Why Is It So Hard To Be Vulnerable In Church?

In Christian RealTalk by Antwuan Malone

I heard a talk recently from Peter Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, about the power of vulnerability.

It’s funny. A few years ago, I was pretty obsessed with vulnerability. Having grown up in the church, and all but watching folks slip on their masks just before entering Sunday morning service, I’d grown frustrated and cynical. Even embarrassed. Not only was I watching it happen in other people, but I was doing it too! I knew what to say and the proper social cues of church : the fake smile, the religious jargon, and the disingenuous handshakes and hugs.

It’d become exhausting. And I was tired. Tired of pretending. And tired of watching others pretend.

Look, there are lots of reasons to fake happiness when you enter a church. First off, nobody likes a Debbie Downer. So right off the bat, there’s a pressure to be positive (or to at least NOT be negative). Especially at church, where all the people are supposed to have it together. But some of us are more motivated by another reason. So much of churchy happiness fakery comes from our fear of looking weak or “non-spiritual.”

Fear, as it turns out, is a great immobilizer, a great handicapper. In both of the reasons I gave above, fear is the underlying motivator. Ultimately, it’s fear that gets in the way of our authenticity and vulnerable, and is thus the greatest inhibitor of any positive relational momentum.

Let’s freely admit. We are all fearful people. We fear people’s opinions of us, the stories they’ll tell about us over lunch after service.

This all makes sense… for society. As the saying goes, it’s a dog eat dog world out there. But for the church, we should expect something different. Truthfully, as a collection of sinners saved by grace, we are in prime position to help remove the social chip of approval from folks’ shoulders. We should be able to ease the tension that comes from the social lies that link value with performance. To some degree, the disarming power of vulnerability is one of the church’s strongest weapons against the fears that shadow people all day, every day.

Because, at the end of the day, no one wants to be in a permanent state of “afraid.” Fear is meant to protect us, not define us.

But somehow, fear has defined much of the American Church culture.

2+2=4

So what do we do about this? How can we free the church experience from the bondage of fear?

This is kind of a Captain Obvious statement, but “you have what you have because that’s what you have.” I know. Profound right? Let me say it differently, in the mathematical equation 2 +x =4, we can conclude what x is because we know the result. Because the sum is four, we can know that x is two.

Similarly, if it’s true that fear feeds most of the church community interactions, then we have an (overly simplified) equation that looks like this:

PEOPLE + X = FEAR

… and like the mathematical equation, we can tell what we have on one side of the equation by what we have on the other. At the end of the day, if we are unhappy with the sum of the equation, we have to switch out the variables on the other side.

For the last couple years, as I’ve been thinking about Young Christian ministry, and how to lead a team, I’ve thought a lot about how to buildĀ  cultures in communities and organizations. I’ve become fascinated with the idea of “culture-making” and I’m often asking myself how I might go about creating a culture of this or that. Using the mathematical equation has helped me think about it. People are the constant, but what can I add (x) to the environment that might help produce the proper result. Some of the things I’ve thought about look like this:

PEOPLE + X = EMPOWERED

PEOPLE + X = VALUED

PEOPLE +X = LOVED

So Joe Blow church leader, my question to you is this. What elements do you need to add to the equation to help people feel safe, loved, encouraged, <fill in the blank>? How can you help create a culture of vulnerability and honesty, even when it’s hard and scary? How do you cultivate a culture that locks out fear?

Most churches are vacuums of fear because church leadership is a vacuum of fear. Unfortunately, pastors and ministers are not permitted to be “vulnerable” in most church settings. If that’s the case, how can we expect the congregations they teach and the staffs they lead to embrace vulnerability? Because without vulnerability, you don’t have honesty, and without honesty you don’t have trust. And without trust, you don’t have unity. And without unity, you don’t have love. And with without love, you are left with fear.

God is all about honesty, trust, unity and love. And so should his church be.

So dear American Christian, whether you are pastor, minister, staff member, or general church member. Let’s decide to do something about fear in church. Let’s decide to capitalize on that spirit of love and sound mind the scriptures promised us, and let’s kick fear out of God’s house.

What do you think is the biggest reason people are afraid to be vulnerable in the church?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.