Church and Our Projections (Josh Graves)

Josh Graves is the Preaching Minster at the Otter Creek Church in Nashville.

We are all caught up in an inescapable mutuality (paraphrase of Harry Emerson Fosdick).

For several years (in various settings), I’ve noticed something about life that I couldn’t quite “diagnose” or “describe” but it was something real and potentially toxic. Then, it hit me . . . one of the dangerous attitudes that creeps into a local church (probably true of a sports team, academic department, schools, family, not-for-profit) goes undocumented. Individuals in a given context (church, team, family, etc.) tend to hold the “larger group” to a standard they themselves are not willing to live up to. Moreover, individuals want to be a part of something that gradually looks like a community/school/team honed in their own image.

I’m not thinking of any one person, context, situation . . . just offering general insights into something that continues to resurface.

Please NOTE: I’m not suggesting that disagreement, debate, healthy open challenge should dissipate. In fact, I think open debate is a sign of true health in a family, church, team, local organization. The leadership meetings I am part of within the local church I serve,  for instance, are often lively, spirited, passionate, and complex. Those who are around me for any length of time know that I love to debate theology, politics, current events. In fact, as a twin, I probably love to debate more than is healthy (my twin brother and I can argue about whether or not we should be arguing something mundane–it’s an art form).

So, debate, disagreement, healthy open dialogue must be cultivated. That’s a beautiful thing when done well, with love and maturity. I’m aware that many men and women have experienced silencing, power games, manipulation in various contexts . . . that is wrong and unjust.

The projection I’m talking here is something different.

I’m talking about projecting, that is,  I/you/we project onto the “larger group” a value, passion, or belief that I’m not willing to live out in my own personal life. Instead of dealing with one’s own self-disappointment, we place all of that angst, anger, and anxiety somewhere else, the next closest thing that allows us to unload without having to face the person in the mirror.  Let me give you some examples of this.

*You are a staunch fiscal conservative who regularly finds ways to take advantage of others. Or you are a staunch liberal who gives very little to any local church/justice/compassion effort.

*You are adamant that the leadership of your church address sexual purity/issues of sexuality when you are in an adulterous affair or have a  struggle with a serious pornography addiction.

*You yell at the TV screen in front of your children about a pro athlete who fails in a clutch moment while you are drinking beer and red in the face. Literally gaining weight while you scream.

*You abhor the fact that your local church is carrying some debt while you are carrying a huge mortgage that (relatively speaking) is a far more dangerous debt to income ratio than said local church. Again, for the record, I’m for debt free living . . . but that’s a sizable mountain for any family or church to climb. That journey should be embarked upon with diligence and care.

*You grow angry and bitter towards a family member for not reaching out to you when you have done the very same thing (or not done ) for months.

*You pretend the politics of church is any different than a local university, not-for-profit, academic community, etc. Of course I hope that life is different in a local church, that a different politic is at work but to suggest that politics (interpret: tricky relationships) don’t or should not exist in a local church seems naive to me.

*You rail about something you don’t like happening in your local church (particularly the way it’s happening, lack of communication), organization, family but you do so via twitter and Facebook. This is known as “keyboard bravado”–instead of doing the explicit Jesus thing you write vague tweets, Facebook posts, or super-charged e-mail’s to those who are not doing things like you think they should.

*You believe your family, local church, business should be involved in a critical work but are unwilling to help lead to ensure this very thing happens.

*You desire that your wife change in some significant ways but you are not willing to do so.

*You want more “Bible” taught in your local church but you hardly ever crack your own Bible.

*You want the student ministry and college ministry to take 50 students (your children or grandchildren) to do mission work but you have never even considered traveling to Africa, Central America, etc to see what the kingdom sounds like in different places.

*You insist that the preacher address gay marriage and set the record straight but also insist that the preacher never mention greed or nationalism or lust again.

Hypocrisy isn’t failing to live up to one’s ideals. We all do that. Hypocrisy is failing to admit that this is the case.  Before spending your time focused on how you want to change everyone and everything else, take some time and breathe. Projection and avoidance are real. These are toxic realities. And it is happening in all corners of our society. Starting with me. And with you.

Last thing. How do you want to be known after you’ve died/left a place? Do you want to me known as a person who always focused on the bad? A person who could only see the shortcomings? A person who constantly complained, whined, projected, unloaded anger on others? Or do you want to be remembered as a person of joy, hope, courage, laughter, and possibility. A person who a) didn’t deny shortcomings and failures but mostly b) saw the way things could be.

The local church isn’t a thing. It’s you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and them, and us, and ours. Your disillusionment is based in something real but it is ultimately a sign that you’ve given up on the idea that people can change. You’ve given up on the truth that you can change. And because you don’t think you can change anymore you project on the local church an anger, attitude, belief that is reserved for yourself. If only you’d ever let yourself admit this is the case.

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