One of my favorite memories from our family’s trip to Disney World a few years ago is of my 5 year-old son eating a grotesquely large wad of pink cotton candy from one hand and a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone from the other. This delectable diet, in partnership with cool weather and short lines at the happiest place on earth, created a seemingly irreproducible sense of euphoria in my son. For at least 30 minutes, he was on Cotton Candy Cloud Nine.
Predictably, mere minutes after completing his “lunch,” my son’s demeanor went from angelic to demonic. One minute, he was joyfully skipping from ride to ride, willing even to hold his younger brother’s hand. The next, he was horribly whiny and complaining of hunger. And what did he want to eat? Cotton candy!
It’s an understandable urge. The cotton candy had made him feel so good while he was eating it that he reasonably concluded what he needed to feel good again was even more cotton candy. Fortunately for him, he has a mother and father who understand his real need: a diet more grounded in protein and grains than sugar.
I was reminded of this experience while pondering the plans of a church’s event calendar. A fall festival was planned. Approximately 600 people would soon enjoy free horseback rides, inflatable games, face painting, a magician, etc. They would also partake in their fair share of free hot dogs, chips, popcorn, and … yes … cotton candy.
Perhaps you’ve been to such a church event with smiling volunteers whipping paper cones around the metal bowl of melting sugar, and the wispy, tantalizing treat attaching itself to form a finger-licking delight for children and adults alike. The rooms become hazy with a pink sugar cloud. So intense is this fog, one is tempted to lick the air. No small wonder that everyone has an excellent time and can’t wait for the next one.
In the wake of such events, it feels very good to be a member or pastor of the church. We easily celebrate the event’s success: the large crowd, the number of “new people,” and the relative ease with which the event took place. YES, we had fun. YES, we had many guests. YES, we had good teamwork.
But something is amiss.
Do any members invite guests personally? Do our guests register so that we could follow up? How many guests are members of other churches? Will anyone become a believer as a result of this event? Will anyone actually enter into our discipleship process as a result of this event? Is this event even part of our stated vision and mission? Do we spend as much time helping volunteers walk in the way of Jesus as we do in preparing for and working this event?
Under the scrutiny of questions like these, we may feel the disappointment associated with acting like a cotton candy church: a church committed to giving its leaders and people a steady diet of sugary events and “ministries” that leave them feeling great about themselves and their church, but do little of substance with regard to evangelism and discipleship. Churches committed to this ministry model report sizable numbers at these events year after year, yet fail to grow numerically in corporate worship or in Sunday school (or small groups). Leaders in these models spend far more time coordinating, training, and administrating than they do equipping, discipling, and modeling.
The urge to maintain the ministry model of First Church of the Sweet Tooth is understandable. “Success” is easier to define and quantify. Members tend to gauge church leaders more positively when events like these go well. When “success” happens, it feels good for a while. When the feeling goes away, plans for the next event just around the corner are drawn up and set into motion, guaranteeing we will feel good once again, soon enough.
Do events like these have their place in church ministry? I believe they do. There’s nothing wrong with a sugary snack every now and then, and such a treat may be just what a church family needs from time to time.
Yet church leaders must be careful to feed their people a steady diet of substantive ministry opportunities that are personal, relational, evangelistic, and that deepen one’s understanding of the gospel. In this way, the church enjoys its occasional treats, but takes the deepest pleasure in occasions more aligned with its vision to fulfill the Great Commission.
Rob Tims has been married to Holly for nearly 15 years. They have four children: Trey (10), Jonathan (9), Abby (1), and Luke (born April 10). He has served in the local church for 20 years as a children’s pastor, student pastor, and senior pastor. He currently serves on a team at LifeWay Christian Resources that develops customized Bible studies for groups and teaches two classes for Liberty University School of Divinity Online. He is the author of the book Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt.