On Dating, Neediness, and Congregational Transformation

Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church OrganizationKilling the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making,  Crack Addiction and Church Transformation, and Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

Lesson #1: How to get a date without being Brad Pitt

Do you remember that kid in high school, the one who wasn’t that good looking, who wasn’t that athletic, who didn’t have a great car, but who always seemed to have a date? Remember that kid? I’d like to say that I hated that kid, but I didn’t.


I liked him myself. He was fun to be around. The reason that kid had so many dates was because he (she, if you happen to remember her–I just happen to remember him) wasn’t worried about any of the stuff every other high school kid worries about. Ok. He wasn’t overly worried about any of that stuff. He was comfortable in his own skin.

That guy cared about his own appearance, but he’d made peace with what God gave him. He wasn’t always walking around, looking in the mirror, asking everybody, “Do I look ok?”

“Can you see that zit on my chin? Is it really noticeable?”

“Does my breath stink?”

Adolescence, almost by definition, is that time in life characterized by insecurity, self-consciousness, a constant pursuit of affirmation. To be an adolescent is to be, in a word, *needy.”

And anyone who seems not to be needy stands out. It’s hard not to be attracted to people like that because you quickly get the impression that they don’t need you to give them a sense of identity. That’s a huge burden off your back. Life is tough enough without being surrounded by people who constantly want you to cut their steak. My three year-old needs that.

And, let me just say, I’m fine with having somebody need me that much.

However, I’m not fine with having everybody need me that much. In fact, when faced by somebody with that kind of capacious [need], I immediately start looking for the escape hatch.

Isn’t that why people who sell stuff make us want to run away?

It feels like a swoop, doesn’t it? “Can I help you find anything?”

You start looking unobstructed paths to the exit. “No, I’m just looking. Thanks.”

It feels less like they’re interested in helping us figure out what we want than in figuring out how we can help them by buying what they’re selling.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to feel needed as much as the next person; but I don’t like feeling like I’m a lifeline to save people from their insecurities. Who does like answering the questions that betray a seemingly bottomless pit neediness?

“Am I good enough?”

“Do you really think people like me?”

“Will you be my best friend?”

Churches in decline are, more often than not, that person. They walk around self-conscious about everything, looking in the mirror of visitors’ faces:

“Of course, we’re just a small congregation. But we’re really friendly.”

“We used to have lot more people. We even had to use the balcony.”

“Would you please join and bring you’re friends–preferably with children?”

The problem is, same as it was in high school, nobody wants to date really needy people–except other really needy people. Visitors walk into a church for the first time, and they can smell the need before they get a bulletin in their hands.

Small churches think it’s because they’re small that people don’t want to stick around. I’m not going to lie and say that it’s not harder for people to want to join a small church; it is. But smallness in attendance can be overcome by a congregation that feels good about itself. What visitors key in on in, I would suggest, is not only the size of the congregation, but the neediness of the congregation. It’s just that, often, the two go hand in hand.

Small congregations usually send out a vibe that indicates that if the visitor decide to stay at this place, the expectation is that she’s going to do the stuff that nobody wants to do anymore. New blood. More bodies. Another pledging unit. What gets communicated is:

“We want you to join us, because we’re worried that nobody will like us. And if you do stick around, you can do the stuff we think is important. Please help us find validation.”

“Um, thanks, but I’m just looking.”

“We can be best friends.” (You know, in that kind of creepy, sing-songy voice?)

New people sense it. They flee. Who wants to feel like a congregation’s only hope?

I think that’s part of what attracts people to larger congregations.

At a larger congregation you’ve got time to roam around, find a place, see where you fit in. The larger congregation looks like it was doing just fine before you got there, and would be just fine if you never came back. It just doesn’t feel like there’s that kind of space in a small congregation. So, if there’s even a hint of neediness, you’re gone.

So What Do We Do?

The answer is simple, but it’s not easy: lighten up.

  • Quit holding on so tight. Stop thinking about yourself all the time, worrying if you’ve got spinach on your teeth, worrying that because you don’t have a jumbtron in the sanctuary you’re not doing something right. Let God take a little of the responsibility.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24–26).

Oh, believe me. I know. Jesus is crazy. I’m not defending him. I’m just telling you what he said.

This is God’s church–God’s tool to do God’s work in embodying, in whatever faltering ways we can, the reign of God. It’s not a personal achievement meant to bolster anyone’s self-esteem.

  • Quit waiting for that nice young family with a doctor, a lawyer, and three kids to show up. You’ve got ministry to do now. You’ve got people to do ministry–important ministry–with what you’ve got.

Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the brokenhearted. Baptize and marry and bury people. Wipe their tears when Hospice comes. Sit down around the table every week, say the words of institution, throw open the doors, and welcome everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) who has the courage to come share this holy meal with you.

If you can’t do any of that stuff, then sell the church and give the money to somebody who will do something with it other than an endless analysis of “why we suck so much.”

It’s the same advice I’d give your aunt Ruby who’s fifty years old and always seems to find the wrong guy: Quit waiting for someone or something else to complete you. Nobody wants to be your emotional life support system.

Look, maybe that nice young family will come along–but here’s the paradox: If you’re waiting for them like their joining is the difference between your congregation’s life and death, when they do finally show up, they won’t be able to get out the door fast enough.

So, why not do something before they show up? You still get credit toward not dying by starting now, before they get there. Then when that family finally walks through the door, you’ll both realize that it’s possible to start this relationship on an equal footing–not with one side lurking just inside the narthex looking for a new best friend.

“That’s easy to say. We’re scared.”

All the more reason to quit worrying about it. Panic doesn’t make you any more attractive–just hyper-needy.

  • Quit comparing yourself to all the cool kids. All right. So you’re skinny, and you have a cowlick that sticks up in the back. So what? If that described your adolescent, what would you say to him?

“It’s ok sweetie. You’re beautiful just the way you are.”

And you mean it when you say it, don’t you? Why can we have that perspective about everyone else but ourselves?

I’m a pigeon-toed mouth-breather who spends time reading philosophy and watching baseball. If I waited until I wasn’t that guy before I did anything, I’d never get out of bed.

Why not just plow the fields God’s given you with the people God’s given you to plow fields with?[1] If you can plow your little patch of ground with a mule, a plow, and a couple of neighbors, why do you think you’re not doing anything important because you don’t have a crowd and the latest model John Deere?

Make it work

I realize all this stuff sounds like an episode of Kung Fu, in which I’m blind master Po doling out bits of cryptic advice about the world to you, “grasshopper.” Here’s the thing, though, I’m just as insecure and needy as everyone else. And I work with insecure and needy folks, too. I spend just as much time as the next guy obsessing about “why I suck so much.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t need to be a pro basketball player to know that Michael Jordan is the best player of all time; which is to say, I don’t need to be perfect to know what excellence looks like. I don’t always get it right, but I believe I’m pointing in the right direction.

There’s a lot of money to be made in perpetuating the belief that in order to fix yourself you need a toolbox that somebody else controls–that there’s some great system that will solve your problems for you.

The truth of the matter is, there are great tools out there–but if you can’t get this fundamental orientation to the self right, none of that stuff is going to help you anyway. Stop pining for a magic pill, or the right plastic surgeon, or the best diet. There aren’t any shortcuts.

But that’s the good news! You’ve got everything you need to start dating right now.

  1. My friend, Molly Smothers, did a great article on making do with what you have.  ↩
This entry was posted in Christianity, evangelism, ministry and tagged , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

10 thoughts on “On Dating, Neediness, and Congregational Transformation

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