A Church in Denial and Infatuated with Itself

I recently ran across a presentation by Gary Hamel, an author and management consultant who has been called “the world’s most influential business thinker” by The Wall Street Journal. Hamel advises Fortune 500 companies and writes for Harvard Business Review. He is also a deeply committed Christian. In 2009, he was invited to speak at the Global Leadership Summit, an annual gathering of pastors and church leaders organized by Willow Creek Community Church. Hamel spoke with thoughtfulness and passion about the need for churches and ministries to change. Some of his basic arguments are found in this WSJ blog post. But if you can do so, please watch the full 57-minute video presentation; you won’t be disappointed.

Hamel’s main point is that our world is changing very quickly. The postmodern American culture has become increasingly hostile toward the church – not toward God and spirituality, but to organized religion in general and especially toward the attitudes and behaviors of evangelical Christians. This point has been made before by many others, and it is not really in dispute. If you have read the book UnChristian by David Kinnamon, you already know the spiel. Using quotes and statistics from Kinnamon and the Barna Institute, he shows that the church has a huge image problem today, especially among young people, and it’s getting worse.

How are churches responding to this sea of change? Drawing upon his own insights from management and organizational psychology, Hamel argues that the response of local churches and denominations is woefully inadequate or nonexistent. As a whole, our churches show all the unmistakable signs of a company that is doomed to fail because it is stuck in the past and clinging to an outmoded business model.

Hamel freely admits that a church is not the same thing as a business. The true Church, the Body of Christ, is going to survive one way or another. But the local congregations and organizational bodies in which Christians worship and serve are in a dangerous position, because they lack many of the self-correcting mechanisms found in the marketplace. If a business or corporation underperforms, it will eventually be forced to change by angry shareholders or be taken over by a more dynamic and vibrant company. But a church or ministry that refuses to change can keep chugging along for years, run by leaders who become increasingly out of touch but answer to no one, until the whole enterprise becomes socially irrelevant.

One sign of danger is the stunning disparity between how evangelical Christians are perceived by others and how they perceive themselves. Consider this statement:

Christian churches accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do.

Nearly 80% of pastors agree with this statement, but only 20% of non-church members agree. That’s a ratio of 4:1, an enormous gulf that shows Christian leaders are truly out of sync with the people that they are supposedly trying to reach. We might rationalize this by saying, “If only those people knew us personally, if they could see who we are and what we do, they would like us.” But that is simply not true. Most non-believers in America do know who we are. The data indicate that they know us personally; they have come to our churches, have heard the gospel that we preach, have understood the message, and have rejected us. As David Kinnamon has said, “…outsiders’ perceptions of Christianity reflect a church infatuated with itself.”

Hamel argues that the greatest enemy of a church is not a hostile cutural environment but the organizational inertia that keeps it from adapting to a changing world. He predicts that the vast majority of churches in existence today will fail to reinvent themselves when necessary and will eventually wither and die. Yet pastors, church leaders and members will rarely acknowledge this. We live in denial, unwilling to admit that there is a problem until a crisis comes and it is too late.

I believe that Hamel’s analysis is spot-on. Change is difficult for any organization, but especially so for a church. In a church environment, we are much more prone to cast issues in terms of moral and spiritual principle (right versus wrong) than in pragmatic terms (what works). Now I am not arguing that Christians should be pragmatic. We follow a crucified Lord who often calls us to lose in this world and to count the loss as eternal gain. But I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be for Christian leaders, virtuous and faithful people whom I admire, to vigorously defend their local traditions and refuse to entertain the possibility that things are not going well.

Hamel says, “Every organization is a bundle of habits.” If you check in to a hotel room, you will inevitably find that the small bottle of shampoo has been placed by the sink, even though we do not wash our hair in the sink. Why do hotels do this? Just because. That’s how it’s done, and no one seems to question it. As Christians, there are certain timeless truths that we cannot change. But regarding how we “do church,” shouldn’t be willing to examine any of our local practices and change them as much as necessary to better serve God’s kingdom? All too often, we seem to be worshiping our local traditions when we should be worshiping the resurrected and living Christ. It is especially tragic when the attitudes and practices to which we cling are precisely those that offend people and drive them away.

How much should churches and ministries be willing to change? As much as is necessary to serve God’s kingdom. Here I believe it is critical for Christians to differentiate the timeless truths taught in Scripture from the extra baggage added by their own communities and cultures. Hamel does not attempt to do this because, as he freely admits, he has no pastoral or theological training. Personally, I believe that this is the point on which all of us — pastors, elders, and all members of a church — need to do some serious soul-searching, reflection and repentance. All too often, Christians have been willing to argue, divide, sacrifice our lives or even kill one another (figuratively or literally) over beliefs and practices which, when viewed from the standpoint of God’s eternal kingdom, are truly not important. As Mark Driscoll has said, we need to wisely and prayerfully distinguish between matters that we are willing to die for, matters that we are willing to part ways over, matters that we are willing to argue about, and matters in which we should just tolerate a diversity of opinion. Clinging to non-essentials can keep committed church members happy as their organization slowly withers and dies.


  1. Thanks, Joe. From Genesis 3, Satan’s basic temptation to all of us humans, including Christians, is to “be like God” (Gen 3:5) When we Christians act like God over the/our church, Satan can only smile with glee and delight, knowing that our fall is in sight.

    What you wrote is surely a couple of very sad and painful indictments and injunctions about us Christians and our own beloved churches:

    “our churches show all the unmistakable signs of a company that is doomed to fail because it is stuck in the past and clinging to an outmoded…model.”

    “a church or ministry that refuses to change can keep chugging along for years, run by leaders who become increasingly out of touch but answer to no one, until the whole enterprise becomes socially irrelevant.”

    “…outsiders’ perceptions of Christianity reflect a church infatuated with itself.”

    “Christians have been willing to argue, divide, sacrifice our lives or even kill one another (figuratively or literally) over beliefs and practices which, when viewed from the standpoint of God’s eternal kingdom, are truly not important.”

  2. GerardoR

    Hi Joe,
    I hear you saying two different things here. One is that a Church structure needs to, if neccesary, change to better suit it’s mission. And number two, that Christian denominations need to re-evaluate their belief systems and ask whether they are worth the divisions that they create.

    One thing that seem consistent throughout your post though was the role of pastors and leaders in making these changes. While they are definately in the best position to make the change, arent regular church members and part time pastors the ones who ultimately create the denominations because of a different vision they themselves have in what a Church should look like?

    Often times this can happen precisely because of a change that a pastor instituted that they may not like.

    Because in a culture of “read the bible for yourself” and “the Holy Spirit is telling me this…” I just dont see how any change can be really authoritative. It is just, pastors so and so’s opinion on why we should change.

    Let’s think of it from a business model. Say a group of employee’s work for company Kristos. And the CEO believes that their fridays should be casual. Ok, that’s great. But what if 2/3 of the company don’t like casual fridays? And what if they can easily get a job for another company if they are dissatisfied?

    Where does the CEO turn towards to justify his decision for casual fridays? Should he turn to the company manual (i.e,. bible)? But what authority can that have over people if it is usurped by the company taught belief that every employee can interpret the company manual for themselves?

  3. Hi Gerardo. I also hear you speaking of two different but related issues. One is church governance, and the other is interpretation of Scripture. You seem to be saying that “every person should interpret for himself” is not an appropriate way to handle Scripture. I strongly agree with that. One leader interpreting for everyone is not an appropriate model either. Interpreting Scripture — and, more broadly, how the Holy Spirit leads the Church — is a fascinating and important issue that deserves to be discussed at length, and I hope that we can do justice to it sometime.

    This presentation by Gary Hamel (I hope you get a chance to watch it) is more about the psychology of church leaders. Clearly Hamel is talking about evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, who have a very different model for decisionmaking. He draws upon insights from organizational psychology to show how and why leaders refuse to adapt to a rapidly changing world, and they justify their lack or responsiveness by appealing to moralistic arguments and spiritual principles which, they are convinced, are mandated by the Bible but actually are not.

    • GerardoR

      I see. I think I was misunderstanding you here. It sounds like you are saying, “Some pastors should adapt to the changing needs of his congregation like talking about Evolution instead of sweeping it under the rug. And that pastors should not try to justify their lack of change by covering it up with spiritual rationalization”?

      This seems a tough call to make. How do you differentiate between a pastor who just fears change between one who genuinly thinks his way of doing things is right? For isntance, some pastors dont believe in using musical instruments because they have an outdated notion that rock N roll and all instruments used to play rock and roll (i.e., guitar) are demonic. Whereas others might feel like they can make a good biblical argument against the use of musical instruments.

      It’s a tough call but I think posts like this atleast encourage pastors to think about it themselves. The message in this post definately seems relevant to more than just pastors but laymen like me as well. I often try to spiritualize my own sinful inclinations. If someone tries my patience, I blow up on them and justify it by saying that I need to speak the truth to them even if it hurts. But in reality, I just lost my patience.

      St. Ignatius spiritual exercises are an excellent practice for things like this. If you spend just 10 minutes reflecting on your day and consider where your heart was during your daily walk with God, it can really show you the ulterior motives that may have been behind some of your actions.

      “Did I help that homeless women because I saw Christ in her, or was it because I wanted to simply to look charitable to that girl from accounting.”?

    • Gerardo, you mention St. Ignatius. I just started learning about him. God has SO much to teach us through St. Ignatius.

  4. Why are some people so resistant to change? I think it has a lot to do with fear. Why are we so afraid to stop? Why would a pastor be so afraid of ceasing sermon writing or ceasing to give direction to others for a time?

    Nearly all priests, pastors and clergymen/women in churches around the world and throughout history are required to take a sabbatical. Our work and our piety is not the center of Christian life. I would suggest that Jesus is the center of our faith, and building up relationships with our neighbor is to be our priority in any work we do. Love God and love your neighbor.

    • GerardoR

      Totally agree. He is a no nonsense kind of saint. You know, in many ways, hardcore UBF missionaries remind me of the early Jesuits who were willing to go anywhere in the world (charted and uncharted) to bring the gospel of Christ.

      If you like St. Ignatious, you might also enjoy reading JoseMaria Escriba (the founder of Opus Dei) as well.

    • Thanks, I’ll look into Escriba also. Are you familiar with a story from St.Ignatius’ biography about a journey he took with his disciples? I heard about it, but not able to find an online reference to it. It is the story of where he was going to a city and insisted he knew the way, even abandoning his disciples who did know the way to the city.

    • Thanks Brian. For sure taking a sabbatical is biblical. Work is followed by rest in Gen 1:1-2:3. John Piper takes 1 month off every year, and he took 8 months off last year.

      Why are Christian leaders so afraid to “rest”? They think it is a sin; it is being lazy; it is being irresponsible; that their church will suffer big time in their absence; that rebels will arise to cause trouble or usurp their power; etc.

      More fundamentally, I think it is because of their default to work righteousness. They core identity is defined by their position or status as a church leader. It is their idol that if they let go of it (even for a sabbatical rest), they lose their core sense of identity. This, I believe, is how Tim Keller would explain it.

      But I think that this is really hard, if not humanly impossible for a church leader to let go of their deep sense of worth, value and significance coming from their position/work as a church leader.

    • I would say you explained the “pastor’s fear” quite well, Ben. Couple that with the concept of “han” and you’ve got much denial and self-infatuation, along with possible implosion and bubble-type thinking.

    • GerardoR

      Hmm.. I am unfamiliar with that story Brian. But my wife has read much of his works. I will ask her.

  5. Many church leaders can’t change because they are sinners just like their own congregation. But functionally and practically they feel “above” their congregation; less sinful; elitist and elevated with their own sense of self-importance which they may not even be aware of, since others see our sins, flaws, faults far better than we can.

    In a previous post: http://www.ubfriends.org/2010/11/why-do-we-have-divisions/, John Stott’s quote is simply classic: “Too many (Christian leaders) behave as if they believed not in the priesthood of all believers but in the papacy of all pastors.”

    • GerardoR

      haha well put. Not just leaders and pastors Ben. I sometimes fantasize what I would do if I were Pope. First on my list would be to publicly rebuke and excommunicate Nancy Palosi.

      But I think you bring up an interesting point about the role of pastor/priest vs. the priesthood of all believer. Maybe you can write a blog about it one day for all of us to discuss.

    • Hi Gerardo, please don’t get me started on Nancy Pelosi…

      Alan Hirsch, an Australian missiologist, says, “The clergy is of the devil.” What he means is that once a distinction is made in the church between clergy/laity, leader/member, senior/junior, it paralyzes the church in 2 ways:

      1) the laity thinks the clergy does most of the work of the church.

      2) the clergy expects the laity to submit to their directives and orders.

      Such an “institutionalized” model of the church, with a “papacy of all pastors” will suck all the life and spirit out of the church, as it has historically. She loses what causes the church to grow and expand, which is always organic, and by the Spirit.

    • GerardoR

      Yeah, Nanci Pelosi is not the most popular person among Orthodox Catholics. =)

      I hear what your saying about the clergy/laity distinction. It makes sense that such distinctions funnel people into particular expectations that can actually be fulfilled by both groups (e.g., evangelization). But I am unclear about these historical examples you are referring to. Your previous statement made it seem as if it was common knowledge that making distinctions between laity and clergy leads to a “sucking away of the Holy Spirit.”

      That is a strong claim you are making against the majority of Christian Churches many of which justify their practices based on several bible passages that make this distinguishment and also show a passing on of authority (Acts 1:15-26; 1 Tim 3:1; 1 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 1:2, 2:1; 1 Tim 1:18, Titus 1:4, 1 Cor 4:17).

      I think you and I may just have a fundamentally different idea of what is the Church. This might account for our differences in belief on this matter.

    • The tension between clergy and laymen has been an interesting topic for me over the years. We want clear, authoritative leadership. Yet we also want free, flexible participation. I left the Catholic church when I was 18 because it had too much authority in the pope/priests. Striking the right balance seems to always be the key, but always so difficult. That’s why my ultimate hope is always to get to the kingdom of God in Heaven!

    • Darren Gruett

      Brian, I too have wrestled with this issue, especially because we are called to obey our leaders.

      The first issue for me is whether the person who is telling me to do something is in a position of authority. Of course, we are all part of the priesthood of believes, but not all are called to be pastors, or teachers, or elders, etc. Those we are called to submit to in the church must be biblically-ordained leaders (1Ti 3:1ff).

      The second issue is whether what I am being told to do is in line with Scripture. There are many well-meaning people in the church telling others what to do (and rebuking them when they do not do it) even though they have no biblical basis for it. However, the Bible leaves a lot of room for individual autonomy and conscience (Ro 14:1ff) in respect to personal decisions.

      Ultimately, a believer’s authority–that is, any believer, whether they are clergy or laity–comes from God. If we stick to what He has commanded in His Word we will be on much firmer ground, regardless of what side of the “authority” we are on.

  6. Darren Gruett

    Good article. I agree wholeheartedly that the church has an image problem with the world, and it is something that I have continued to work on in my own life and ministry.

  7. Jason Roth

    On another note, the Global Leadership Summit is going to be great!

  8. Amen, Jason! Grace Community is sending quite a few people: http://www.gracewired.com/ I have a lot of respect for Willow Creek.

  9. Bob VonMoss

    “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

    If we say Jesus was the model, example or perfecter, not everybody repented at Jesus’ preaching, even though he was as good a model or preacher as it gets. In fact you could argue most people had a stunted response at best, even all the disciples ran away at one point. The Holy Spirit uses Bible teaching and stirs people’s hearts and consciences. In Acts 17 the Berean Jews as a group looked into the Scriptures with eagerness. They had better character than those in Thessalonica. So it had something to do with Berean Jews having eagerness, something to do with Paul’s Bible teaching and the Holy Spriit all coinciding. Paul was more fruitful than the Pharisees who may have sometimes taught the Bible. At the same time nobody repented when Noah built the ark except his immediate family members. Was it Noah’s fault? The Bible doesn’t teach that. Peter was successful on the day of Pentecost. That didn’t mean he didn’t have something to learn. The 4 gospels are different, because people are different. The messenger is just sent by God. He’s not God. He proclaims God’s message. It’s up to people to listen and respond to God’s message. You can always check if it’s authentic, by checking the Bible. Human culture usually isn’t based on God’s word. You’re unlikely to find people naturally repenting.

    Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” Why a “new song”? It means to think about God freshly. People find ways to avoid suffering. They want to be accepted by other people, so they imitate them, so they will feel flattered. Or they remember a time they were genuinely moved and replay it. It takes energy and focus to sing a new song. Some people think the “new song” is rebellious for not wanting to sing the same old song in the accepted manner. We have feelings everyday. I have to make a conscious effort to relate to God newly. Even if I read part of the Bible before, maybe at a later date it takes on a multi-fold meaning or becomes clear.

    When I was a kid, I went to Presbyterian church. Somehow the meaning was largely hidden from me. I dozed off in church probably. Was that because the sermon was bad or didn’t relate to me? I don’t know exactly, but the Holy Spirit moved my heart later. I mean everyday people make wrong decisions. They have to learn from their mistakes. They have to go do it the wrong way, maybe many times. Eventually you may realize that you did it the wrong way and that God was right.

    We should just try to bear with people in the fellowship since everybody in fellowship is a forgiven sinner. That’s not easy. I thank God for great people in fellowship in Mongolia. God prepared their hearts in advance. If nobody decided to bother preaching, there would be no Bible and no ministry or changed people–period. Therefore, ministers are necessary. God will deal with people he’s not pleased with. If you think you have superior evaluation skills, then you can only say that after you’ve become a more successful preacher or pastor. God bless the group of people on their way right now to Huvsgul aimag to share the good news.

    • Well said, Bob, and amen! I would add that there is a difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 7, Apostle Paul makes this clear, especially in verse 11: “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”

      We don’t need superior evaluation skills to determine the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. We just need to look at the response our sorrow produces. Has a church been earnest, eager and ready for justice to be done? Or has a church been silent, regretful and attempting to cover over sins?

  10. Thank you Brian for your persistance in speaking the truth in love. Bob, perhaps I am wrong but it seems that you are saying that the successful minister is somehow above scrutiny, simply by the mere fact that there are many visible signs of fruit. This sounds very dangerous and simplistic to me. And do you really mean that only those who rise in leadership of this kind have the right to speak the truth in love? I cannot reject or except someones voice on the basis of how many disciples they have raised. What about the Bible’s teaching in these matters? Where is accountability? What about the multiple gifts the Holy Spirit gives the whole Body of Christ so that it continues to grow to maturity? (1Co 12:4-11, 28-30; Ro 12:6-8; Eph 4:11-13

  11. Just re-read this good article regarding change. I was reminded of it when I read some intriguing comments about Korean-Americans and resistance to change and two notable events in America (nothing to do with UBF).

    “South Koreans and Korean-Americans are really, really in denial…so much that the Korean/Korean-American refusal to admit faults/shortcomings/wrong-doing makes me sick to my stomach. 

    When will Koreans/Korean-Americans admit honestly that Korean culture is NOT a good, positive influence?! Until Koreans and Korean-Americans admit that Korean culture must change…until Koreans/Korean-Americans admit that Korean culture must be overhauled, hurting people like 2007 Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho and Oikos University shooter One L. Goh will continue to go on destructive rampages. 

    Unless we Koreans/Korean-Americans honestly admit that we all need to change….unless we honestly admit that Korean culture must change for the better, history will probably continue to repeat itself.”



  12. In light of our recent discussions, I want to tag Joe’s excellent article from July 2011.

    I am reminded of this article because of Joe’s thoughts on denial. Clearly we all know now that most of ubf leadership is indeed a church in denial.

    Robert Irvine once described his restoration methods when he faces leadership in denial, and I agree. He said “When people are in denial, you have to shock them to wake them up to the reality around them.” People don’t like this, generally, but they thank you later.

    Back in 2011, I resigned from ubf in infamous fashion in order to do just that: send shockwaves through the organization and wake people up. Reconciliation, redemption and the gospel were of utmost importance to me (and continue to be now 3 years later). But I had to shock people to get beyond their denial.

    I still very much agree with my blog posts from 3 years ago after resigning.

    I received honorable mention in the ubf newsletter.

    Then I decided it was time to make it clear just exactly what my reasons were for leaving.

    I wanted to move on and forget ubf forever. But the Holy Spirit kept prompting me to stay in the conversation, both online here and in person.

  13. Thanks for tagging this article. I listened to the lecture by Hamel and it was worth every minute. The basic premise of questioning our habits and adapting to the fast changing and data abundant times is exactly what I was hoping to hear from Daniel Lee’s recent Staff Conference lecture. I think there are so many noteworthy pieces from Hamel’s lecture that are applicable to UBF and I highly recommend it be listened to, for example, in regards to post-modernism, core values, adaptability, and immersion.

  14. MJ Peace

    “But I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be for Christian leaders, virtuous and faithful people whom I admire, to vigorously defend their local traditions and refuse to entertain the possibility that things are not going well….Clinging to non-essentials can keep committed church members happy as their organization slowly withers and dies.”

    Yes, thank you BK for uncovering this gem; I hadn’t read it. This thought-provoking article reminded me of a question one of my friends asked me. “Why do you do Sunday Worship service the way you do? Why can’t it just be a picnic in a park or a couple of people coming together in someone’s living room and talking about God? Why is there a preacher and a format of sit, stand, sing, recite the Lord’s prayer, offering, etc.” This really got me thinking, where did we get our form of Sunday Worship Service from? And why is it the same after all these years, even to the same hymns, “Crown him with many Crowns”? Hamel is asking very important questions: why do we do what we do? He also mentioned Redeemer Church and how their innovation is centered around values, not programs. I like his advice to stop the denial and ask our unbelieving neighbors, how are we doing as a church? Or paying an atheist to come and offer their comments on the service. Someone posted a question on facebook, would your community know if your church closed it’s doors? Can we handle the truth of the answer to these questions? Is the church serving the world/community or itself? For example, schools exist for the community. Without the community the school would have no one to teach. Without schools the community would be missing a place of learning and education. Would society be better or worse without “Christians”? Are we making an impact? I think the church’s relationship to the community should be symbiotic. I like what Hamel said, “Churches are not supposed to be in the religion business.” They should look like AA or habitat for humanity. The equilibrium of society is being punctuated now and we have to chose whether we are going to commit to unprecedented solutions for our current unprecedented problems or stay committed to out programs and identity. Hamel’s presentation was very sobering. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Awesome questions MJ!

      This stands out to me “why do we do what we do?”

      I only met SLee a few times, and only once in person back in 1992. The one thing I remember he told me was this, “Always ask why do we do what we do?”

      So if you can accept it, I have simply been “obeying Slee” :)

  15. I actually just realized that this article was posted some time either before or about the same time as Joe’s USA UBF National Staff Conference Message I heard.

    • Matt, are you referring to the message where Joe “came out” as a post-modern Christian?

    • Yes, that’s the one, Charles. Interesting choice of words, there, by the way.

    • If I rember correctly, that’s how he framed it. It was kind of suspenseful leading up to the confession of being a post-modern Christian.