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The Sisyphus Dynamic

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Sisyphus Dynamic

There is a figure from Greek mythology, Sisyphus, who was given a unique punishment. Early on, as king of Corinth, he got away with trickery—even twice cheating death. But then Zeus gave him the eternal punishment of forever rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down every time it reached the top.

This has forever embedded the myth of Sisyphus into anything laborious or futile.

Or both.

So, let’s think about that. What is it that we might be doing that takes great effort but, in the end, will always be futile?

There is a management practice that looks at things through the lens of effort and reward. Something that has high effort but low reward should be avoided. If it has high effort and high reward, then okay, it’s worth doing. But if you run across something that is low effort, high reward, then my goodness—jump on it!

Too many churches are trapped in the Sisyphus dynamic of continually pursuing something that involves high effort and low reward, or even no reward. 

Perhaps some examples would serve.

For years, our church offered a fall festival for our community on our 80-acre campus. It grew in size until it became one of the largest-attended fall festivals in the city of Charlotte and, I might add, took enormous resources for us to offer. 

One year I gathered a team of leaders following our most recent festival and asked, “Can any of you name a single unchurched family who has come to Meck through our fall festival?”  

Silence. 

I then tasked them to dig deeper into whether this event was strategic for our mission. They were to talk to other leaders and core volunteers, dig into our database and help determine if this outreach event was truly reaching the unchurched. We had been so impressed by the sheer size of the event we had simply assumed that it was. But we were not, after all, in the fall festival business. We were in the “reaching the unchurched” business. 

As it turned out, there was very little fruit despite very large crowds. 

That was the last year we had a fall festival.

Another example took place during a construction phase when we would not have use of the full capacity of our auditorium as it was in the process of being expanded. We rented the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (now the PNC Music Pavilion), which had a capacity of more than 18,000 people for our Easter service. Thousands came.  We did it again the next year. Even more attended. We added egg rolls and bounce houses. We even had bands such as NEEDTOBREATHE perform mini sets. 

By the fourth consecutive year and nearing the amphitheater’s capacity, it was easily the largest attended single Easter service in Charlotte, perhaps the largest in the entire southeast United States.

But was it translating into growth from the unchurched?

In the end, we determined that it was not. It had simply become the go-to event for Christians who wanted an Easter mega-event. But we were not in the “Easter for happily churched Christians” business, much less in the “let’s grow from other churches” business. 

That was the last year we hosted “Easter at Verizon.”

Here is the big idea: look for low effort, high reward. And avoid, at all costs, high effort, low reward. Otherwise, you are like Sisyphus—continually rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll right back down.

James Emery White

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. 

His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. 

Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.