April 27, 2006
Image Isn’t Everything: the uneasy conscience of a GenX pastor
Not long ago I attended a young adult ministry conference. My wife commented that I looked out of place because none of my clothing was torn. I showed her the frayed cuffs of my pants to verify my young-church-leader credentials. Andy Rowell was associate pastor at Granville Chapel, Vancouver, British Columbia, and recently became visiting instructor in biblical studies, Christian education, and philosophy at Taylor University in Indiana. Here Andy shares his concern over the image management that he sees driving the younger generation of pastors.
Perhaps you have noticed at your most recent pastor's conference that a number of young pastors have slipped away together. If you had followed them, you might have found them in a plain church basement room with chairs circled around together. And if you drew close enough to overhear them speaking, you might have heard, "Hello, my name is _________ and I'm an Image-Conscious GenX pastor." Unbeknownst to you, you would have stumbled into the latest booming group therapy movement.
All joking aside, I can't help but recognize the unease in my conscience about how image-conscious we are becoming as young pastors. I want to share with you some examples of the importance of image as well as some of my concerns about this tendency.
First, GenX pastors want a cool sounding name for our new ministries. We name it something like Axis or Mars Hill or The Inn or The Place or The Tapestry. (Many start with "The _____" perhaps likening back to "The Way" in the book of Acts?) Why the catchy name? People have become desensitized to much of what is presented before them. Therefore the image, the name, is important. Sadly, people are not likely going to read the ministry's statement of faith. As shallow as it seems, it is probably true that some will give the fresh-named ministry a second look based solely on its name. In this sense, GenX pastors subscribe to the clich? "always make a good first impression."
Though we may rightly question whether the name will still sound cool in ten years, the fresh names stem from good evangelistic motivations. These names are intended to be pre-evangelism. They intend to communicate to the skeptical seeker, "This is not the church you're used to. Give us a shot."
Second, GenX pastors put a huge emphasis on having a sharp-looking website, preferably with lots of digital effects and edgy photos. The logo needs to be professionally designed if at all possible and the color scheme chosen carefully. Black is always a popular choice. Above all else, "Thou shalt not be tacky."
The reasoning for the great website is similar to the "cool-sounding name." Make a good first impression. More and more frequently, people searching for a church are using their web browser to "do the walking" rather than visiting a church themselves. If the website is not lame or offensive, they may come to visit on a Sunday morning.
Third, GenX pastors want people to experience something real and fresh in worship. Maybe some other GenX worship planners can identify with the following kind of thinking:
Though you are seeking excellence, make sure no one knows how much work you have put in. This takes away from the impact. Make it look effortless and that it was just thrown together. People will believe that the assembled talent and brilliance made the experience "just happen." If people see how much work and planning went into it, they may feel like you manufactured the experience?that you are trying to orchestrate something?or force something on them. They want "organic" experiences. So, spend the money you need to spend to make it happen. Then, plan and prepare like crazy late into the night with the most talented people you can find (musicians, technical folks, presenters, set designers, chefs).
When it is event time, put on your jeans (frayed and faded when purchased), mess up your hair, stick on your tight t-shirt, have a coffee in your hand, and saunter into the room as if you didn't have a care in the world. When people are amazed at the profundity and power of what they experience, just shrug and tell them, "I guess it worked. It just happened."
Our generation has been profoundly moved and affected by movies. Not unlike Steven Spielberg, the GenX pastor wants the people attending to be inspired and to be touched by the story, music, and message presented. The idea is to present a message powerfully in order to make a deep and lasting impression on the audience.
Maybe some of what I have described thus far bothers you. Aren't we as Christians supposed to be less focused on appearances and more concerned with the heart? Aren't some of the practices I described verging on dishonesty? GenX pastors I know are troubled by these same concerns. I'm not alone in feeling conscience-stricken by the emphasis on projecting a great image. There is widespread unease about it. But what can we do about it?
In part two of Andy Rowell's post he'll discuss some ways to overcome a preoccupation with image.