Soul Church Final – Beyond Perfection to Raw Beauty

This has been a longer series than I intended so time to wrap it up with some closing thoughts.

I was once a certified, card carrying rabid (and competitive) pragmatist. If it works then lets do it – and lets do it better than anyone else… in Jesus’ name…

‘All things to all men so that by all possible means’ was a catch cry I held up and I meant it.  We should do whatever it took to communicate the gospel to people outside of faith. All that mattered was whether from ‘false motives or true Christ was preached.’ And I know I have had my fair share of ‘false motives’.

To be fair… I think Paul is willing to concede that people could possibly meet Jesus in a Benny Hinn shindig, as an act of God’s grace, but I don’t think for a moment he is endorsing our selfish and corrupt methods. Paul is stating that in spite of our foolishness and sin God is still able to get his work done. 

So if we cannot completely ditch the corporate influence on church life then how can we lead and live in a way that prophetically counters the relentless pull to ‘succeed’ and ‘win’.

I would imagine it starts with a brutal and raw assessment of where we are at. Its no use kidding ourselves that we aren’t affected by the culture, when we go home depressed every Sunday because the numbers are a bit low. If we are ‘enterprise driven’ then just acknowledge it and accept that moving forwards is going to require change (if we want to change). If we are ‘family driven’ then we still face the temptations to ‘pursue greatness’ and do great things for God. 

I’ll say it again… the church is not a business and it should not be run like one.

Our methods matter because our methods form our identity .

I confess that I am still sometimes hobbled by the enterprise virus. When the numbers are down on Sundays or we see people leave, when the finances run tight, and when the church down the road just seems to have it together so much more than we do, there is a primal part of me that just wants to say ‘Alright… Game on! Let’s really make this thing really fire!…’ And by that I am meaning lets improve our outputs to attract people back, to make ourselves look like we have something to offer compared to the ‘successful’ churches. I move into competitive mode… And I feel it…If not for the people around me who deeply share our family identity I think there are times I could easily slip back into old habits.

Recently at church finances have been tight – in fact we have been running well behind – and we discussed what to do. We can ‘ramp up vision’, have dedicated vision sermons and have longer offering calls or we can make the family aware that for various reasons we are struggling to make ends meet. People are smart – they can join the dots. And if they don’t then there will be consequences to those choices. I just can’t bring myself to selling the ‘wow factor that is Quinns Baptist and if you need me to do that to unlock your wallet then you’re in the wrong church.’ I’m not doing it any more…

So avoiding the black hole of enterprise church is for me primarily about having clarity of identity and knowing what is and isn’t important – knowing my own convictions around the kind of church community I am willing to give my life to. Its church as family – church that operates as a healthy family – because I realise families can be dark places too. I have chosen that line, not because I have lost the urge to do great things for God, but because I believe this is the best biblical expression of what he calls us to do. 

My great fear for younger Christian leaders who simply grow up in this current paradigm is that they will be enculturated into it without having heard a different story, or without having been exposed to a critique of this practice. They will not see the church as a family where we learn to love and accept one another just because that’s what we do – whether we are impressive or not. They will just accept that churches need to be big and significant to be valid. They will hop on the treadmill and run till they drop because there is no end to the work when you have to win.

It dawned on me as I was writing these posts that there will be literally thousands of young people who will never know anything other than an enterprise expression of church complete with all the bells and whistles. Which makes me ask ‘what happens when they get their first teaching posting in Cuballing?.. Or a nursing role in Wyndham? Do they find their way into the local expression of church or do they drop out because church is lame?

I’m still fully convinced of both the power and beauty of the church as central to the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our world. But I am deeply concerned that an unrestrained enterprise approach will see us subsume people into a ‘thing’ that calls itself a church but looks a bit more like a rock concert with a Ted talk 

I began with a surfing analogy – observing what happened to the simple beauty of riding waves when it became competitive and an industry formed around it. The latest disturbing shift has seen surfing competitions held in man made, land locked wave pools where flawless waves are created and pushed through every few minutes to surfers who now look bored while riding them. Make no mistake these are perfect waves – created with mechanical precision and replicated every few minutes. You’d think it was surfing heaven…

But… that’s not surfing… Surfing is about being in the undomesticated, unpredictable ocean where gnarly windswept waves sweep in from constantly shifting directions challenging your ability to adapt, where a massive sneaker set appears unannounced on the horizon, and catches everyone unawares exploding boards and bodies everywhere… 

There are still those out there who surf simply for the joy and exhilaration of being in the ocean with a few mates – of feeling the sheer power of the waves and the majesty of natural creation. 

In the same way may we return to the raw beauty of the church as a simple community of people who inspire one another to follow Jesus and who live shared lives in a local community, demonstrating the awesomeness of the kingdom of God and unashamedly calling people to follow Jesus as Lord.

Thanks for engaging and offering your thoughts. 

Soul Church V – You’re All in It – Play On?

I was asked 15 years ago where I felt the church in the west was headed and I said that I believed that the big will get bigger, the small will continue either in sheer irrelevance, or because they have found a niche and a sense of identity outside of the dominant imagination, while those in the ‘muddled middle’ will scrabble around trying to imitate the big guys to appease the consumers, while also trying to focus on discipleship for the committed core. That’s a very tough space to inhabit and one that I believe will become increasingly difficult. Middle sized churches – get big fast or your days are numbered.

Sitting with the boys near sunset – Photo – Libby Dooley

There is an old phrase in surfing that says ‘The best surfer is the one having the most fun’. Going back to the focus of my original post it suggests we should reject all economic measurements of success and simply focus on the joy and exhilaration that comes from being engaged in an activity that involves adventure, risk, fitness and a definite attunement to nature. When we are in the water enjoying a perfect offshore day with a few mates then surely we have got to the core of what this surfing thing is really all about?

Maybe we need to find a similar phrase to embody the soul of what it means to be a community of Jesus followers?

One of the struggles for us in the world today – and a nuance I have intentionally avoided in the first few posts – is that we have no choice as churches other than to adopt and embody a certain level of business practice. Incorporation demands a constitution, paid staff demand resources and organisations need to abide by codes of practice. Unless we choose to meet in homes, off the grid completely then we are forced to comply with some minimum demands and administrative expectations. Lately the findings of Royal Commission has meant that churches need to improve their safety protocols around children and this has in turn required seminars, risk assessments, police checks etc. 

So while I have offered a criticism of the enterprise model I am fully aware that to some extent I am having to operate within some of its constraints – I am having to consider budgets and attendance and constitutions, because these things are part of the whole in this 21st C world.

That said we can choose our paradigm. We can choose our imagination and expression of church.

We can allow the business mindset to shape and form all we do, or we can choose a different metaphor and conform to the minimum administrative / bureaucratic requirements necessary.

I can’t see the idea of church as enterprise anywhere in scripture. If you can then show me. Seriously – if I’m missing it then just point it out. I can’t see goals of improved attendance and budgets anywhere in the NT. I can’t see senior pastor as CEO… and while ‘executive pastors’ sound sexy they don’t exist either. I could go on.

The communal NT metaphors are of flock, family and body. These are all organic and must surely inform us as to how the church is to take shape.

A flock speaks of a community with an overseer – a shepherd who cares for them and guides them. A body speaks to the need for interdependence within the community – for each part to do their work, while the family idea speaks to the idea of church as a group of brothers and sisters who behave quite literally like family towards one another. The individual roles of leaders are the apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and the elder and while some are initiatory roles and some are consolidatory roles these too could have been expressed in 1st C business language if that was appropriate.

My contention is that these metaphors and language must be our starting point for identity formation rather than the pragmatics of how we can make this thing grow/work/zing/fizz!

So… Why can’t we just go back to this?

Surely its that simple…

I sense that for some its because their identity is tied up in the creation of a ‘winning product’ – a church brand that others will consider successful and will prove itself in the marketplace. Let’s be frank and say that those are not the strongest motives for being a church leader… I know – I’ve done it. If that’s you then its time to do a rethink of your role and your call to ministry.

Getting a wave on a beautiful day at the local with a few mates – Photo – Matt Bettenaglio

Others are simply trapped in the system and can’t see a way out. If they stop casting vision, and stop calling people to give, then funds dry up and jobs get cut – most likely their own. Its as simple and as straight forward (and as butt-ugly) as that.

So maybe its time for some to break free from the chains that tie us to the machine and to begin to serve Jesus just because it is who we have been made to be. Maybe you can do that within the constraints of your church structure – maybe you need to actually make a radical change.

Maybe you need to resign. Take a sabbatical. Call bullshit. Get fresh perspective

Not kidding…

Think about it.

Maybe even pray about it… remember prayer?… 

Maybe there is a way forward that releases you from the burden of performance and into the joy of simply being a community of faith focused on Jesus. 

I said to Danelle recently that the two decades in which I surfed the most have been my teen years and my 50’s. Who would have thought! But I am enjoying it far more now than in the 80’s because I am in it simply for the joy of surfing, the camaraderie of the other blokes in the water and the connection with the ocean. I’m not out there trying to catch every wave, or be the best surfer in the water. I don’t care about that. I just love surfing and who I am when I get to do it. 

Maybe its a similar shift that has happened in me with ministry, because the same is true to a large extent of how we function in church work these days.

We do it firstly because we are called by God. Even on my worst days when I want to give it all away – when I am over the struggle of Christian leadership – I cannot escape that sense of God’s finger on my life saying ‘this is what I made you for – suck it up and get on with it’. I am most alive when I am being the person God made me to be and as I’ve reflected on what that involves it includes several primary expressions and these are somewhat in order of priority.

  • Being with people outside the church either in the water, in my home or in the workplace. My vocation is that of a ‘missionary’ so this is where I ‘feel God’s pleasure’ to use Eric Liddell’s phrase. I rarely feel as ‘alive’ as when I’ve just had a significant conversation with someone who isn’t a Christian about the richer things of life. This is partly why I could never be a full time pastor again – that role kept me away from these people.
  • Leading a church community – I love guiding a bunch of people to discern what the Spirit is saying to us. Most often that process happens within our core leadership team – and to some extent with our whole church – but its good and brings me joy. My job is to lead the process – sometimes to speak into it very directly and with strength and sometimes to sit back and listen to those with more insight.
  • Teaching / Preaching – For as long as I can remember God has enabled me to find ways to make truth accessible and I just love doing that. I enjoy taking a passage of scripture that initially looks either bland and dull or like gobbledegook and being able to convey it to people in a way that helps them get it. 
  • Mentoring / Coaching Men – meeting with blokes usually 1:1 to have authentic conversations about life and faith. 

In my role as ‘senior’ pastor / team leader or whatever the terminology is these days there is also a certain amount of administrivia and organisational stuff that needs to be dealt with, but this is done with the absolute minimal effort possible as it isn’t the stuff I want to invest my best time in. I do what I can and some of it gets left undone because I just don’t care enough. Fortunately Danelle is gifted with admin so she has done lots of this stuff that I find myself avoiding.

I write about this because unless those leading churches choose to operate with a different paradigm then nothing will change. People may leave if they don’t like our methodology, but we won’t learn new ways to be the church as family rather than enterprise.

Maybe you need to lead differently. 

Funny thing is I don’t think anyone is running seminars for this kind of thinking…

Soul Church IV – The ‘McDonaldisation’ of the Church

After 3 days of posts that offer critique of our enterprise expression of church I am about done. I don’t really like writing with this tone as I know it makes me some enemies and makes me sound plain critical. Sometimes I am plain critical, but I also believe that sometimes you need to be confronted with the stark reality of the problem to even consider moving to action. So I have one more post in the same vein before I get positive and hopeful. This one concerns the McDondaldisation of the church.

‘McDonaldisation’ is actually a real sociological term coined by a bloke called George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldisation of Society published in 1993. Scottish theologian John Drane came along not long after and wrote his own book called the ‘McDonaldisation of the Church’ drawing on Ritzer’s ideas and observing how they have been adopted (to our detriment) in church.

Ritzers key argument was that “the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.” He highlighted four primary components of ‘McDonaldization’:

Efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. You can unpack their broader content by reading the wikipedia article. Suffice to say these aren’t bad things in a business – but when applied to a church they just don’t sit well at all. In fact his argument is that when we ‘McDonaldise’ society we dehumanise people and we sabotage the very thing we are seeking to create.

So when we do it in church?…

The church was never – never – never intended to be a business operation!

The church was never intended to be a business operation!

Its that simple.

When it takes that on as its primary sense of identity people become cogs in a relentless machine. I have heard congregation members referred to as ‘giving units ‘- revenue sources that need to be recruited and attended to often to ensure the organisation continues its march to glory.

When a church gets McDonaldised then the bottom line rules.

Pastors become fund-raisers for the ongoing activities and the senior pastor becomes (as Bill Hybels would often remind us) the primary fund raiser. It is his or her job to inspire and motivate with big vision which then unlocks the funds needed to resource that vision.

If it sounds a bit like pitching to investors then its because that is what it becomes. Then once a train gets in motion it needs people to keep it moving and those people become busy – very busy. Volunteers are recruited and worked hard (with accountability for their output).

If KPIs aren’t met then heads roll.

I followed a link to a Facebook ad yesterday, directed at ‘Lead Pastors’ and specifically about ‘Church Health and Growth’. Some of the content included these gems:

Our passion is to help increase engagement and attendance whilst also lifting resources to assist and transform the community. It is our mission to continue this work and help as many church leaders as we can.

I’m imagining better days where ALL the church health dials are heading in the right direction! Where the church is attracting more guests than ever AND actually retaining them. Life groups are growing at >20% per year & made huge leaps forward in your serving teams! It’s kicked into a realm of financial strength where you can actually start investing in future vision & growth beyond paying the bills!

Once this all this cranking, you can expect double-digit growth to kick in sustainably


We’re talking about a church right?…

Help me Jeeeeeesus!

Surely at some point there is somebody somewhere in leadership who asks ‘Is this really what we are about? Increasing engagement and attendance? Shooting for double digit growth?’

But if your job and your mortgage depend on your meeting these kinds of goals then you just shut up and keep working because those bills aren’t going to pay themselves.

This is just what happens when you set your course in that direction. You get trapped… and even if you want out you have to find something else to do. Many pastors don’t have another option – they have one skill and are trained in this one paradigm of church.

In this system the big get bigger and the rest struggle to survive or they live in a different space altogether (more about that later). The franchising of Hillsong into different cities and states must surely come at a cost to local churches who are hillsongesque, but not the real deal.

So the impact is on church leaders who now have to work harder again to compete with a behemoth and also on the people in the pews who can now ‘attend’ and ‘hide’ if they so wish. There are opportunities to serve, but my hunch is that most people don’t go to a church of this ilk to find a place to serve. They go there initially to join the crowd and enjoy the experience of being in a euphoric environment each week – an experience that could possibly even be confused with encountering the presence of God…

In the end we have church leaders running harder on the hamster wheel just to keep up and offer something comparable to the Hillsong standard and people in the ‘pews’ who now experience less of what it means to actually be the church. Its the dumbing down of discipleship – not because the teaching input is poor, but because the very system itself attends to the consumer impulse – the dominant spirit of our culture.

As with any franchise the real winners are the people at the top of the pyramid who see their empire growing and their reach expanding.

I began with a spiel on the shifts we have seen in the surfing world as the industry has grown and ultimately become globalised and franchised. The losers in this sphere are the local shapers who try to compete and end up working for a pittance just to keep their head above water. But the other ‘losers’ are the local surfers who choose to ride poorer imitations of quality surfboards and in the end do not find the joy in surfing that could be there.

No one wins when the world gets franchised and the bottom line rules.

There has to be a better way…

More about that tomorrow

Soul Church III – If Bigger is Better Then Biggest is Best… Right?…

If there are 5000 people in a room shouting ‘JESUS JESUS JESUS’ then how could something so ‘good’ be so bad?

That was the mentality I ran with in my youth work days. If we can pull a massive crowd of young people, many of whom ‘respond to the gospel’ then surely we are kicking goals in the kingdom of God? in the late 90’s I had hopped on the Church Growth train mostly courtesy of Willow Creek and was doing everything I could to lead a community that was firing on all cylinders.

And it did grow and it was exciting to be there. It was exhilarating to lead. People asked me sometimes ‘where is this whole thing headed?’ And I responded by saying ‘I dunno – but let’s just ride the wave and see where we end up!’

In the process I wasn’t aware that I was (at best) sending mixed messages to young people about what discipleship looked like and at worst shooting us all in the foot. It was always cool, always engaging and always about bigger and better. I would never have called it that as it sounded crass, but it was how I operated.

Numerical goals everywhere. Bums on seats and whatever it took to get them in – and if they left your church to come to ours then sobeit. We were about making sure everything was the very best it could be – in the name of Jesus.

I remember a well known Christian drama troupe coming to our Sunday evening service where we had around 200 young people in attendance and their performance was so unengaging that I ended up speaking to them during the ‘intermission’ and refusing to allow them back on stage. I sent them home and preached an ad-lib sermon to try and salvage the night and make sure the energy levels were up where they should be. The drama troupe members cried and were hurt that I found their sketches lame and irrelevant – they had never been cut off half way thru a gig before…. I was similarly annoyed that they could come to a church and offer such poor material. When you can’t have a ‘failure’ then people get crushed in the cogs of the machine. I was just doing what it took to deliver the goods… and I could be a hardass when I had to be.

We needed people on their game every week and if they couldn’t deliver then we had problems. It was the era of firing people for less than optimal performance. For moving on those who weren’t up to the demands of the job – and make no mistake – there were demands. I was working most nights to insane-o’clock just to keep things happening and there were a team of others also who needed to be on their game every week.

No pressure…

To hark back to the surfing analogy I began with we were no longer in this for the joy it brought, but now we were ‘on the circuit’ and needed to perform.

In that two year period we became flavour of the month in our local area, but then the consumers we had created either got tired of the show or found a better show down the road. The numbers waned, we all were exhausted and we began to question what we had been doing. We had pursued expansion and growth at every turn and it had slowly imploded.

To be fair it wasn’t all bad. But we needed to spend time in genuine critique of the model – because our methods are not neutral. They speak to who we are and how we perceive church. Our methods are our (actual) ecclesiology in practice.

So – If ‘bigger is better’ then surely biggest is best… right?…

Recently Hillsong came to town and it generated some interesting Facebook posts from local pastors. The tone of several I read were ‘So Hillsong are coming to Perth. I’m not worried. Are you?’

‘Worried’ about what?…

Why would you even feel the need to post that you ‘aren’t worried’?

If we cut thru the Christianese ‘for the good of the kingdom’ language we have to accept that if Hillsong decided to take up residence right next to your Hillsongesque (but not quite) church then chances are a significant number of your people would move across to the real deal.

Better music, better preaching, better coffee, better EVERYTHING! In a consumer culture why would you settle for less?

‘Biggest is best’ right?

That’s the system we have created and Hillsong happen to be top of the food chain at the moment in Australia.  They are the church to emulate and to be like – to learn from even. If church is an enterprise – a competition to get the most ‘followers’ then they have been amazingly enterprising. They are without doubt the best church in Australia in this mode of church.

I’m not blaming Hillsong for these issues per se as they are just the best local example of what we have hoped to see through the CGM, but surely this market dominance has come at a cost?

And yes – I use ‘market dominance’ intentionally because this is what it is.

Lately I am aware of churches being ‘patched over’ or ‘re-branded’ by other churches which seems to speak less to an indigenous flavour of church emerging in a community and more to a particular form being deemed ‘the way’ for all.

I’ll continue that thought tomorrow as we consider the ‘McDonaldisation of the Church’

Soul Church II – The (Unintentional) Monster We Created

Who would have thought that what began with the best of intentions could morph into such a voracious monster.

Ed Stetzer has written a series of 3 posts on the Church Growth Movement (CGM) here here and here if you’d like to dive in deep and explore it more fully.

Stetzer introduces McGavran as a missiologist and missionary who is considered the father of the Church Growth Movement. He writes that McGavran’s approach was refreshing and mission focused. He rejected the ‘come to us’ approach of the church and began to speak of reaching ‘people groups’ and thinking differently about mission. Good stuff.

In his second post Stetzer writes about the problems that came with the Church Growth Movement one of which was its ‘Americanisation’.

He writes:

To be honest, we Americans are guilty of turning anything good into a business. The Church Growth movement is no exception. In The Church Between Gospel and Culture, Richard Halverson wrote, “When the Greeks got the gospel they turned it into a philosophy, when the Romans got it they turned it into a government, when the Europeans got it they turned it into a culture; when the Americans got it they turned it into an enterprise.” An unfortunate by-product of the Church Growth Movement is that growing God’s church can be as simple as 1-2-3 with guaranteed results. I call it methodological mania. Some in the Church Growth Movement lost their way when they became more driven by methodological mania than by a central focus on mission.

He’s right – that ‘Americanisation’ resulted in programs, conferences and packages promising to grow your church. ‘6 Steps to A Bigger Church’, ‘Breaking the 200 Barrier’ and so on were familiar titles of seminars. Most of us didn’t know there was a ‘200 barrier’ until someone named a seminar after it…

And as the Church Growth Movement expanded the Church Growth Industry followed suit. Those who grew the biggest churches held conferences telling other people how to grow bigger churches and the implicit message was that bigger was better.

An industry was forming and it was going to be massive and lucrative.

And how could you argue with the priority of church growth? Didn’t everyone want a big church? Wasn’t a bigger church a sure sign that you were on the money with what you were doing?

Just as the ‘Surf industry’ had an impact on surfing, so the ‘Church Growth Industry’ had an impact on churches and one of those inevitable impacts was the rise of competition between churches. If the goal was to grow bigger and bigger then you followed the formula given in the conferences and more people came to your church – even if they did leave other churches to do so. If the church down the road either rejected the new information or were unable to deliver the goods by way of better services and facilities then you were actually ‘doing a favour’ to those who moved church and joined you.

No doubt there were people still coming to faith in the midst of this, but there were more changing churches than there were converting. In the National Church Life Survey ‘switcher’s’ became a term to identify those who moved churches and people were doing it more often than previously as the range of ‘choice’ increased and as some pretty tempting scenarios were on offer.

So at this point I pause for anyone feeling this is a cynical rant. Its not. Its a disturbing observation of what has emerged in the last 40 years as we all drank the cool aid to varying degrees and we are all part of the ‘church industry’ in some way for better or worse.

I have no doubt the CGM began with the best of intentions – it was inspired by a missionary vision and a heart for people outside of faith.

But our methods are not neutral.

Read that line again. Our methods are not neutral.

Everything we do has a consequence and communicates a message about what discipleship to Jesus looks like. I am not at all romanticising the pre church growth era as frankly it had its own share of issues – it was bland and so batshit boring most weeks that I am surprised any of us still follow Jesus. But we didn’t know any different.

As with the rise of the surf industry the church growth industry has taken its toll on the church in numerous ways. I have no doubt some have found faith because of the initiatives spurred by the CGM, but I am not convinced that the long term impact is going to be what we had hoped.

If the 60’s and early 70’s church was a rejection of culture as evil and destructive then the 80’s-20’s church has been more about trying to embrace the culture and make it work for us. Part of good missiology is figuring out how to engage the culture, using the best parts and rejecting the worst. I would suggest that CGM unfortunately and unintentionally played right into the hands of the worst elements of the culture – selfishness and consumerism.

The phrase ‘church shopping’ may have been around in the 60’s but it certainly didn’t mean what it does today. In these times it captures the darkest spirit of our culture and it speaks to the ecclesial landscape we have been responsible for creating and it impacts and affects all of us in churches everywhere.

How does it affect all of us?

Thats for tomorrow…

Soul Church Part I – Soul Surfer – Soul Churcher

I started surfing back in the 70’s  – the era when everyone had a single fin and leg ropes were an optional extra. In that time surfers were perceived as a counter culture – an odd breed – hippie types who generally stood on the fringes of society – the type you hoped your daughter didn’t end up dating. In those days you surfed because you loved the ocean – you loved being one with nature and you loved the exhilaration and joy that came from this simple and beautiful activity.

Winton’s novel ‘Breath’ was set in the 70’s and he captured beautifully the spirit of surfing in that time:

“How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared… the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.”

It was also in the late 70’s and early 80’s that the surf ‘industry’ started to kick into gear. Surf shops started to sell more than just surfboards. There were wetsuits, magazines, clothing, watches… and so it went on. And then there were surfing competitions – surfers pitted against other surfers to work out who was the ‘best’… Sponsorships, magazine shoots and over time some decent money came to be offered for those who were good enough – while others limped around the circuit living in cheap hotels and surviving as best they could.

As the surf industry grew and the competition circuit expanded surfers were faced with the choice of embracing its offerings or standing apart from it all. Some top surfers opted out of the competition circuit in favour of surfing simply for joy and pleasure. These purists came to be known as soul surfers – they surfed simply for the sheer love of surfing – for the pleasure it brought rather than for what they may gain from it financially. They were the odd ones… who for some reason refused to conform to the world around them.

Most of us mere mortals didn’t have to make those choices, but we still observed how the surf industry grew and impacted surfing itself. Previously secret waves were published in magazines and crowds flocked to them. The surf industry began to shape ‘surf culture’ and in that time surfers (curiously and bizarrely) moved from hippie / outsiders to mainstream-boy next door types.

Those with a sharp business brain saw a $$ to be made and cashed in on an unsuspecting, but compliant cohort of surfers who were happy to part with their money to be part of a growing and now much more conformist tribe. There were those saying ‘this is going to end badly!’ But their voices were of those in the wilderness and went unheeded by most.

In time ‘surf shops’ gradually stopped being places to buy actual surfboards and came to be fashion stores – where the big 3 – Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong dominated. If you wanted an actual surfboard you had to leave the high rents of shopping malls and find a dedicated shop usually in a factory unit rented by a struggling local shaper who would show you his offerings.

More recently as the industry has grown further and globalised we have seen the rise of the ‘Chinese import’ – a mass produced surfboard that to the masses is virtually indistinguishable from a locally made product. It may not be hand-crafted by your local shaper with loving care and finesse learnt from years of practice, but it is cheap and it floats. It is so cheap that Joe average will almost always buy one of these, rather than spending twice as much at the local surf shop (and that is if you can still find a local shaper.)

Recently I bought a new 8′ 8″ mal from Wade at Lancelin Surf Designs (LSD for short… yeah the counter-culture vibe is still there…) and it cost me $1000.00. I could have got one from Surfboard Warehouse for half that price and with my level of skill the difference in ride may not be that significant.

The next week I bought a mini mal from Karl at Alkimos Surf Warehouse. It was a Terry Fitzgerald ‘Hot Buttered’ teardrop design. Fitzgerald is an Aussie surfer shaper from the 70’s and 80’s who is still doing his thing. As I looked closely at the board I noticed that it was ‘proudly made in China’. I’m guessing the design may have been a T Fitz, but it was cheaper to send it across to China for mass production than to do in Oz.

Where is this headed for local board shapers?

When economics and bottom lines drive the world your local shaper will be forced to conform and send his own orders to the Chinese, or he will be forced to accept that he is a niche market – that there are still purists who will seek him out and while it may not pay the bills he hasn’t sold out to mass produced and inferior products.

Why do I tell you this story about the surfing industry?…

Because I feel like its a good metaphor for the struggle some of us have with the shape church has taken over the last 40 years as business principles and practices have become a more significant (and to some degree unavoidable) part of our identity and practice.

If any of you are as old as me then you may remember that in the 70’s (in Perth at least) there were no ‘megachurches’ or even ‘contemporary churches’ seeking to attract people into attendance. I doubt there were many in other states either. Your average church had a pastor (singular and male) and he was charged with all of the ceremonial duties of Sundays as well as visiting the flock. By and large churches did their thing and if you wanted to join them then you knew where they were. You could put on some decent clothes, put out your cigarette and go along. Not many did…

Church was generally traditional and often drab. Occasionally it took on a little colour, but mostly it was predictable, uninspiring and certainly unaware of any need to relate thoughfully to the wider community.

These weren’t good times for us evangelistically. While some still came to faith they did so often ‘in spite of the church’ rather than because of it. And when they did they were extracted from the very world in which they lived – with all of its sin – and back into the church sub-culture where they learnt how to ‘be Christian’ in a particular kind of way – a way that bore little relation to the world they had left behind.

The ‘evangelism’ issue was addressed in various ways – often teaching people how to better use the Bible to move people from disbelief to faith and failing to appreciate that people no longer had the same regard for the Bible or their Christian heritage that they once did.

In this time a bloke called Donald McGavran was responsible for initiating what became known as the Church Growth Movement – which was soon to become the Church Growth Industry…

Can you see where this is headed?…

Part II tomorrow.