In working with churches around the world for more than two decades, I have had the opportunity to observe trends, good and bad throughout the years. One of the more challenging trends recently has been the dramatic rise of church hubris.
Hubris: ‘excessive pride or self-confidence.’
Many theologians over the years have argued that pride is at the root of all sin, is the greatest of all sin or is the original sin. Hubris is excessive and unhealthy pride.
Interestingly the Covid-19 pandemic gave us an incredible opportunity as individuals, churches and organizations to learn, grow in humility and seize a great kingdom opportunity.
Unfortunately, many individuals, churches and organizations instead doubled down and moved the needle of health in the wrong direction. In working with churches, it is sad to see not only a missed opportunity, but a deeper engagement in the corporate sin of hubris. Rather than bemoan the challenge or criticize individuals, churches and organizations, I find it helpful to examine the ‘why’ behind the issue. It leads to understanding, knowledge and empathy.
So why all the hubris?
Sometimes the most profound answer is also the simplest. The truth is that we, especially within Christianity in the United States are arrogant. We have embraced the way of the pharisee and not the disciple. We feel entitled too much and have easily forgotten that the Gospel message is one of sacrifice. We figure we have it all right and the culture has it all wrong. We sit inside of our church buildings expecting people to come to us without changing a thing, something that only ever work in the 1950’s, which by the way are never coming back. Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If that is the case, the American church is nuts!
We dramatically underestimate the power of fear in our culture, especially in the United States. Everywhere we turn we are being sold fear, mostly because it works. We consume it blindly and let it dictate or emotions, actions, words and relationships. Media (regardless of which type of bias it comes from) constantly sells us fear. Marketers constantly sell us fear. Politicians are always looking for some more fear to keep themselves employed. Fear, fear, fear, fear. The opposite of fear is not confidence, it is trust. When we live in fear and make decisions out of fear, we have a theological problem. By embracing fear, we are simply saying that we do not and cannot trust God. If trust is the opposite of fear, love is its anthesis. The church should be known for its love.
If we are really honest, so often our hubris does not come from arrogance or fear, but rather indifference. We just don’t care. We don’t embrace hope. We don’t really believe the Gospel is the transformative good news that the scripture proclaims it is. For many of us, church, faith, religion is just another activity or category of life. It doesn’t really shape us. If we are not working in or really involved in a church, we tend not to care at all as long as we are not impacted. So long as we can get what we want, the way we want it, when we want it, why should anything else matter? The great heresy of consumerism in the church is ultimately rooted in selfishness, the most hostile form of indifference. We are passionate about our preferences, but indifferent to the Kingdom of God. We are passionate about our desires, but indifferent about the work of the Holy Spirit.
In most of my work, I live by the Stockdale Paradox: name reality and point towards hope. While these challenges are real, there is also a lot of hope, because it is never too late to change course and to grow in humility. Jesus walks with us in this and delights in helping us all grow in greater humility.
Great health is possible in any person, church, organization or situation. While greater health is always possible, it is often limited by our teachability, our humility.
May we all grow in humility as we seek to be the people and the church(es) God created us to be.
Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson, Executive Director