De-sizing The Church: Overcoming The Arrogance/Shame Cycle

"In the first twenty years of the movement, research focused on principles; lately the focus has been on discovering new techniques, programs, or methods." (Elmer Towns)

When everything has to be measured, we end up comparing ourselves to others.

It’s inevitable. Measurement is comparison.

And when we compare the size of our church or ministry to the size of others, we’ll find that either we’re bigger than they are and be filled with pride, or smaller and be filled with shame. Neither is the basis for a healthy ministry.

This cycle plays out in a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Between 1999 and 2003, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, along with other researchers, performed five different studies that determined people tend to overestimate their skills after learning just a little about a given subject because “their incompetence deprives them of the skills needed to recognize their deficits.

This phenomenon has been illustrated in various ways by others, as seen in the following graph, which illustrates this cognitive bias:

Dunning-Kruger Effect

(This article and illustration are adapted from my new book, De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 9 Where the Church Growth Movement Went Sideways, available now.)

The Peak Of Overconfidence

Dunning and Kruger discovered that people often have a ridiculously high degree of confidence (y-axis of graph) about a subject when they first learn a little bit about it.

This is often seen in the first-year theology student or the young seminary graduate. They head into ministry supremely confident in their abilities because of their newfound knowledge.

This combination of extreme confidence with a small amount of knowledge or experience places them on what I’ve called the Peak of Overconfidence. This is the arrogance part of the arrogance/shame cycle.

This especially happens if a pastor or associate pastor experiences a great deal of numerical success in their first ministry position. Suddenly, they’re touted as the latest example to follow, which increases their confidence and accompanying arrogance. Because of this, they can sit on the Peak of Overconfidence for a long time, ignoring the wisdom of those with less numerical success, but more experience.

But if, instead of sitting in arrogance, we stay humble and keep learning, we will eventually find ourselves feeling the opposite of arrogance. After the complexities of real-life ministry start kicking in, our confidence may take some hits. Soon we can slip off that mountain and down into the Valley of Underconfidence.

The Valley Of Underconfidence

This is where the “shame” half kicks in. But we don’t have to devolve into shame. If we approach ministry with humility, the fact that we still have a lot to learn can be motivating and invigorating.

De-sizing the Church - Available Now!

Unfortunately, the Valley of Underconfidence is where so many pastors quit ministry and walk away forever.

It’s not because they’re not called. It’s usually because they were so overconfident in their own abilities in the first heady years of ministry that the hard, cold slap of real-life pastoral ministry makes them doubt their calling.

The sad part is, they stopped too soon. If they’d kept going, they’d have started the long, slow, but rewarding climb up the Slope of Experience, where experience and confidence increase at the same rate. That pace is sustainable.

How The Church Growth Movement Fueled Our Overconfidence

But the relentless push for More! Bigger! Faster! doesn’t allow it. Instead, it fuels the beast, either keeping people scrambling to stay on top of the Peak of Overconfidence (arrogance when their church grows) or leaving them locked in the Valley of Underconfidence (shame when it doesn’t grow).

It seems our Church-Growth Movement mindset throughout the 1990s‒2000s kept us on the top of the Peak of Overconfidence.

We knew just enough about these new ideas to feel very sure of ourselves. Plus, we could point to churches that were making the principles work. Never mind the vast majority that tried and failed.

Today, however, with church attendance rates dropping across the board, and previously growing churches experiencing their first extended downturns following the COVID pandemic lockdowns, many of us are in the middle of the Valley of Underconfidence.

A Necessary Correction

This is not bad news. We need to go through this. The decades of high confidence with little understanding about church growth was not sustainable.

Now we can step into a more mature stage of experience in which our confidence and experience can grow at the same pace, creating long-term stability and competence, not because of our “own understanding” but in the realization that God will “direct our paths” if we let Him (Proverbs 3:5‒6).

The goal, then, is to keep learning as we move up the Slope of Experience, until we reach the Plateau of Sustainability. At this point, we keep growing, but we never again hit the heights of arrogance that we had at the Peak of Overconfidence.

The humility we gain through real-world ministry experience can provide a cushion (the Gap of Humility) that helps us from ever entering the arrogance/shame cycle again.

This article and illustration are adapted from my new book, De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 9 Where the Church Growth Movement Went Sideways, available now.

The subtitle quote from Elmer Towns is found on page 47 of Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views.


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