survival of the fittest church

matthew 19

A few months ago I made a big plate of nachos for all of the kids. Within 10 minutes, they were devoured and I made a joke about how life around here is like “survival of the fittest.” The strongest and most-able-to-elbow-everyone-out-to-get-the-guacamole wins.

The past few weeks, I also talked to some amazing pastors & leaders who are some of the most humble and kind and dedicated people I know but are struggling with what it looks like to lead in their contexts. Their communities are small, the people they care about don’t have resources, and people-who-fund-these-kinds-of-things just don’t come be part.

It made me think how often church has become about “survival of the fittest”, too.

Even though Jesus spoke boldly against this in the gospels, the one “system” that’s supposed to be contrary to the ways of the world has adapted its methods and structures to fit in. The result: over time, the “strong” are surviving and what is perceived by the world as “weak” are becoming more extinct.

Mega-churches with big budgets keep building buildings; small, simple, in-the-trenches communities find it hard to stay alive. Strong charismatic leaders keep drawing people in; ordinary average pastors-who-are-just-doing-the-simple-day-to-day-work-of-taking-care-of-their-congregations keep dwindling in numbers.

The same principle applies to extensions of “church”. Take blogging, for example–often, loud, mean, provoking voices rise to the top and humble, kind, honest ones never get hits. Beautiful underground practitioners are doing the tangible work of living out their faith without the help of sustaining financial support but those with seminary degrees & charismatic communication abilities & strong-in-the-world’s-eyes leaders are the ones being fully funded.

Over the past 8 years The Refuge has been alive, I have seen a lot of churches & leaders come and go. The saddest part to me is that on the whole, the ones that have gone have been friends who were trying new things, deeply and humbly dedicated to people, and really passionate about the incarnation of Christ in all kinds of creative and wonderful ways. They made deep sacrifices over time to live out their dreams for Christian community, but in the end, some just couldn’t make it. Others, like us, continue to struggle along as best we can but money is always tight and the “strong” rarely come.

Bottom line: Human beings don’t like to be weak.

Many contemporary Christians like it even less.

We like to be on the winning team.

We like to be the ones who aren’t like “those people.”

We like to feel comfortable.

We like the safety of numbers.

We like certainty and conformity and affiliation.

We like the path of ascent, not descent.

And those are all contrary to the ways of the kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last. Where stopping on the side of the road to help the man bleeding is more important than the next-great-sermon-to-prepare-or-listen-to. Where spiritual poverty & humility & mourning & meekness & peacemaking lead to blessing. Where it’s worth it to leave the 99 to find the one. Where restoring basic human dignity and offering tangible love and connection trump programs & budgets & the law. Where mercy is more important than sacrifice.

I always wrestle with the paradox of feeling despair about the reality of church while witnessing hope, too. For some reason today I just feel extra bugged because I still see the strong getting stronger and the weak getting squeezed out. 

I am tired of hearing about yet another church plant with big plans for growth and funding when there are so many small struggling ones who could really use some brothers & sisters to come alongside and pitch in and help instead.

I am tired of hearing about the next, new great church idea when there are countless local agencies and organizations who could desperately use more volunteers and help and will never, ever benefit from another Sunday church service cropping up in their town.

I am tired of hearing of yet another amazing, small, beautiful community evaporating because of lack of funding to sustain the so-under-market-value amount some of these pastors & leaders need to keep doing the hard-and-painful-work-of-truly-living-alongside-others.

I am tired of hearing about yet another male leader of some church or network or ministry or organization who gets away with being a narcissist and mistreating and using people and somehow keeps getting paid good to do it because they have charisma and know how to woo the right people.

I am tired of hearing of another incredibly gifted female leader with no church to serve in or staying stuck in one that’s “as good as it gets” but will never see her as a full equal.

I am tired of yet another privileged argument about the scriptural interpretation of homosexuality while the poor are getting poorer and the grooves of oppression continue to get deeper and wider at home and around the world.

I am tired of hearing about many incredible, sincere people who long to find a spiritual community to be part of after a faith shift but have few options because most everything out there is either “strong” or dying or unwelcoming because the money & resource won’t tolerate the fringe.

I am tired of a heckuva lot of people being influenced by a theology of power & strength & hierarchy week after week after week.

Goodness gracious, I’m tired of a lot of things!

I’m not trying to highlight all the negative; there’s no doubt so many good things are happening all over the place, many that we never hear or know about. I definitely borrow hope from that and truly believe that ultimately the ones on the underside of power win.

Mostly, I think I am just tired of “survival of the fittest” accurately describing the church of Jesus Christ–the one group that should defy all of man’s theories.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kathy, thank you so much for putting words to the feeling that have encompassed my years of ministry. Especially in the urban/under resourced community. The daily “shoulder to shoulder and knee deep” relational ministry that is so desperately craved and needed, just isn’t sexy. The beauty of being in relationship is everything; but doesn’t “sell’
    to the survival of the fittest theme you so eloquently speak of. Your books and blogs, voice and passion for continuing to be “Down We Go” people continues to inspire me, thank you for “getting it”…

    terri kaminski

  • I would add that I’m super tired of churches ‘using people up’ so that when they reach an age when they have more time to give (children are grown, work life is nearing retirement), they are so weary that the thought of investing in a faith community again (and being used again) drives them far from desiring to do much more than sit in a pew/chair.

    • thanks, maggie. that feels so true. so many friends i know are just….tired. and done with the thought of offering so much time & energy to a system that they just aren’t quite sure about. it’s hard, because the passion is there underneath but it’s buried under time & weariness & uncertainty. i appreciate you sharing.

  • Is there a different way to do church in a competitive marketplace? As long as people are free to leave one church, or join another, or not go at all, there will be a decision making process that parishioners go through. This decision will likely involve the parishioners considering their own self interest, and at a minimum, a sort of intuitive (or rational) cost benefit analysis. And in an underlying culture where church participation is constant or declining, it will look a lot like a zero sum game, with one church’s gain being another church’s loss. In our world of MONEY, loss can put a church out of business, thus the Darwinian mechanism.

    Can it be any other way? I share Kathy’s sentiment, but feel like the only way to get out of this is to get MONEY out of church…no paid staff…no buildings…no mortgages…no utility bills. That is pretty radical thinking for me, and I don’t know if I can think of any other way to avoid this “survival of the fittest”.

    • thanks for sharing. it’s a great question–can it be any other way? i think there is definitely a way. and a place for communities with zero paid staff, buildings, etc. i know tons of people doing that and they are awesome little pockets of love. but sometimes it is hard to sustain, too, practically. the work is hard, they might need to be retired, other-job-that-pays-the-bills pressures. and usually those are super organic and travel light. the middle ground of something small but with a bit of a system is a bit different. there is some money exchanged at the refuge, but honestly, everyone is pretty much volunteers, a small stipend, when it’s all said and done and it does keep it pure on one level because it means we’re only there because we really want to be. that seems to be the case for a lot of my friends in other communities, too. the passion supersedes finances. but the hard part is sometimes the long-term survival.

  • Wow! You’ve (again) said so many important things so well! I’m a big supporter of communities like yours. I wish you all the very best…. and I realize your concern is much beyond just your own community/church. Being a solution-oriented person, I’m wondering what daydreams, brainstorms or actual potential plans to “change things” you and those in your circle may have had, beyond the great day-to-day stuff you are already doing?

    • hi howard, always love your questions and thoughts. on a purely economic level, i think community partnerships and collaborations are what we desperately need, sharing of resources in some ways. without outside support for the refuge, we could never make it. our budget is so small for what we do but we do have expenses and 1/2 come from inside our community and 1/2 come from outside support. if churches that had buildings opened their doors freely to organizations and ministries that needed space without $ being exchanged, if there was a sense of all of the faith communities in a community seeing what the needs were in the community and offering up “here’s how we can contribute toward it–money, people, services, etc.” so that everyone was playing their part vs. the silo thing where everyone’s trying to survive on their own. smaller more neighborhood parishes where there were little hubs that loved each other vs. one big hub that sucked people from all over the place but no one is really connected. there’s my quick saturday morning ramble.

  • Maggie’s comment made me think too – would add that I am tired of sitting in pews/chairs (pews, please) being seen as a negative thing. I am busy all week with commitments and have had my years of “serving” in church. I don’t like how so often (not in herpost, in general) it is not enough to just go to church. Yet I deeply desire to just be able to go to church. To go and BE with a church, on Sunday morning, in a church building. All things that have gotten a really bad rap because they aren’t “engaging” or because they mean I am “uninvolved” or not “in community.” Yet this was how I grew up, and my church was little. We loved like family and fought like family. Sunday mornings were our time to come together – when did Sunday mornings start getting shoved aside as not good enough?! Maybe the problem isn’t that people aren’t in small groups or serving in this or that ministry, but the problem is that the church is SO HUGE that it can no longer just be a church during its services.

    • i hear you, sarah. there’s something to be said for that for sure. it’s hard for me personally because i don’t really think that’s what “church” was meant to be but more what “going to a service” was meant to be, but i know there are so many different needs and desires (as in some love pews and some can’t stand them, ha ha) it’s so good that there are a lot of options 🙂

  • I’m with you and I hear you and I’m frustrated for all the times the struggle becomes too much for my friends. On the other hand, there is something in smallness, failure, and desperation that is beautiful and irreplaceable. Next on my to-read list is Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”. Have you read it? From what I understand, it’s an exploration of how people change the rules of survival of the fittest and make new rules that work for them. I will be reading it with the refuge and this blog post in mind! One piece of good news is that it can be done and has been so many times through history. Another piece of good news is that creatives, innovators, and other fringey people are being pushed out of the halls of power and into these harder spaces. And, sometimes we fail and fall apart and feel weak and squeezed out, but sometimes we’re still here 🙂 I also think, Kathy, that so many people – and not just in the church, but in the economy and in society, and globally – need a new way of doing things that is only going to come from the very struggle that is so hard. La luta continua xo

    • love your thoughts, daisha. seriously. i haven’t read it, i saw a clip for it and i know the book pub read it. his stuff is so good. i need to check it out. your words make me think about a tim keel quote that i used at the end of down we go and i believe is so true. i’ll put it below, but one other quick thing is that i loved what you said about “we sometimes fail and fall apart and feel weak and squeezed out, but sometimes we’re still here!” thanks for the reminder. here’s what he said: “We need men and women who have previously been on the margins to come forth and lead us. In focusing so exclusively on our cognitive capacities, we have lost our imaginations. We need mystics. We need poets. We need prophets. We need apostles. We need artists. We need a church drawn out of the margins, drawn
      from the places and filled with people and shaped with competencies formerly
      thought to be of little account. In fact, perhaps it is from such ‘marginal’ communities
      as these that influence will begin to spread outward into communities that have
      been domesticated in a modern world and thus rendered docile. We need a wild
      vine grafted into the branch. We need alternate takes on reality. We need a
      different kind of leader – one who can create environments to nurture and
      release the imagination of God’s person.”

      Keel, T. (2007). Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Chaos.
      (p. 138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

  • What a thoughtful post and also very thoughtful comments… especially Biff’s point about money creating the issue of survival of the fittest being a root cause.

    I am familiar with many of the scenarios you have described, Kathy. I have friends who somehow manage to serve their communities with few resources and I, like you, are familiar with Big Budget churches. At this stage of my faith journey (and Faith Shift! ) I have become more curious about primitive, off the grid forms of church that are budgetlesss. But I am also mindful that churches are People and people tell their churches with presence, service and giving if they are invested. We all want to believe that where we give hours of service on our days off and where we give money from hard earned paychecks is truly life giving. I have many friends who have fled from church because of losing confidence that their faith tribe was a community of reciprocal lifegiving exchanges. As another commenter noted, volunteering can lead to tiredness (church staffers complain about lack of volunteers, but people who work often need to protect their time with family and other obligations as well as rest and self-care) and this tiredness is so common in churches of all sizes and budgets that left unresolved means people burn out and then sometimes learn that their voice and presence in a community is only esteemed by rank of their volunteering. It becomes an issue, from my POV, of systems that inherently view people as assets or deficits. Im sure some of my perspective is colored by my own scars of experiencing being valued only for what I could give rather than for who I am. It really sucks.

    I appreciate you writing about this. I know you have seen a kaleidiscope of perspectives from many across the spectrum. Keep provoking the conversation. I doubt I will ever return to any faith community of any size, yet because of my varied and deep history with all-things-church, I still remain somewhat fascinated with the constant evolving (devolving?) of the motherland of my faith.

    • always love your thoughts, dear friend from afar. and i completely love the “constant evolving (devolving?) of the motherland of my faith.” whoa, so good! i think you hit such an important point about reciprocity and not being “used” or just being an “asset”. it’s almost that thing of picking teams in elementary school, and that feeling like “we want certain kinds of players” to win. so messed up in the body of Christ. and it is so true, we all need to be able to be part without feeling value only from what we can “do”. i am always in the weird middle on the $ thing because it’s so true, it can be taken off the table completely. i know so many who do it that way. but it’s also hard to keep certain really important ministries going if 100% of everyone are volunteers. i also love that so many who aren’t necessarily part of faith communities in the regular way have created small organic communities of connection and hope that look, feel, and operate completely different than any organized system but are bringing forth good things together…by being together. love from here to there!

  • Kathy, I think you are prophetic in the North American context! Thanks for the courage to share your voice with so many! There are very few women who are embodying a more authentic path in a world dominated by men! Survival of the fittest is a power game that men like to play! It’s a good thing Jesus doesn’t like the game. Whatever happened to a life of humility, vulnerability, wisdom, love, gentleness, compassion, listening and hospitality?

  • I am reading Renovation of the Church right now and am feeling challenged about very similar concerns. I have wondered and felt all of these as a church leader, and am hoping to be part of crafting a different future.

  • I think that I’m going to need to save this and read it often over the months to come. We’re a church in transition and sometimes its easy to look at the other ‘fitter’ churches around us and sigh because we aren’t as buff as they are. And I need to believe that in the Kingdom where the last is first and the least is greatest somehow there will continue to be a need for us, and that we will find the people who need the upside-downness of Jesus.
    I also wrestle a bit with the comments about being pushed to join and do things instead of just sitting and being with a church. How do we serve people well who need rest, without burning out a NEW crop of volunteers? Especially in the smaller churches. (Believe me, I get it…I’ve counted the offering every single Sunday for the past 3 (?) years. I’d gladly never count it again and instead spend time out in the lobby actually getting to know people.) I think that IS a big problem for the small church, and I don’t think that there’s an easy solution…at least not one where everyone gets 100% of what they want.

    • thanks for sharing, rea. it is that dilemma, looking around and thinking “what do we need to do to ________” we feel it, too. peace and hope to you from far.

  • How did you READ MY MIND!!!!??? 🙂 SO sick of it. Tired of Mega Churches starting satellite campuses on every corner when there are beautiful church communities already there. Sincerely, your nearby semi-twin church female pastor 🙂

  • Why don’t we take money out of the equation? Why don’t we stop making it the thing that holds our ministries and churches together and start depending on the Spirit instead? All of us need money to live, but what if we took stripped church down to it’s core, took away all the worldly trappings, and made it about what church really is: people with the Holy Spirit in them, together. That takes a lot less money. What if we just made it us, in Christ, taking the Gospel to our immediate communities (our neighborhood streets, our workplaces, our gyms, our coffee shops), and ministering to people there, doing both normal and supernatural life together. What if we didn’t leave our jobs, but used our jobs to support ourselves in ministry and as an opportunity to share the Gospel? The gifts of the Spirit don’t come because of a building or money or a seminary degree or a title. A church was never supposed to be dependent on one person, unless that person is Jesus Christ. We don’t need one pastor. We need a group of average Christians with the gifts of the Spirit. Let’s plant “anywhere churches,” churches imbedded in the normal fabric of our lives, wherever that may be. Let’s bring the church to people and not expect them to come to a building. Let’s bring Jesus to people. And let’s be utterly dependent on Him instead of the money which may not come. Let’s stand or fall by the will of God, not by money or the charisma of a leader.

  • Hmm. There’s lots I like here. Thank you for writing this. But I’m a natural contrarian, so I’d like to gently push back. This doesn’t represent my real belief, necessarily; consider it a thought experiment. I’m so contrarian that I’m even arguing with myself over liking this.

    The survival of the fittest isn’t “one of man’s theories.” It’s the way God built the world. This is how things evolve. If we believe that God set up a world that includes evolution, then don’t we believe in this? And if we believe that the church evolves, isn’t this the way it happens?

    I wish (in my darker moments) that MORE churches would close. I’ve seen so many small, unhealthy churches that would have been better off closing their doors for good. I’ve seen brilliant, charismatic communicators that experience their church shrinking year after year. I’ve seen decent communicators that end up with churches that are healthy and growing. Charisma is easy to rail against, but I really don’t see it as the primary reason churches succeed and grow (even big, shiny, megachurches).

    I’ve been hurt when people left my congregation, and I can pour out my heart to the world about how good a job I did, how creative I was, and how those people were seduced by the flashy church down the street. I can tell the story any way I want. But when I let them tell the story, there are other factors at play that I wasn’t even ready to acknowledge.

    You know the joke about church planting: “It’s easier to give birth than perform resurrection.” Yes, sometimes Jesus raised the dead. But we’ve all experienced churches that everyone knew were dead except the people running the place. I know it’s hard when the dream dies. Believe me, I do. I’ve experienced it, and it hurts. But if I blame everything on the flashy church down the road, then I’m going to miss what God can teach me.

    Ok, enough contrariness. Thanks for the good post, Kathy.

    • i always love contrariness 🙂 i appreciate your thoughts and i definitely don’t blame everything on the flashy church down the road. there are so many other forces and as you said, healthy big and little ones, and unhealthy big and little ones. trusting the big story and knowing every community can’t meet every person’s needs and they leave for good reason, etc. is of course important. but i will still hold that charisma is a reason why many churches succeed and grow. put in someone without it, and take away a really good sunday service and see what happens 🙂

      • Well, that’s true. You’ve got to have a certain level of winsomeness to get things off the ground. But I’ve been to tons of churches with very charismatic pastors who stayed tiny forever and never grew. There are a bunch of other factors that can keep a church from growing, and they’re just as effective at stopping things up.

  • Preach, Kathy, preach. So thankful for your voice – your book “Down we go” changed me profoundly. The ways of Jesus is always down. Thank you for convicting me with such strength of spirit.

  • SO well said, Kathy. I think there is a lot to be said for struggling a bit – for having to step up and step out in faith, for learning to trust in the deep places. . . that the right people will be the ones who show up (not necessarily the most people); that the money will come in God’s time, not on a business-oriented planning sheet kinda way; that the small community that really works on understanding what the word ‘community’ means will reflect the kingdom honestly and well. Yeah, I’m tired of all that other stuff, too. And I believe in the local church, the one on the corner or up the hill or around the bend where people learn to love God and one another and their neighbors by doing the work together. Thanks for this. As always.

    • thanks diana, always love to hear from you. the right people is such better thinking than the most people. years ago, one of the most convicting things happened at a refuge gathering, our one year birthday, and it shifted things in so many ways for me. we had this celebration for our one year anniversary and a lot of people couldn’t make it. a guest came and we felt that insecure need to say “it’s such a bummer that a lot of people aren’t here tonight” and she was like, “well, i’m here.” it’s hard to re-create but it touched something inside about remembering to honor who is here instead of who isn’t, who is part instead of who isn’t. i can’t say that ever since then it’s not crossed my mind that i wish more people would be at this or that but it has stuck with me 7 1/2 years later, as a very prophetic and important reminder on all kinds of levels. peace to you from afar!

  • Kathy,

    Just want to let you know that I still occasionally check in here and read. Continue as you have begun.

    Tom (more than occasional commenter at Linda’s site aka KingdomGrace)


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