Op-Ed: How Competitive is the Church Culture in Twin Falls?
"Hi, may I speak with the person who handles children's events?" I asked, as I walked through the front doors.
I was leading the children's department (0-12 year olds) at one of the largest churches in the Magic Valley, and approached a nearby church about our new, upcoming children's summer camp. "That's me," the administrative assistant replied.
I asked, "I have some flyers for an upcoming summer camp, and I was wondering if I could give you some flyers to post?"
She broke eye contact and responded grimly, "No. We already have our OWN summer events."
"That's awesome," I responded. "I've heard excellent things about your children's events. What sorts of things do you ---"
She interrupted, "WE'RE NOT INTERESTED."
"Okay, thanks for your time," I said as I fast-walked towards the door.
Hand extended, I reached towards the door handle, paused, and turned around.
I approached her once more, "So sorry to bother. I was just wondering if you might have some flyers that we could hang up at our church. You know, like maybe we could swap advertising. I'll hang up your flyers, you hang up mine. What do you think?"
Her posture immediately softened. "Let me have a look," she said, as she took about ten flyers from me.
I will never forget that day. I had a dozen other experiences just like it at churches within a five-mile radius of our own church.
I hadn't worked at a church before, and over the next several years, experiences like this served as a fast education to what I believe is a hard truth: churches in Twin Falls are competitive.
Not overtly, not intentionally. But it's there. Three quick ways it can be seen:
1) Collaboration (or lack thereof). Nearly every church in Twin Falls who has a website has a "Calendar" section. Try finding even just one inter-church event listed. It's just not a thing. Churches rarely link arms.
2) Context. Sometimes it's easy to forget, but half of all Twin Falls residents affiliate with a religion, according 2010 census data. I'd probably put the numbers much higher with older demographics based on national data like the now-famous Pew Research study regarding "the nones."
So in order for churches to grow, they're seeking not only newcomers, but members from other churches. This is an unspoken sort of competition that's simply a product of these circumstances. It happens behind the scenes. It's a competition that exists on a broader, systemic level. Again, as someone who worked heavily in the world of church events, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there IS energy dedicated to putting on the best event, or the best outreach, or the best music on Sunday morning.
3) Actual Competitions. The "Faster Pastor" car races, church sports leagues, and -- an insider piece of info here -- many, many pastors track not only total membership "on the books" (which is different than "butts-in-seats", which is also often tracked), number of converts, baptisms, "rededications" (depending on the denomination), volunteers, church event attendance, and of course the potentially touchy subject of tithes and offerings. Put otherwise, there's a spirit of entrepreneurship within the church world. Tracking metrics, numbers, growth, etc.
The reasons for this competition are complex and may include irreconcilable theological differences, relationship conflicts between pastors, and lack of vision for a more collaborative landscape.
One way I experienced competition firsthand as a children's pastor was with Vacation Bible School (VBS). One year, after only a few minutes of phone calls, I counted 15 VBS events happening within a 5 mile radius of our church in Twin Falls!
A quick Google search found these VBS events happening this summer in 2015, and I'm sure this isn't anywhere near comprehensive:
- June 8 - Grace Lutheran
- June 14 - Lighthouse
- June 15 - St Edwards
- June 24 - The Rock Fellowship
- June 29 - Immanuel Lutheran
- July 14 - AGF
- July 20 - Community Christian Church
- July 22 - TF Naz
- July 27 - MV Bible Church
- August 3 - TFRC
- August 3 - Kimberly Christian
- August 10 - 7th Day Adventist