Four Promises Churches and Their Leaders Should Stop Making

by | Mar 7, 2023 | Articles About Church

Marketing works.

Want proof? My two boys constantly beg us to buy a particular “hydration drink.” It’s the best there is! It will make you healthy, cool, and awesome at sports. How do we know this?

The Youtubers they watch are just raving about it!

Marketing is also pretty simple.

  1. Figure out what people want (or what they believe they need).
  2. Craft some messaging promising that people can finally get what they want with your product or service.
  3. Keep finding ways to get that message out to more people.

And marketing isn’t bad, in and of itself. Many of my friends and I work in the church communications and marketing world because we believe that what people need more than anything else is to encounter the life-changing message of Jesus.

So we work on the branding, marketing, and communications strategies of the church so that more people can hear about Christ.

The problem with marketing is the constant temptation to exaggerate and overpromise.

With most products sold in the marketplace, this isn’t necessarily a major problem. Every snack promises to be “bursting with flavor” and every menu item is “cooked to perfection.” Companies constantly make promises of fulfillment and enjoyment with their product that supposedly cannot be obtained without what they’re selling.

But when it comes to the church, much more is at stake.

We are ambassadors for Christ, right? So we represent God’s Son, Jesus, to the rest of the world. And that means that every time we overpromise and underdeliver, people lose trust in us. And eventually, that lack of trust causes people to simply turn a deaf ear to our attempts to share the story of Jesus.

In the present generation, in particular, we’re seeing the spoiled fruit of a lot of false and faulty promises. This has led to disillusionment among attendees and a decline in attendance as people give up hope that our message is really from God.

After a couple of decades of involvement with the church, and out of my own experience as an imperfect church leader, I’m convinced there are some promises we need to stop making, even if they work to draw people in.

For example…

1. We should stop promising that everyone will feel welcome.

Have you ever seen a church website that said MOST are welcome here? Neither have I. Every church leader I know sincerely believes their church to be a welcoming place for all.

The problem is, what we often see as welcoming isn’t what a lot of people expect when they decide to give the church a shot.

A lot of women assume they are welcome only to find out there are a number of things they can’t do because of gender-based patriarchal theological beliefs and policies.

A lot of gay or transgender people reluctantly attended a church with a friend on the promise that the church was welcoming of all only to find out about the church’s unarticulated conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality later on.

People who have been incarcerated, people who have a lot of visible tattoos, people who have been married several times… the list goes on… have believed they were welcome right up until the painful moment when they realized they weren’t.

I’m not arguing here about the theology of any one of these issues. I’m simply saying that churches must think about how people will interpret the welcoming message on the website. Sometimes we bury the issues that may come up later in order to get someone in the door in the hopes our love will win them over before the awkward topic is broached.

In the world of marketing, this is called “bait-and-switch,” and it usually burns bridges of trust long-term if not permanently.

2. We should stop promising to get everyone connected in healthy relationships.

Jesus is the Inventor of the greatest kind of community ever conceived – the church. The only problem with Jesus’ plan is that the church inevitably involves human beings in its leadership, and that’s when things start falling apart.

Yes, we want people to open up, trust others, share their authentic selves, and discover ever-deepening friendships within the church. That’s a great goal and we should strive for it.

But we cannot possibly promise that anyone will definitely get connected in a healthy way to any group of people because people are… people. And people tend to carry relational pain and baggage from one area of their lives to another with them.

Relationships almost always bring pain. And the pain is worth it because we deeply need other people, but so often people get hurt by other people and define the church by that experience.

It isn’t that we should stop trying to get everyone connected. It’s that we should limit our promise to the ongoing effort we’re putting into creating the capacity for connection rather than guaranteeing it.

It’s refreshing when a church leader says something to the effect of, We want you to feel connected here, so we’ll do all that we can to help you, but we also know that we’re a work in progress, we often fall short, and we’re always trying to learn from our mistakes to do it better next time.

Truthfully, until you can guarantee that all of the people, marriages, and friendships among those who lead your church are healthy and well-functioning, you can’t possibly guarantee that newcomers will have an easy time getting connected.

3. We should stop promising theological certainty on every big question.

I find myself talking about the issue of certainty with a lot of people who have walked away from church because they just weren’t sure they could check the boxes next to all the theological beliefs of the church and uncertainty wasn’t tolerated.

I think the “apologetics” movement has made this problem worse by giving the false impression that for every question and every doubt, there is proof, an answer, or a bit of undeniable evidence to support the traditional Christian viewpoint.

And there isn’t.

I believe that God created everything, but I can’t prove it in a scientific way, and I don’t feel the need to do so. I believe God came to earth in the form of his Son, Jesus, to show us what he is really like.

I believe Jesus was literally resurrected after his death on the cross with the promise that all of us will also participate in the resurrection of the body. I believe he sent his Holy Spirit to indwell and empower people. And I believe that in the end, he’s going to fully redeem and save this broken cosmos.

Am I certain of those things? Probably not in the way most people think about certainty. I believe these things, but I had to learn the hard way to let go of my own need for certainty.

I’ve learned, instead, to say some very powerful words at the end of much of what I believe about life. Those words are, “but I could be wrong.” And it’s been freeing!

(By the way, I wrote a whole blog post about how those five words can set you free over at the Walk Humble blog.)

We’re watching a whole generation of younger adults question what they’ve been taught about God, life, and the universe. And we’re also watching a generation of Christian leaders double down on the demand for certainty. Those who pick things apart, ask hard questions, or share new observations about old ideas are often castigated as being a threat to the church.

Meanwhile, far too many are walking away completely when all they really needed was permission to not be absolutely sure about everything.

4. We should stop promising to be “a safe place.”

I cringe when I hear church leaders promise their communities that their church is a “safe place” where “it’s okay to not be okay.” I love the sentiment behind it and believe that the church ought to be safe, but it’s not a promise we can make.

We’ve seen far too many leaders exposed for their abuse of power and people, even in spite of all the safeguards we may have put into place, to promise that the church is always safe for everyone. And if we’re honest, we’re way behind on putting proper safeguards in place to protect people. We also know that most secrets aren’t kept very well by churches, even when small group covenants have been signed by all.

As with the issue of connection and community, we should always be striving to create a safe atmosphere for the hurting and the vulnerable, but we can’t guarantee it. Why? Because, once again, churches are led and staffed by broken people.

And broken people tend to break other people.

These are all great goals. Should we welcome everyone? Yes! Should we help people get connected? Yes! Should we help people find answers to their theological questions? Yes! Should we make the church safe for everyone? Please God, make it so!

But none of these should be used as guarantees and promises for the purpose of marketing because we’re ultimately breeding mistrust.

What’s the alternative then? Perhaps humility is a better way forward.

Perhaps we should acknowledge the ways in which we’ve failed in these areas but offer the assurance that we’re going to do everything we can to rise to the level of these values.

And then we should absolutely follow through with those efforts. The world deserves to see the body of Christ reflecting Jesus well, and while we’ll never do it perfectly, we can definitely do it better than we have been.

About the Cover Photo: Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash.

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