Are we institutionalizing missional narcissism?

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, at 3:02 pm

Idolatry is tricky: Something that is otherwise good can quickly rule us. For example, while loving oneself is actually a good thing, as Jesus teaches (Matthew 22:39), the inordinate or excessive love of self leads one into the quicksand of narcissism. Because narcissism affects individuals it can end up polluting the institutions we construct and lead in our own sin-tainted image. I'm afraid that some well-intentioned Christians, in the quest to have the most unique church ever, could be inadvertently contributing to the demise of Christianity in America.

In a 2008 article, "Organizational Narcissism," from the journal Organizational Dynamics, Dennis Duchon and Michael Burns explain how institutions can become narcissistic in the quest for uniqueness. According to the authors, these organizations become "self-absorbed and focus on protecting an identity" and are preoccupied with themselves.

As self-absorption becomes habit, a narcissistic organization uses its inflated self-importance to justify all sorts of activities that inadvertently lose touch with those they intended to reach and end up hurting people along the way. Moreover, narcissistic organizational leaders will not admit that their organizations have limited knowledge and capabilities. They believe that they can figure out how to do whatever they set their minds to. They are blind to their organization's weaknesses and never mention them in public. Duchon and Burns describe the self-loving organization as "attention-grabbing" with "hip, fashionable" leaders who project the "illusions of control" while highly valuing an entrepreneurial style of leadership that shoots down contrary opinions and gathers "yes people" who are "celebrated as team players."

The institutional narcissism prevalent in some corners of missional evangelicalism is worth book-length treatment. Having said that, let me offer just one example of the inadvertent power of missional narcissism. The Rev. Tim Keller is quoted as saying:

"If you and your church were to disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow, would anyone in the unbelieving community around you notice you were gone? And if they did even notice would they say, 'We are really glad they are gone,' or 'Gee, we're going to miss them.'"

While Keller makes an excellent point about the gospel footprint that Christians should have in their communities, missional narcissists pervert such a statement to justify the self-aggrandizing quest to be the most unique and accomplished church in town, maybe ever-a church with programs, preaching, and music like no other church. Narcissists take Keller's principle and apply it to their quest to be nostalgic. The result is that intended groups are not reached and many folks in the church become collateral damage.

Jesus prayed for Christian unity (John 17:6-26), but missional narcissists focus on division and separation from other Christians who may not be as "cool" or accomplished. In many inner cities, for example, some missional narcissists arrive proclaiming their unique and special presence while neither following the lead nor listening to the black and Latino church leaders already there. Missional narcissists encourage "fantasies of success," explain Duchon and Burns, which tempt some into the self-deception that his congregation has the knowledge and competencies to transform the entire town or even the world. Moreover, missional narcissists cannot understand why everyone is not attending their church. They believe that they are so awesome that everyone should want to be there. Narcissist leaders struggle to accept the fact that they have severe limitations in their ability to lead people who are not like them.

The list of applications of the Duchon and Burns article to missional narcissism is quite long, but in the end, the authors argue for a self-confident realism. That is, instead of narcissism, organizations should move forward with humility and honesty about their strengths and limits. A self-confident, realistic Christianity, then, is successful because of its faithfulness to Scriptures, not because it is unique and special. What makes Christianity different is Jesus, not the uniqueness of any local church, so boasting about your group's special awesomeness is simply inconsistent with the historic spread of Christianity around world and is unnecessary.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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