Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, describes cheap grace as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline and communion without confession. It’s the sort of grace that allowed would-be disciples to avoid confronting the evils of Nazi Germany.
These days, cheap grace has competition. In an effort to appease a different kind of cultural complacency, grace has come to mean a bar that is set quite low. Offering this grace requires little to no accountability, enforces few if any standards, and bears almost no fruit. In churches, this low-level grace is most apparent in our communal and organizational life. It translates into a kind of laissez faire, you’re off the hook, no accountability stance.
This isn’t cheap grace. It’s worse than that. It’s mediocre grace.
But mediocrity is not a biblical value. Jesus killed trees that bore no fruit. He spit out the lukewarm. He counseled followers to let their yes be yes and their no be no.
When it comes to perpetuating a culture of mediocrity in churches, there’s plenty of blame to go around—from the system, to pastors, to lay people, to denominationalism itself. Not to mention the larger culture that is rapidly changing, and lives that are overly busy. The list is long.
But you know the old saying: If you’re pointing a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. The truth is church culture can be shifted. But not by blaming others.
Here are four practices of low accountability/low fruit churches:
1. We neglect the secret of miracle-making. “Your faith has made you well” was a common refrain of Jesus. In the culture of mediocrity, we do not activate our faith in God, or in ourselves, to co-create miracles with the Divine. Instead of miracles we settle for the mundane. Then complain that nothing gets better. It sounds something like this: “How come young people don’t come to our church?” Or “How will we ever get people to help us bear the burden of our bills?”
2. We underestimate the size of mustard seeds. By confusing faithfulness with predictability (instead of trusting God in the midst of the unknown) we stunt our development as disciples. Our faith can’t even reach the size of a tiny seed. The culture of mediocrity means we no longer act as though we have been given the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, or even actively proclaim the kingdom. The church is silent on important issues and passive in the face of injustice.
3. We buy the lie. Churches that dispense mediocre grace buy into the lie that wastes time, energy, talent, and good will. It goes like this: “If this ministry / meal / outreach / worship service reaches just one person then it will all be worth it.” In churches that practice mediocre grace, this is often an excuse for not doing something well. It reinforces setting the bar for success low.
Those 3 are bad. But the worst of all is this one insidious and pervasive practice of mediocrity:
4. We let our yes be no and our no be maybe. You know what this looks like: people who commit to doing things, but never show up to meetings or get stuff done. Here mediocre grace means we can’t hold people accountable or even bring up broken agreements—lest we offend. In its worst forms, those who are authorized to decide, act, and move things forward continually put the brakes on. Meanwhile, the church loses its reputation as a safe place and a trustworthy partner, and as a witness for justice and a voice for the poor. All the while giving, and energy, goes down.
What makes this one practice so damaging? If we are not accountable in the small things, like our word, then we’ll never have authority over the larger things, like manifesting the Kingdom in our corner of the world.
Our nodding acquaintance with theories about systems and group cultures has gotten us to the point where we don’t believe we can make any changes because we can’t change the system. News flash: we are the system.
One group I am working with has started to shift its culture of mediocre grace by addressing its habitual lateness. Everything from budgets to annual reports to event registrations to worship bulletins are turned in late. Deadlines are routinely ignored. So things can’t be planned or executed well. Occasions that take extra preparation get bogged down because timelines aren’t met. Although the people themselves love God and care deeply for each other, they give the impression that they don’t. While accepting this behavior without comment seems Christ-like, it actually fosters resentment, resignation, and bad-mouthing. Definitely not Christ-like.
In this group, the denominational executives are starting the culture shift from the inside out. By acknowledging how they themselves have participated in promulgating a deadline-amnesic culture, they are making gains. For years they excused others without question when deadlines were missed, endlessly extended registration periods, and offered mediocre grace. All the while bitterness crept in, along with hopelessness, and trust among otherwise friendly colleagues suffered. Over time the situation spiraled out of control—costing them money, respect, and workability. It will take some time and intentionality to right this ship. But their courageous and transparent stance is sending all the right signals. It’s only a matter of time before mediocre grace gives way to both higher expectations and more miraculous outcomes.
It’s powerful to start a culture shift at the top. It demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility for what’s not working. It’s the opposite of the blame game. And it’s engaging.
But what if you don’t have that luxury? What if the powers that be don’t recognize a need to change, or don’t know how to? No worries. Start where you are. With the people in your setting.
If deadlines are routinely ignored, or people come to church meetings unprepared, introduce the idea of a guilt-free accountability plan. Start by holding yourself to higher standards. Visibly write down dates, or enter them into your calendar, and ask others to do the same. If you miss a deadline or don’t make good on a promise, be the first one to speak up about it. No need to wallow in guilt or excessive apology. Simply owning the behavior is often enough to clear the air. This guilt-free process reinforces safety and trust. It also allows others to own their mistakes more easily.
One pastor I coach has decided to address the culture of mediocrity in her mid-size church by suggesting church teams create a group covenant. Intrigued by the idea, two teams have taken her up on the idea. They spent time hammering out the kind of agreements they’d like to operate with, and how to get there. Including a low-key, high-impact process for communicating lateness or the inability to follow through on a commitment.
Buoyed by their initial success, they now begin each meeting by reviewing their covenant out loud. Team members are encouraged to speak up about agreements not honored. As well as those met. No, it doesn’t change the past. But it does create a strong foundation for honesty respect to flourish. Instead of hiding out and counting on mediocre grace, this church is practicing the kind of straightforward communication that Jesus counseled. Friendships are being strengthened and new ministries are taking root.
It takes practice to move from mediocre to miraculous, from resignation to rejoicing. But I’ve seen it happen. Church cultures can and do shift—a bit at a time. The good news and the bad news about this is the same: it all starts with us.