Turning things around the “easy” way is going to blow up on us.


There’s any number of church growth and congregational consultants who will tell you that success comes from taking the lessons of the business world and using them in a sacred community.

Lots of times they have some interesting points to make. But not always.

There’s an essay on the steps one should take to turn a losing situation into a winning one over on the web blog Giga OM. I was reading along nodding my head at the first two steps. Then I hit the third. And realized how difficult it is to follow the gospel’s teachings in the “real world”

The first step is to help a “team” find closure as a way of starting to put the past behind them and start orienting toward a positive future.

The second step is “set a vision” that will inform the work of the team as they move into this new future.

Good. Good. All useful steps that I’ve taken as I’ve helped congregations and communities in crisis begin to rebuild and reorient themselves.

The wheels come off though in step 3.

“3. Find an Enemy –- The easiest way to solidify an ‘us’ is to identify a ‘them.’ As Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory makes clear, people need to be part of a group, but in a company the result is often conflict between groups. The conflict that most often occurs in a crisis is affective and role-based and therefore often negative and value-destroying. There is no better way to rally the troops than to embody the fight with an external nemesis. Identify for your team an enemy outside the company and focus on beating or staying ahead of it, using everything from its press releases to its product launches to spur the team into action.”

Step four is “Tend the Garden” – not unlike the old HP dictum of management by “walking around” – something I’ve done and found very very effective.

From here.

It’s that pesky Step 3 that’s the problem. It plays into our fallen nature and creates a real danger of setting a fire that is likely to burn out of control. It’s making use of the scapegoat mechanism to create unit cohesion. It works. But it’s wrong.

And I’ve seen it used too many times inside the Church by well meaning people. On both sides of any issue. And by myself, mostly unintentionally, I pray.

It is so pernicious and subtle in the snares and stumbling blocks it raises for us that I don’t think we’re able to turn it to good. The only who ever did was Jesus. And that’s why we know he’s the Son of God. Perhaps that is why he warns us that the path to salvation is very narrow and very difficult without his help.

Making an enemy is the antithesis of the Gospel. God, I would imagine, has a very good reason for that. We should probably follow our operating instructions rather than take a shortcut that would be just an “easy way to solidify an ‘us'”.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. But, sir, if we don’t make enemies, how will we love anyone?
    Seriously – if we read the psalms for study and correction, we will discover the enemy and it is more than ‘us’ as Pogo said. Then we will be able to love without creating enemies.
    You switched from find to make – and like many of the psalms, finding the enemy – defining the enemy is a good step and can lead to costly action on behalf of the same. (Even if that costly action is rebuke)

  2. It seems that many churches do in fact try to grow by “finding an enemy.” It is a cheap and easy to gin up a substitute vision and a false sense of team. There are plenty of preachers and pastoral leaders who focus on what we are against, scare people with a cataclysmic tales of society going to hell on a rocket ship, and unite people against a common cause. And in this context, tending the garden means making sure people don’t ask too many questions.
    To the extent that it “works” and “grows” congregations people don’t question the trend. The problem is that the church that follows this route will eventually start feeding on itself.

  3. Kit Newton says

    I agree that finding a group of people or an individual to unite against will always be counter to what I feel Christianity stands for ….
    but Susan G Komen found an enemy in breast cancer.
    Not all enemies lead us away from the Gospel, right? We’re allowed to despise certain concepts. We just need to separate the concept from the people who house them. Cancer is easy to hate. It’s harder to hate drugs without blaming the addict. I don’t know how to hate homophobia without pitying (and I shamefully admit – feeling superior to and more enlightened than) the homophobe.

  4. Kit, first I make no special claims that I’ve been able to avoid hating things or concepts or even people. It’s my inability to do this that makes me fear the danger. It’s like pride I think.
    I keep remembering St. John’s language, God is Love and in him there is no darkness at all, and in another place; If we do not Love we do not have God.
    Maybe it’s possible to hate something like Sin – but I’m not sure my soul can survive the corrosive effects of doing even that. Cancer oddly enough has a role to play in evolutionary development and in the struggle to understand it and overcome it, we may find that it is one of our greatest teachers…

  5. Bob, I’m pretty sure that loving those who do not love us is a foundational step to becoming spiritually mature. And I think that gets extended automatically to loving the parts of ourselves that are difficult to love. In fact it’s my wife’s love of the parts of my personality that I don’t love that has had the effect of redeeming them and redefining my own relationship to them. So I’d agree with you on the middle point.
    I’m not so sure that defining something as enemy though is necessarily helpful. I’d want to think a bit about reading the psalmist’s sentiments through the lens of Jesus and the Cross first.
    Which is something I promise to do as part of a Lenten discipline. Thanks for suggesting that to me!

  6. Great post…and I love your comment here about the way love of even the most seemingly difficult parts of ourselves is a path to redemption (something that has really come home for me as I’ve healed from ptsd through DNMS, a therapy that seeks to do just what you describe through rehabilitatiting, reather than rejecting, the parts of self that re-inflict abuse and trauma)…the kind of binary–friend vs. enemy–that this sort of advice creates, seems to me to almost always set up a congregation for future splits and conflicts because it creates the sort of culture that REQUIRES conflict, anger, and hatred in order to be unified…That sort of unity isn’t sustainable in the long-term the way unity based on a common postive purpose is.

  7. Maybe instead our ability to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is part of God’s overall ‘project plan’ for building the universe — perhaps he uses our innate fear of enemies for his larger purposes:
    – Fear of enemies — much of which is often fear of the unknown — can help impel us toward collaboration with our perceived friends;
    – Without collaboration, it’d be difficult for us to survive long enough to raise children to reproductive age, and virtually impossible for us to explore the unknown, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.;
    With collaboration, humanity gradually drags itself up the cultural learning curve — and eventually we learn to moderate our fear and hatred of enemies.
    So perhaps our ability to ‘make’ enemies is something of a catalyst, used to further God’s larger purposes.
    As in so many areas, the trick is to achieve moderation, to avoid having our reflexive fear of ‘enemies’ overwhelm our other faculties.

  8. Bunker Hill says

    Our baptismal promises clearly identify the enemy as “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God . . . , and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.”
    Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
    It seems to me that the difference for a Christian is not whether we have enemies, but how we must treat the ones we have. Scapegoating them is the wrong way. Jesus told us to “Love our enemies.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way in his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”:
    “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”

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