One of my favorite memories from our family's trip to Disney World last year 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 carbs and sugar.
I was reminded of this experience a couple of months ago as I walked into our church's "cafegymatorium" during our spring festival. Outside, more than 400 people were enjoying free horseback rides, inflatable games, face painting, a magician, etc. Inside, at least 200 people were partaking in their fair share of free hot dogs, chips, popcorn and ... yes ... cotton candy.
As smiling volunteers whipped paper cones around the metal bowl of melting sugar, the wispy, tantalizing treat attached itself, forming a finger-licking delight for children and adults alike. I also noticed that the room ... large enough to seat 700 people ... was hazy with a pink sugar cloud. So intense was this fog, one was tempted to lick the air. No small wonder that everyone was having an excellent time.
As the festival ended, volunteers cleaned, packed, and celebrated the event's success: the large crowd, the number of "new people," and the relative ease with which the event took place. As I drove home that evening, it felt VERY GOOD to be the lead pastor of this church. I made a short mental list of improvements for the fall festival coming in October, talked excitedly and incessantly to my wife about how well everything went, and fell asleep happy.
Then I woke up unhappy.
That morning, as I reflected on the event, my spiritual and pastoral blood sugar plummeted. YES, we had fun. YES, we had many guests. YES, we had good teamwork. Why did I now not feel very good about this event?
I began to critique the event from a different perspective. Did any members invite guests personally? Did our guests register so that we could follow up? How many guests were 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? Was this event even part of our stated vision and mission? Have I spent as much time helping my volunteers walk in the way of Jesus as I did in preparing for and working this event?
Under the scrutiny of questions like these, I felt 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 the cotton candy church 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 our spring festival have their place in church ministry? I believe they do, especially in the deep south, where I currently serve. I am confident the fall festival will take place, likely bigger and better than ever before (I'm thinking about a tethered hot air balloon). 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.