In times of loss, some organizations and their leaders react with primal instincts, which only hastens their demise.

This self-destructive tendency appears in churches, businesses and political parties. Their leaders contend that the remedy for their decline is an intensification of their old brand distinctives. They react with strident efforts to drive their image toward the extreme, toward the fringes. The tactic rarely works.

These days, as churches and denominations struggle with declines, some of their leaders are pushing toward the fringes. “We need to stand out and stand up,” they cry. They long to double-down on what they think makes them unique among other believers.

Leaders at some fading denominations attempt to stress old denominational distinctives while stoking paranoia about anyone or anything that varies from their kind of old time religion. They banish Christian books, writers and speakers–even (and especially) those from their own tribe who do not fit their ever-tightening definition of doctrinal or sectarian purity.

Leaders of a conservative denominational office cancelled a regional youth conference after learning that the scheduled Christian band sang songs that did not measure up to the denomination’s “doctrinally pure agenda.” Another denomination, a liberal one, shunned Christian bands from its national youth event because the bands seemed too evangelical. So the planners hired a few local secular bar bands to entertain the kids. At least the conference wouldn’t be considered “fundy.”

Demonizing fellow believers leads to further marginalization and decline–and drains churches’ ability to welcome those who need and want to hear the bigger message. And that’s the saddest part of this paranoia. Energies spent on protecting tribal heritage, denominational branding, and pharisaical purity tend to distract from the real focus–a living, loving relationship with the risen Christ.

But Jesus dealt with this problem too. The religious leaders of his time wanted to focus on their dogmas, such as prohibitions against picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus rose above their theological nitpicking and reset the agenda on what’s most important–a real relationship with him.

Especially in times of numerical decline, we would do well to fixate on what matters most.