays the “God card” as I call it, it shuts down any conversation. When you insist that something was from God, you’re basically saying that “God’s on my side so I’m right and anything you think or say is irrelevant.” However, while God may be perfect and everything he says is correct, this doesn’t mean that we always hear and understand him perfectly. So I want to hold onto to this loosely.