The Power to Make Promises

by Dan Hotchkiss

Bondage is the opposite of liberty: what could be more obvious than that? When a prisoner is released, we say, “he’s free!” But bondage can be voluntary. In fact, the power to make binding promises is part of being legally adult. Without the right to make a binding contract, we would be like children: unable to own property, to borrow money, to buy and sell at a distance, or to organize a business or non-profit enterprise.

A congregation’s power to do good springs partly from the promises its members make to one another. A pastor tells this story:

In the cereal section of the grocery store, I saw a couple who had visited our church a time or two. I greeted them and asked if they had found a church. They said yes. They worship now at a new church in what used to be a Borders store. They said, “We liked your church, but after a while we realized that everybody there seemed to be involved in lots of service ministries, and we got the feeling they were giving quite a bit of money, too. At our new church we feel free to do what we want, and leave the rest alone.”

A smile began to gather on the pastor’s lips. Although his church had lost quite a few shoppers to the larger upstart, it was growing steadily enough to be a rising star in its denomination. What pleased him most, though, was something else: apparently the message of high expectations he had been trying to communicate was getting through.

At first, it had seemed impossible, in a relatively liberal church, to ask people to commit themselves to higher expectations. The first time the pastor suggested tithing as a standard for church leaders, one of the trustees looked puzzled and asked, “Are you saying … when it comes to stewardship we’re fundamentalists?”

Tithing, as it turned out, was a non-starter. Not even the pastor could defend it as a biblical requirement. More importantly, tithing was so far above the current giving level that few leaders were prepared to go there. And without leaders setting an example, how can others follow?

But the pastor kept on pressing for the church to set clear expectations, not only for financial giving but in other areas as well. One lucky evening, a calendar mistake required the pastor to withdraw from part of a board meeting to lead a newcomers’ class.

The newcomers were asking, “What should I believe? What should I give? How should I change my family life? How should I live differently, now that I’m a member of this church?” The pastor wrote their questions on a page of newsprint, and instead of answering, he walked them down the hall and interrupted the governing board. “These newcomers,” he said, “want to know what the church expects of them. I hope the board will take some time right now to understand their questions and begin to think about our answers.”

The board’s initial answer was the one that served most relatively liberal churches and synagogues well from World War II till 1965 or so: “It’s mostly up to you. We’ll give you abstract guidance, but there are many ways to be a good person, and God has made us free to choose.” In the postwar era, for most Americans the question was not whether to attend a congregation, but which to attend. Some stayed in “strict” traditions, but when people chose a congregation, they tended to move from stricter to more liberal ones.

For a time, liberal congregations seemed to hold a monopoly on freedom: liberty to choose, to question, and to act.

In those days, the conservatives had a seeming corner on the market for commitment, but seemed doomed to nonstop decline as Americans became more educated, self-directed, and individualistic. Liberty was the opposite of bondage, and liberty was winning.

The situation has changed quite a bit since 1965. Many theologically conservative churches now demand very little, and many congregations have grown rapidly in numbers by being good at asking for small bits of commitment—occasional attendance, a weekend workshop, a few dollars in the till—and offering worship in the form of feel-good entertainment.

Willow Creek, the most publicized of megachurches, recently critiqued itself and found that while it was succeeding at attracting people, it fell short at changing lives: low expectation were not leading to the spiritual growth, maturity, and behavior change the church expected.

Since the study, Willow Creek has shifted from a central effort to be “seeker friendly” to a greater focus on “mature believers” who want depth: The more committed people are, the church found, they more they want “someone to hold me accountable,” and “speak the truth to me.” Willow Creek has resolved to raise its expectations, even at the risk of making itself less attractive to the casual church shopper.

More surprisingly, some relatively liberal churches are also finding ways to ratchet expectations upward. They have to counterbalance not only the church-growth emphasis on invitation, hospitality, and assimilation, but also some of the philosophical assumptions underpinning liberalism itself.

Raising mutual expectations requires letting go of the idea that to be free, people have to be uncommitted. In its place, we need to dust off older language about promises and covenants. Congregations willing to ask more of people risk turning off some of their existing members. One option is to ask more of newcomers. Another is to gather voluntary subgroups that have higher expectations than the larger body. In the process, congregations become more attractive to those who see that voluntary “bondage”— covenant—is not the opposite of liberty, but a time-tested method of extending it.


This article was first published in Congregations magazine, 2012 issue 4, and was republished in Alban Weekly, January 9, 2013.

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