The Big Trap of Performance-Based Christianity

April 30, 2012 — Leave A Comment

I’m excited to welcome Jenn Peppers to the blog today. Aside from being one of my closest friends, Jenn is a terrific leadership & business coach, and is the co-author (along with Tara Miller) of the insightful yet practical book Finding the Flow: A Guide for Leading Small Groups and Gatherings. You can find out more about Jenn’s life and work by visiting her site at www.vergecoaching.com.

So, it’s easier for me to talk about this topic if I share a quick personal story first. When I was in my mid-30s a series of things happened that led me to have a season of performance anxiety. One of the worst attacks happened the night before I was planning to run a 5K. I did not sleep that night and never ran the 5K, but I did realize something important: my sense of self-worth was extremely closely tied to how well I performed.

My non-Christian family unintentionally imparted this false belief, but it easily transferred to my relationship with God. I was really good at doing all of the right things as a Christian and following all of the rules, but honestly a huge part of my motivation was that I thought I had to do these things to earn God’s love and favor. 

I know I am not alone in this skewed understanding of God’s love.  Actually, I think this is the prevalent attitude in the evangelical church.

A quick Google search resulted in the following statistics:

  • Almost 60% of Christians around the world feel their hectic schedule prevents them from spending more time with God.  ~ Christian Today
  • Barna found that 53% of Baby Busters (1965 – 1983) and 49% of Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964) describe themselves as too busy.
  • 55% of those who do not attend church say it’s because they are too busy.  (An Ecological Study for Growth Assessment conducted by a student at the Nazarene Bible College in Colorado.)

Why are we Christians so busy? Studies show it’s because it provides us with of a sense of significance, importance, or status. In other words, being busy fuels our self-worth.

Based on my experience, so much of our church small group experience, including curriculum, subtly or overtly suggests that we need to do more and perform better to be closer to God. We’re given steps and to-dos to become more Christ-like. And while I think this approach leads to some growth and has value, I believe we could be doing much more to encourage a deeper growth and life change that isn’t rooted in a performance-based paradigm.

Around the same time that I was experiencing performance anxiety, I also went through training and certification as a life coach. The thing I heard over and over from other Christian coaches I met was that they experienced “way more” life changing growth and authentic community through their coaching training than they ever had at church. Initially, this was perplexing to me. I believe God is the author of transformation, so why did it seem that God was more free to produce life-changing growth in a secular coach-training course than He was at my church? Could church communities be doing something different that would lead to more life-changing growth? My coach training experience convinced me: The answer is yes.

My motivation behind co-authoring Finding the Flow was to bring some of the simple skills that I was learning in coach training to small group leaders. As Reggie McNeal said, “A final resistance factor that impedes the development of community in ministry efforts is a competency issue for the leader. Can the leader coach others? Coaching abilities differ from performing abilities. Most church leaders have been taught to perform. Few leaders have had training in coaching. Coaching is both a set of skills and an art…A spiritual leader determined to develop a team will go to school to learn how to be a coach.”  And he also said on creating a missional culture that churches have to, “create a process where you actually have conversations with people and you begin to help them…create a life-coaching kind of culture.”

Why is this so important? Because the primary focus of a “life-coaching culture” isn’t performance. It’s transformation.

Six years ago I joined a coed tribe of Christian coaches who initially formed because we shared a vision of using our coaching skills to help develop the leaders of our churches. Our tribe morphed into an authentic community of coaches committed to unleashing each other and others to lives and ministries that glorify God. By simply expecting each other to be authentic, stop over-performing, celebrate mistakes, and listen to the Holy Spirit we’ve individually experienced significant healing and changes in our own lives. We’ve created space for freedom for each other and are living more freely as a result. When we gather we don’t do anything magical. We simply take time to explore our lives, talk about how God is working, and share with each other what we’re learning. We accept each other and believe that we’re already enough and that there is more. 

What if all of the small group experiences in your church could be more like that? We know intuitively that if our groups were more like this, more people would want to be part of them. Such groups would spark a movement. After all, who doesn’t want to live more freely? 

Questions:

  • In what ways have you noticed performance-based Christianity showing up in your church & small groups?
  • What do you think needs to happen to allow small groups to be less about performing and more about experiencing authentic transformation together?

Note from Mike: In addition to reading Jenn’s book, if you’re interested in training your leaders in the transformational coaching skills Jenn is talking about, she and I are available to offer that training in a variety of formats via “The Coaching Leader” course, which you can read more about by clicking here.

Michael Warden

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5 responses to The Big Trap of Performance-Based Christianity

  1. Thank you, Jenn, for sharing today–and thanks, Mike, for inviting her to do so. In response to your 2nd Q, Jenn, here’s one of my thoughts: We would benefit from more authentic listening. Listening that starts with the leadership and permeates the mindset (and heart-set!) of  those who participate in our small groups. Admittedly “listening” is often a rather foreign skill in our church culture, yet it can be mirrored and taught. And it contribute to transformation. 

  2. Thanks Jenn, for writing about this.  Perhaps part of the problem is the emphasis on trying to not to sin.  A life committed to Jesus looks like a life without blemish.  Or so we are taught.  It causes us to work really hard at trying not to slander, gossip, lie, lust, envy, etc, which is all good, but it can easily become behavior modification rather than heart transformation.  Also, yesterday at church we talked about envy and how sin is often like an iceberg.  We can see some sins above the surface, but 70% of the sin is in the heart, hidden under the image or performance we carry (sins like envy, for example).  I think this is really true, and I suspect if we were all more transparent about the 70% lurking beneath the surface it might help ease some of the performance anxiety we all suffer in trying to have it all together on the outside. 

  3. Great insights. I would love to see the church become more like your coaching experience. I think a good place to start would be for the church to think less like an institution and more like an organism.

  4. Jenn Peppers May 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I agree that listening is an art form that is often overlooked in our culture and small group discussions. Even when we hear the words spoken, we are often missing the point or the deeper message being conveyed. And unless we ask some good questions, we never reach that deeper place of understanding. As Amy implied, transformation is most likely to happen organically through the Spirit. And during moments of transparency, as Karen observed. I agree that leaders feel a certain pressure to be further along and holier than those they are leading. Or at least to appear that way. This leads to performance, but also results in the same behavior in their sphere of influence. So, when we relate this to a small group it begs several questions. Like who would want to go to a small group where they need to pretending to be something or someone they are not? (Or not yet.) And how does this hinder real life change? 

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