Image Isn’t Everything: the uneasy conscience of a GenX pastor

Not long ago I attended a young adult ministry conference. My wife commented that I looked out of place because none of my clothing was torn. I showed her the frayed cuffs of my pants to verify my young-church-leader credentials. Andy Rowell was associate pastor at Granville Chapel, Vancouver, British Columbia, and recently became visiting instructor in biblical studies, Christian education, and philosophy at Taylor University in Indiana. Here Andy shares his concern over the image management that he sees driving the younger generation of pastors.

Perhaps you have noticed at your most recent pastor's conference that a number of young pastors have slipped away together. If you had followed them, you might have found them in a plain church basement room with chairs circled around together. And if you drew close enough to overhear them speaking, you might have heard, "Hello, my name is _________ and I'm an Image-Conscious GenX pastor." Unbeknownst to you, you would have stumbled into the latest booming group therapy movement.

All joking aside, I can't help but recognize the unease in my conscience about how image-conscious we are becoming as young pastors. I want to share with you some examples of the importance of image as well as some of my concerns about this tendency.

First, GenX pastors want a cool sounding name for our new ministries. We name it something like Axis or Mars Hill or The Inn or The Place or The Tapestry. (Many start with "The _____" perhaps likening back to "The Way" in the book of Acts?) Why the catchy name? People have become desensitized to much of what is presented before them. Therefore the image, the name, is important. Sadly, people are not likely going to read the ministry's statement of faith. As shallow as it seems, it is probably true that some will give the fresh-named ministry a second look based solely on its name. In this sense, GenX pastors subscribe to the clich? "always make a good first impression."

Though we may rightly question whether the name will still sound cool in ten years, the fresh names stem from good evangelistic motivations. These names are intended to be pre-evangelism. They intend to communicate to the skeptical seeker, "This is not the church you're used to. Give us a shot."

Second, GenX pastors put a huge emphasis on having a sharp-looking website, preferably with lots of digital effects and edgy photos. The logo needs to be professionally designed if at all possible and the color scheme chosen carefully. Black is always a popular choice. Above all else, "Thou shalt not be tacky."

April 27, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 33 comments


May 03, 2006  2:30pm

I attend one of these "image-conscious churches," called "Flood" in San Diego, CA. I consider myself more a fan of a home-grown, family style church, where people can speak poignantly and not worry about image. But I love it, and I don't see anything that is worse than other churches, no matter what the style or ethos. I enjoy good worship music, which we have. I know our pastor personally, and he is a God-fearing, family man, that has carried out a calling that God placed upon his heart 5 years ago. The worship is God-centered, and the preaching is scripturally sound and convicting. I have a heart for wierd, tore-up jean-wearing, skater punks, just as much as I do for 50 year old business men, and my grandparents. I see the significance for this issue to be addressed, but didn't we see it coming a long time ago?? The Western church is movement-oriented, and always will be. Thus, I speak vividly about the need to allow God to move, no matter the venue. We need more huge Christian conferences like we need more sports arenas (we don't need them). Yet, if people come to know the Lord there, so be it, and let us rejoice, for they are returning to their Creator. Amid a partisan culture, let's rally together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and avoid the tendency to be divided between young and old church attendees. But, also, not be upset if a church is more heavily youth-centered than it ought to be. Or if there are more aged adults in a church that has an organ and a 70-year old pastor. If you don't want to be image-savvy, then don't be. God will still use you! But, don't spread bitterness toward the "boring churches" or the "new-age churches." Instead shine the light of the Holy God, that will do what He desires through us, as long as we are willing. We have no easy solution for how a church is supposed to run, unless we look at scripture. The Acts church is to be our focus, and not the next trend, or movement. The strange thing about contemporary Christianity is that we are always looking for the next big idea. This is not what God wills for His people. We need to use more wisdom than this and allow God to speak through us no matter our stance on how a church should function or look like.

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Vickie Thompson

May 03, 2006  1:55am

As a 40 something, I've seen my share of "ways to do church!" From being a little girl watching my Papa preach with passion and impact, to being an Outreach Minister in a new church plant that uses a creative team approach, I've questioned if we've lost our true focus as churches. I grew up in a wonderful church, but along the way they became inward focused, planning services and events based on their needs. This led to being ineffective to the community around them. They needed to keep a pulse on how the world was changing culturely to be better equipped to know how to reach out to them. Traditions, control, and power issues set the tone of the day rather than being disciples of Christ. Since they've not been willing to make changes where they needed to, they've become invisible to the world around them. They lost their salt! Fast forward twenty-six years to a new church plant. Starting off in our home with just a handful of people who set out to be different, we invited people to a "come as you are" setting, encouraging them to investigate their questions of God and faith, and to experience doing church in a new way. The core group had just come out of a painful church experience, but God birthed a new vision and dream inside us all through that experience. Not wanting others to believe that all churches are full of self motivated individuals, with their own agendas, we purposefully set some organizational safeguards to help us stay on track with our main objective, to bring others into a relationship with God. We've tended to be driven by what we think seekers are looking for to gain permission to share Christ's message with them. This past Sunday our pastor was troubled about how to deal with some specific issues arising, but I believe through the leadership of the Holy Spirit, he was sensitive to what he and the rest of us needed for the day and he "preached!" We even had an altar call in which many responded. During our staff evaluation of our service, people commented how powerful our last service was. Now to me, the question really comes down to this, "How does the church keep the message of God's love and forgiveness fresh without compromising and being flashy and superficial?" I have to admit, as a believer for several years in an seeker focused environment, at times I long for some deep teaching and preaching to stretch and challenge me. Being leaders in a church, you're called on to provide knowledge and encouragement to seekers and new believers. Churches need to remember that congregations are complex, they have people checking out this God thing (unborn Christ babies), new believers (infant Christians), to growing and mature believers (young and seasoned Christians). We should be planning every aspect of our ministries with that balance of understanding. When it's all said and done, we should be lifting up Christ to people, and the rest is up to God. We don't do the "saving", that's the Godhead's job! We're simply called to be Jesus' hands, feet, heart, and mouth, delivering the invitation.

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Pastor Ed "Anointed" Alcantara

May 02, 2006  10:50pm

I don't see anything wrong projecting a "cool" image. Unbelievers see the church as uncool. It's about time, we change that kind of perception - that it's cool to be a Christian! But of course, image alone is not enough. There's got to be more substance in what we do such as being holy and pure and sacrifice, taking up our cross and the like. The packaging may change but not the message. Jesus is, was and always will be a trend-setter. In Christ, Ptr. Ed "Anoint-ed" Alcantara

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Jason Perkins

May 02, 2006  7:01pm

Does it matter how the message is presented or how the person is dressed that is presenting it as long as it is "the message"? Paul was one of the most influential missionaries and he said: "When I am with those who are oppressed, I share their oppression so that I might bring them to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ." 1 Corinthians 9:22 (New Living Translation) or if your more intune with the KJV " To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." I think it's a pretty good idea.

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Revival Revolutionist

May 02, 2006  1:59pm

I am in agreement with a number of you: Carl Holmes, Glenn Kaiser, Art, Doug and a couple others. Can image go too far? Yes, it certianly can. I can go on for hours about how many, if not most of our churches today, cater to the people. Church has become a "have it YOUR WAY," mentality. I, along with Carl Holmes, go to a church that is a slight trendy, however the message and the main focal point is nothing short of phenomenal and life convicting when the presence of the Holy Spirit is present. If image is a concern for some of you, then think upon this: Let's think about the days when all preachers wore suits and ties. What did everyone do? They went to church in their best suit or best dress. It was the thing to do. Look back even further into history. What were people wearing in the days of Shakespeare and Socrates? The church then had their own pews filled with a certain kind of "dress code." I guess the point here is this: If we can't participate in some of the trends of today, are you asking us to wear robes, dresses, and sandals of the old and new testament? Or maybe we should really go original and all be clothed with some leaves or animal fur like Adam and Eve. It's interesting the conversations we have and how we almost judge churches for engaging the culture, and yet as the culture changed in the Bible, so did the people's dress! Just some thoughts. I know there is a point when too far is too far. The factor for the trend has to be laid at the feet of Christ, knowing that Christ should remain the focal point above all. I mean goodness, we could talk about trend in so many different arenas. The kind of bicycle us Christian's have, if it's the top of the line mountain bike, or if it fits our need to go from place to place. The car we drive. The house we have. The food we eat. If Christians should use teeth whitening or not. I mean, we can go on and on. Why can't we just cut to the heart of the matter? How is YOUR walk with Christ? It says in Scripture that as you become a Christian the old life has passed away and you are to now live in your new life. How many of us as Christians have put our old life completely down at the cross to NEVER return to it again? How many of you actually strive to remain sin free? How many of you are actually on the offensive side of the battle rather then most Christians who stay on the defensive? P.S. I like your article Andy, because it engages the culture to think. Here is a thought to ponder. Walking in the footsteps of Christ will always be offensive to somebody. It doesn't matter what you do. You can be perfect (like Christ) in every way, but what did Christ end up doing in His perfection? He offended people!

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Ed Brenegar

May 01, 2006  7:23pm

Andy, The cool issue has been around a long time. I was let go from my first youth ministry position thirty years ago because I was told I was too "intellectual" for high school kids. Of course they didn't ask the kids what they thought. When we are young, with such high expectations placed on us, the tendency to mask our fear and insecurity in cool is natural. What all these young pastors need is an older mentor who can help them deal with the emotional demands that leadership brings.

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May 01, 2006  12:56pm

Good to read Andy. This issue was part of the reason I started writing (back at Regent) "Cadavers, Celebrities or Children of God: a bloody biblical spirituality for this generation" Our generation in the church seems to be full of dead famous brats. May the Spirit of grace and supplication continue to strip away the Greco-Roman in all of us. Homo Spectans vs Homo Participans Most Media have trained us in Voyeurism

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Andy Rowell

May 01, 2006  12:26am

Thanks again for your charitable comments on my post. People's comments have mostly focused on "what pastors wear." People agree that we should spend more time caring about people than picking out our wardrobe. However, there is a range of responses about how seriously to take image management. On the one side, there are people who think that church leaders should simply "be themselves." Your green plaid jacket may initially repel people but eventually people will be won over by your sincerity. These people suggest that trying to do "what's cool" is bound to backfire because cool changes so quickly and people will be turned off by what they perceive to be "fakeness." Furthermore, promoting a certain image will subtly communicate to people that cool people are more welcome in the community. They contend that Jesus and Paul were truth-conscious not image-conscious. On the other side, we have heard from an image consultant and many other pragmatic voices. They have argued that we have no choice but to project an image. We might as well be aware of what we are communicating. They argue that some people are naturals at fitting into their surroundings but most need a spouse (or an image consultant) to help them pick out what to wear. They would probably advocate researching your target group and trying to take small steps towards a more attractive image. They would admit that what is "appropriate" (perhaps a better word than "cool") moves. And so this target image will probably continue to evolve and so you will probably have to keep changing your image to fit. They would contend that Jesus and Paul were certainly truth-conscious but were also image-conscious in adapting their outreach to their hearers. Two conclusions: First, I think most agree that we should at least try to manage our image by trying to keep body odor in check with regular showers and deodorant. Most of us also agree that we should not use thousands of church dollars to hire image consultants to conduct polls about whether people perceive us to be "hard-working" if our sleeves are rolled up. (I heard President Bush's image consultants told him to do that. I thought it was a good idea). It is not wrong to be image-conscious. But the key question is resources. How much time, money and focus are we putting into our image projection? How much is too much? Second, I think we should think long and hard before picking our "target." Typically, we pick high school youth, punks in a club, or the golfing business owner. This is where we often make the mistake. We tend to change our image to look younger or cooler or richer. God may actually have intended us to reach someone else who we are now alienating by our new image. We need to ask ourselves, "who has God put in my life to reach? How can I serve them?"

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April 30, 2006  7:25am

The young minister's fad in our Bible school days was loafers sans socks. The ministers who were confident in reaching through relational love went on to be effective no matter what the cultural changes. When students know that you love them no matter how much they stumble, the hair-dos and the clothing disappear.

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April 29, 2006  7:24pm

Just a few questions from someone who is in her mid-twenties and has never in her life felt "cool" ( and for this reason was always drawn to Jesus who loved her anyway and didn't require coolness to belong ). What do you think it feels like when I walk into a church I have loved and felt accepted in my whole life and now the pastor is using slang and popular music, quotes from celebrities and changing the image of the church to fit his current perceived notion of 'cool'. Am I supposed to feel cool because I go there? Am I supposed to see these movies he's showing clips from and listen to rap artists so I can fully understand his message? Would you feel it's okay to be both Christian and cool... or that you had to be cool to be a Christian? I think this is a great post, and some great discussion on a timely topic. Should church be only for the cool kids? Is it more important the change everything for them because they might be harder to reach? Does the bride of Christ want to be a consumable?

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