church cannibalism.

I’m going to be blogging a little bit more than usual over the next few weeks because this summer I’ll be taking a break here and I want to get out some of the things that have been swirling around in my head before then. If you get sick of hearing from me now, you can always come back in the summer when there’s nothing new here and read some of these posts then, ha ha.

This will be short and sweet, well, not so sweet.

The other day a few of us were talking about a growing church here that just keeps expanding and killing off smaller churches. He said, “it’s kind of like cannibalism.”

Yep.

I like to call it church cannibalism.

To me, church cannibalism is when a new or crazily-dedicated-to-growing church comes into a neighborhood and sucks a whole bunch of Christians out of existing churches, causing those communities to die or struggle desperately to survive.

I see and hear about it all of the time, and it makes me feel a little sick to my stomach. I’ve seen so many dear pastors come and go, so many well-meaning churches who have lost people to the megas when their smaller communities tried to become more missional and relational and dedicated to the simple and small. I’ve seen the carnage that church expansion can leave behind. I’ve seen church travelers move from one cool place to the next, in search of the best teaching & preaching & kids programs & best-team-to-be-on.

I am extremely grateful that The Refuge doesn’t suffer from church cannibalism because the reality is that we are the church of the last stop for most everyone here, and so there isn’t a draw to whatever’s new or shiny or trying-to-attract. Plus, most of us don’t exactly meet the church-draw-demographic.

However, it is so painful to see so many dear and amazing communities I know here and in other places around the USA lose their identities because people flocked to the next-new-thing and left them behind, leaving their former churches with decreased budgets and empty buildings and all sorts of baggage.

Oh, how I know that it points to a broken system on a macro-scale, and that there are so many things wrong with the overall system, not only this one small issue.

And it’s definitely not just one-side’s fault.

It’s easy for me to blame the big churches or the exciting growing church plant, and there’s no question that I wish that there would be so much better collaboration and cooperation and working together as churches in the neighborhood. That everyone would play nice and be dedicated to the common good instead of empire-building-and-hoarding.

However, I can’t blame it all on the churches. It’s also the people-leaving-to-find-the-next-high’s fault, too. The draw of the grass being greener, the music being better, the preaching being more inspiring, the kids program being cooler is so enticing. Until people wake up and break their addiction to inspiration and being on the winning team, the same cycle will continue and new big wow churches will gobble up the small simple humble ones. Survival of the fittest will remain firmly in place on a communal level.

I’m not saying that everyone has to stay in their churches forever and never leave. Of course, sometimes it’s just time to make a change.

But I do want to highlight that a lot of churches are continually being cannibalized by church cannibals, as believers are enticed to seek the next coolest thing and draining the life out of existing communities.

I was going to make a vegetarian joke but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

What do you think of this idea of church cannibalism?

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

10 Comments

  • So many have gotten so far away from how the Kingdom of God is supposed to work. That’s what bothers me the most–exchanging the real for the superficial. This post kind of reminds me of how people are seduced into affairs, with the promise of “new” and “better” that really isn’t. As an evangelical I went to work for a Lutheran nonprofit in 2012 because after doing my research, I discovered the organization was well-run and actually did tons to help in the community. Prior to going to work there, I had all these preconceived notions about Lutherans being “liturgical” and “boring” and “lukewarm”–but what I discovered was that the people I found at the organization were just, for lack of a better word, “solid”–educated, ethical, knowledgeable, smart. Every person I knew at the organization was dedicated to working hard and doing their job well.

    My theory is that this was largely because Lutherans (for the most part–I know this is a genralization) seemed less-focused on putting on an “entertaining show” and more focused on community and calling. It was a bit of a culture shock to me in the beginning–the “perkiness” and feigned optimism that I was taught to show at church was kind of viewed as “annoying” and “disingenuous” by many. But after a while it was such a relief to be able to be more authentic without fear of being marginalized. I had always thought more formal churches meant less “freedom”, but in this case at least, what I found was that with less emphasis on the next best “Jesus show” there was actually more room for more substantial spiritual growth. At about that time I read about one reason for the existence of liturgy, it’s so that the focus goes not on doing the service (practically anyone can do a Lutheran service–they just have to follow the “pattern”), but rather the inner and very personal response to the week’s message. I imagine others will disagree, but I found this idea of “space” to internal response intriguing.

    Not that the Lutherans are perfect by any means. There were some good reasons for me to leave. While I appreciate the culture at the organization where I worked, I didn’t quite “fit” in there. I think most organizations are limited to one degree or another by the “in” group’s biases. I prefer to work for those that are more inclusive. But the main point remains, that in each community there are some dedicated saints working hard and doing a much better job at doing real Kingdom work largely unappreciated. And those that are doing little more than a religious “show” are disproportionally rewarded. And this is sad.

    Reply
  • This is a hard topic for me. I’m seeing it (kinda) happen in my neighborhood, but it’s not a one-sided thing. I see people (including me) leaving a church that is big on rules and pride and “having it together”, not so big on grace. I relate so much to many things you post on being a church refugee. MANY of those people are going to the crazily-dedicated-to-growing church a mile away. They do have more inspiring music, they do have a cool kids program, they do have inspiring teaching. And I think it’s natural for some young families who feel they need to leave to go to the shiny church. Who is doing good things out in the community and seems to be fostering community in the body. I honestly don’t know how good they are on grace. We’ve moved to a smaller church who is authentic and real and grace is preached beautifully every week. And it makes me sad that it’s not growing as quickly because it doesn’t have the flash – but boy does it refresh my soul.

    What makes me sadder is that it’s easy for the original church to dismiss its issues because they blame the other church for the cannibalism and the ones leaving on only wanting the show.

    Reply
    • thanks, leanne. i feel that dilemma, too, and really don’t want to dismiss the value of so much of the work of bigger churches and all kinds of things that might not look like what i like to do or be part of but are doing good work and providing a space for people to be part. i really appreciate your experience in here….gives more to think about.

      Reply
  • Our former pastor used to use similar language when he talked about not wanting to cannibalize existing churches for our membership. But that path of trying to build a church is HARD WORK, probably because so many of us don’t have the faintest idea of how to actually connect and invite people. It’s so much easier to say “Oh, you’d love OUR church, we have a great __________.” It’s hard not to look at the insanely successful multi-campus church that started at the same time and try to figure out what they did so well. It’s hard when your pastor leaves and a number of people say “Well, he was the only cool thing you had going for you so we’re out of here,” and start attending the cooler, hipper new churches. But I’m finding that the opportunities for growing individually and corporately are SO RICH right now. It gives me hope that eventually we will be able to connect with those on the margins, those who don’t give a damn about all the bells and whistles. Because we’ll be able to say “Oh, come to our church, we are so good at loving extravagantly.”

    Reply
  • How does church cannibalism relate to church gentrification? Are they overlapping, same, or different topics?

    Reply
    • i think they are really overlapped…and i know there’s always an argument “for” gentrification, too, that neighborhoods get improved, etc. etc. but off the top of my head it feels like some of the same thing–those with margin and resource are deferred to in the end. what do you think?

      Reply

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