Shortly after I stepped down as pastor this year, I came across an illuminating and deeply convicting book by C. John (“Jack”) Miller that addressed so many of the issues in my church—and in so many churches like ours.
The book is entitled Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, and though it is a little dated (1986), it gets at the heart of the problem that many American churches are facing—an unhealthy self-centeredness that undermines the missionary impulse of Christ’s church. While the whole book is worth reading, the opening section (“Where Missionary Life Begins”) was most helpful for me. In those two chapters, Miller outlines the deadly symptoms of the ingrown church. The rest of the book aims at remedying that introversion through means of fresh faith, radical repentance, and active, prayerful, outward ministry.
Let me lay out some of the symptoms of the ingrown church. If they look similar to what you’ve experienced in your church, pick up this little book and begin to work through it with the leaders in your church.
The Introverted Church is Not Merely Out of Line, It’s Radically Disobedient
Jack Miller begins by highlighting the introverted characteristics of the ingrown church.
“Ingrown churches face . . . [a] crisis of power failure. . . . Some of them have crashed spiritually and never noticed their own fatal ending. The evidence is easily found in lack of zeal for outreach. . . . Other congregations still give lip service to missions and evangelism, but inwardly they have given up—quit—having lost confidence in being used by the Lord of the harvest to bring people to Him.” (17)
“Like persons, local churches are sometimes introvertive [sic]. Following the introvertive pattern in human personality, these churches turn their interests and their energies inwardly upon themselves. They are concerned primarily with their own affairs. Sometimes the devote most of their attention to spiritual introspection which results in a neglect of spiritual expression in their communities.” (27, citing W. Curry Mavis, Advancing the Smaller Church)
“The introverted church [is not] partly out of line with the divine will, but radically disobedient to it.” (28)
Symptoms of Introversion
Zooming in on the ingrown church, he lists seven recurring symptoms.
- Tunnel Vision — “this unbelief expresses itself in the quiet acceptance of churchly dullness as normal, and numerical stagnation or decline as inevitable” (29)
- Shared Sense of Group Superiority — “struggling churches are likely to exaggerate points of superiority,” which in turn creates in them an ugly but “unconscious elitist attitude.” (30)
- Extreme Sensitivity to Negative Human Opinion — “The sad truth is that one negative critic with a loud voice who speak from within the inner circle of the ingrown church usurps the role of Christ, wielding the power to make or break programs.” (31)
- Niceness in Tone — “what is often wanted [in the ingrown church] is unrelieved blandness: a ‘nice pastor’ preaching ‘nice sermons’ about a ‘nice Jesus’ delivered in a ‘nice tone’ of voice.” (32)
- Christian Soap Opera in Style — “Soap operas are basically a series of endlessly repeated conversations, and gossip . . . is often the only kind of ‘body life’ an ingrown church knows. . . . In the introverted church we find that the members use their tongues a great deal—not to witness or pray or praise or to affirm one another, but to publicly review one another’s flaws, doings, and sins.
- Confused Leadership Roles — In the ingrown church “the pastor and his wife are expected to act within the bounds of an unexpressed but nonetheless clearly defined social contract. This contract . . . states the congregation will support, honor, and pay the pastor and his wife as long as they are inspiring yet dignified, sweet but saltless.” In other words, the pastor is not hired to be a change agent for gospel advance, but a chaplain who marries the young, buries the dead, and comforts the hurting. “In the typical self-centered church there is a hidden determination to eradicate enthusiasm that disturbs the comfortable routine dictated by self-trust, self-exaltation, niceness as a defense mechanism, and the rights of gossip.” (35)
- A Misdirected Purpose — Unmoved by the Great Commission, the ingrown church seeks to preserve its unity at all cost. Yet this is a “distorted unity.” “The unity is essentially that of the comfortable, private club determined to protect its institutional values and privileges.” (36)
So What’s the Solution?
The answer can be summed up in two imperatives—repent and believe!
Repent of your self-satisfied, self-centered ways of life. Repent of seeking your comfort in church and preserving your tired traditions. Return to the gospel, the great commission, and the great commandment, so that God can work in you and through you he can reach the lost around you.
And believe. Believe afresh the promises of the gospel. Believe that the God who sent his Son and his Spirit is sending you with the gospel message to bear fruit through you as you abide in Christ and God’s Word abides in (and flows out of) you. Believe that God is still at work today and that the church is still his chosen means of evangelism.
And if your church is too ingrown to be used? Repent. Change through faith. Watch what God will do. He sent his Son to save us from our sinful introversion and he loves to open our hearts to the lost around us. I know for me that is what I am praying and seeking and it is something that many American churches and pastors need today.
In that pursuit, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church will help you and your church confront your introversion and it will give you tracks for growth and outreach as you press deeper into the promises of the gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds