Friday, June 28, 2013

The Trap of Bigness: A Mad Men Letter to the Western Church

Photo Credit: Kamal Zharif (Creative Commons)
In 1947, advertising legend Bill Bernbach, one of the real-life Mad Menwrote a letter to his agency warning them of the danger of losing their "creative spark" as they continued to grow bigger and more institutionalized.

It's an inspiring and inciting letter, one that demands a response. Thus, I've adapted Bill's original note as a letter to the Western church:

Dear North American Church:

Our church is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in ministry. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in a program will get you greater church attendance. They can tell you that a sermon should be this short or that long. They can tell you that bulletins and blog posts should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of ministry. But there’s one little rub. Ministry is fundamentally discipleship and discipleship happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our church and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have read books, heard podcasts, and listened to seminars from about 80 people – writers and artists in the ministry world. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the ministry field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had theological know-how. Yes, they were up on church program techniques and trends.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every method on the basis that it obeyed the rules of ministry and got people to attend church programs. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of God.

All this is not to say that technique or methods are unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ministry better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of practices for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for ministry success. The danger lies in the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out but rather make us look like the rest of the world.

If we are to advance as the church, we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop and embrace our Creator's philosophy and not have the methodological philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good relationships can be Good News.


Bill Bernbach (and a bit of Joel Mayward)

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Anything you'd add?

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