The Narcissistic Church

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Narcissistic Church

The names say it all.

YouTube.  MySpace.  And, of course, ipod, itunes, imac, and iPhone.

If there is a theme to our day, it’s that “it’s all about me.”  The technical term is narcissism.  In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection.  From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self.   

The value of "narcissism" is the classic "I, me, mine" mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns.  Historian Christopher Lasch went so far as to christen ours “the culture of narcissism,” calling it our new religion.

Now as Christians, this should be antithetical.  We follow a savior who said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many;” “Whoever wants to be first must become last;” “Whoever wants to be great among must become the slave of all;” and then bowed in submission to the Father Himself and said, “Not my will, but yours.”

Yet a spiritual narcissism has invaded our thinking where the individual needs and desires of the Believer become the center of attention.

Have you ever heard the way we talk?

“I want to go where I'm fed" or "I need to be ministered to” rolls off our tongues without even blushing.  We walk out of a worship service and say, "I didn't get anything out of it" as if worship was about what we received rather than what we gave to God. 

And it’s killing the church, blinding our vision, paralyzing our mission, and muting our voice.

But is it simply a reflection of a narcissistic culture?  Or could it be something we secretly feed ourselves?

Consider the first two questions any organization must ask itself (courtesy of Peter Drucker):  What is our mission? and Who is our customer?  The second of these involves crass language, I know, for any church.  But let’s consider them a moment.  First, what is our mission?  I would argue that it is to seek and to save the lost (how could we have a mission other than the one Christ had and then entrusted to us as the church?).  Yes, the Great Commission involves discipleship, but I tire of those who pit evangelism against discipleship, as if doing one prevents concentrating on the other.  It’s a both/and, not an either/or.  But more to the point of the mission, if you never reach anyone for Christ, who, exactly, will you be discipling?  Evangelism must be in the vanguard. 

From this comes the second question:  Who, then, is our primary customer?  It is inescapable:  if our mission is to seek and to save and then disciple the lost, then our “customer” is the one who is lost.  Here is the breakdown:  most churches have, as their primary focus, reaching and then serving the already convinced.  From this, services rendered to the believer become paramount, and other churches become the “competition.” 

Which means that we are not victims of a culture of narcissism; we are purveyors of it.

There are those who would say that the place where spiritual narcissism runs amok is in contemporary approaches to outreach that seek to cater to the unchurched – as if these churches are abandoning orthodoxy in any way possible in order to gain warm bodies.  Most, of course, are doing nothing of the sort.  In truth, the real narcissism is among the churches catering to the believer, making their needs paramount to such a degree that the lost are, well, staying so.  Because nowhere does true spiritual narcissism face more opposition than in a church which is choosing to die to itself in order to reach out and serve those around them.

Then it’s not about whether you are fed, but whether or not you have learned to feed yourself and, best of all, feed others.

Then it’s not about whether you are ministered to, but whether you are, yourself, a minister to others.

Then it’s not about whether you got anything out of the service, but whether you gave God anything of service.

And that is a church that has died to itself enough to….live.

James Emery White


Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.

The Narcissistic Church