In one of my journals, I found the following quote: “People voice their opinions but live their values.” Although I have no record of who said this or where I read it, it stuck with me because I think it rings true. While we may readily volunteer an opinion about this or that, our daily lives betray our real values, the things that matter most to us. As the novelist Karl Marlantes put it, “Behavior sets the standards.” How we actually live speaks more loudly than the values we claim to admire.
“People voice their opinions but live their values.” This quote captures what I call the “core value conundrum.” Thoughtful churches (and hopefully individuals!) frequently engage in conversations about their mission and future. A key component of such conversations is a discussion of the church’s identity. What sets our congregation apart from the others in our community? What gifts and talents do we possess and how do we use them? The hoped-for outcome of such discussions is that churches will be able to identify clearly their core values, the truths that are embedded in a church’s DNA.
While this is an invaluable experience, I have a bit of a lover’s quarrel with such conversations. Too often, discussions about core values result in Sunday School type answers. When asked what we truly value, we’ll say Jesus, the Bible, reaching the community, and worship. We claim these as core values because we’ve been taught that these things are supposed to be what matters to us. Although such values are supposed to drive how a church functions and operates, too often they wind up just being mere opinions.
Our real core values are revealed elsewhere. Take a look at the church budget. Does the allocation of resources reflect a church’s core value of mission or self-preservation? How much money is spent on facilities? How much is spent on simply keeping people happy? Does the budget support our claim that we truly value mission and ministry? Pay attention to how committees and teams operate. If prayer is a core value, how much time do committees devote to praying about the matters before them beyond the perfunctory opening prayer? Is the chief aim to solve the problems or to discern where God is present in such things? And then, take a look at a congregation’s actual practice. If worship is defined as a core value, how many make worship participation a priority? People voice their opinions but live their values. Behavior sets standards. This is the core value conundrum.
In that light, let me offer a modest suggestion. Perhaps conversation about core values should focus less on who we think we are and more on who we want to be. Perhaps core values should be more aspirational in nature. For example, what would happen if a church engaged in a conversation about its future and mission said, “The truth is we’re more interested in keeping things the way they are than ministering in our community.” What if a church said, “We spend too much on ourselves and not enough on those Jesus called us to serve.” What if a church said, “Our real mission is to get things back the way they were 25 years ago instead of embracing the future”? What would happen if a church said to itself, “We want to be a church that places a priority on making disciples but we’re not there yet.” Or, “We want to be a church that learns how to give itself away instead of holding on to what we’ve got but we’re not there yet.” I have an idea that a conversation of that sort would allow a fresh wind of the Spirit to begin to circulate. That kind of honesty would set the stage for genuine renewal. The Bible has a wonderful word for this experience–it’s called repentance!
I hope every church engages in serious conversation about its future and its mission. I hope every church wrestles with its identity. I hope every church strives to identify its nonnegotiables. But more than anything, I hope such conversations are infused with courageous honesty. That’s the only way to escape the core value conundrum. Remember: people voice their opinions but live their values!