For nearly the past three decades, I have been studying the life cycle of churches. I continue to be amazed at how a certain pattern plays out repeatedly in most churches. And I continue to be challenged to discern how churches can avoid the last two stages of the life cycle: irrelevance and death.
In this brief article I won’t take the time to review all the stages of the life cycle of churches. I am working on a complete book on that topic. Instead, I will focus on one particular stage, a part of the cycle that may be the most dangerous for the health of churches. I call this stage “hubris.”
When Hubris Happens
Simple defined, hubris means pride or arrogance. It has its origins in Greek tragedy where an excess of ambition or pride ultimately causing the transgressor's ruin.
In churches hubris is an insidious enemy. It comes at a time when members are typically feeling great about the health of the church. Indeed, it often comes when the church is on its best growth trajectory, and when the congregation is receiving accolades for its ministries and programs.
The feelings of well-being and the abundance of accolades can cause church members and leaders to get comfortable and proud. If and when that happens, the church is already on a downward trek. Decline may not manifest itself right away, but it is inevitable unless serious steps are taken toward a corporate attitude change.
Why Hubris Happens
So-called success in local church ministry often creates a sense of self-sufficiency. “Look what we’ve done,” some members may say or think. “We have truly become a great church,” others may opine. But self-sufficiency is the opposite of God-dependency. And when church members and leaders lean on their own strength and understanding, they are headed down a dangerous path.
Hubris often manifests itself in the idolatry of ministries, programs, or preferred styles of worship. Those ministries that were once a means to the end of glorifying God become ends in themselves. Inevitably the church will experience conflict when any leader attempts to change or discard those ministries, programs, or worship styles. They have been become idols. They represent in the minds of some the accomplishments of the church rather than just an instrument to glorify God.
Likewise, hubris comes to church because we enjoy the accolades of others. We believe that we are as great as others say we are. We like the recognition. We enjoy the attention. We forget the Author of all good things in our church.
How Hubris Leaves
Churches that are experiencing numerical attendance decline eventually understand that not all is well. Churches whose budgets are shrinking grasp that the elimination of ministries and personnel is the result of being an unhealthy church. But, by the time a church has such a wake-up call, it is often too late to reverse the trend. Numerical and budgetary declines are not the real problems. Numbers are not the ultimate gauge of the health of a church. But those declines are typically the result of an attitude of hubris that took place years earlier when all seemed well.
The presence of hubris in a church often leads to the stages of irrelevance and death. But such a downward spiral is not inevitable. When a church seems to be experiencing its best days of growth and community impact, its members and leaders should constantly be asking themselves questions. “Are we proud of our accomplishments?” “Have we implicitly given glory to ourselves rather than to God?” “Would we be willing to let go of anything in our church, even if it has become a sacred cow for many members?” “Do we compare our church to others with some level of pride?” “Have activities replaced prayer and time in the Word?”
Hubris is a dangerous and deadly attitude in churches. But it can be overcome.
It begins in our own hearts with repentance, and a willingness to do whatever our Lord asks for His glory.