Becoming your church's cheerleader

January 22nd, 2015

I went to a gigachurch a few years back — you know, the kind of church that is bigger than a megachurch, with a building larger than most zip codes and satellite campuses on other planets. I wanted to see what the hype was.

I settled into the routine of the expected praise songs and fog machines. Being a preacher, I was eager to get to the main event. I wanted to know: What’s he got that I ain’t got?

But before the pastor took the stage, we had to watch a video announcing an upcoming sermon series and a few other events. All of the commercials started the same way: “This is a fantastic church. I’m so excited to be part of this wonderful church. This is some terrific, radiant, humble church!” Then they went on to talk about the attributes that made it such an exceptional church: generous giving, tireless volunteers, spirit-filled prayer warriors and people who were hungry for the word.

I timed it: four minutes of nonstop praise.

But they weren’t done. The guest preacher (I came on the wrong day) then got up and continued singing the church’s praises for another four minutes. He loved the church. He loved the senior pastor. He loved the people. He loved the spirit-filled, generous, tireless members who were hungry for the word. He told an anecdote about how humble, visionary and funny the senior pastor was. Four more minutes.

“Holy propaganda, Batman!” I said to myself. “We just used over ten percent of the worship time on commercials for this church! I would never do that!”

That’s when I realized what they had that I didn’t (well, besides fog machines and the budget of a small country): a culture of cheerleading.

I thought back to missions team meetings I’d led when I or another team member would complain that “The twenty percent do eighty percent of the work.” I thought back to sermons when I had eloquently nagged and cajoled and laid guilt trips on my people, because I was frustrated that they wouldn’t invite their friends or volunteer for projects or show up for worship.

Psychologists call it “attribution theory,” and a famous classroom experiment illustrates it well: Three classrooms of fifth-graders were measured on how well they cleaned up after themselves and others. Class A was a control that received no reward and no special treatment. Class B received a reward for keeping their room clean. Class C received no reward, but various adults (other teachers, janitors, the principal) would occasionally stick their head in the door and say, “Wow, you guys really like to keep your room clean!”

Class C, the one that received the positive affirmation, blew the other classes away. They felt they needed to live up to their reputation; they internalized the messages they heard and attributed to themselves the qualities of cleanliness and conscientiousness. “We are a class who keeps our room clean.”

This research is the seed of truth in the much-maligned “self-esteem movement” that pundits love to ridicule. One of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s or parent’s toolkit is praise. To change children’s behavior, catch them doing something good.

It only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how much this applies in our own lives. What motivates us adults to work harder? Harvard’s Rosabeth Kanter says we are motivated by mastery, membership and meaning. Money, she says, is a distant fourth. If I were to name the coaches, pastors and bosses who have inspired me most, it would be those who created a culture of gratitude and praise.

One church consultant I know talked about work he did for an established church’s stewardship program. The pastor ignored every recommendation he made except one: Before the offering, the pastor would say, “Because of your generosity last week, we were able to feed two hundred people at the local shelter.” Average giving soared. He was attributing generosity to his church.

If you read the book “Charlotte’s Web,” you read a story about how attribution changes attitudes and behaviors. The spider’s web-writing pointed out the qualities her pig friend already had, even though most everyone else could only see bacon. By naming those attributes, she created new possibilities for his future.

Although I don’t do eight-minute commercials for my church during worship, I do catch my church doing good things. I am thrilled when they invite guests and give generously. I see spontaneous acts of love and a sincere desire to serve the world, and every time they do something without my cajoling or nagging (which is ineffective anyway), I celebrate with them. This kind of cheerleading is more than empty, “Rah, rah, rah.” It is leading with gratitude and praise — with cheer.

Like most pastors, I also get frustrated with inertia and human nature. I can be very cynical about the state of American Christianity and “the church” as a whole. But my church? It’s the best. They really like to follow Jesus.

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