It’s Not Working..

It’s the shortest and snappiest of comments on the state of the church in Australia.

After presenting her data for 30 minutes and showing the ongoing decline of the majority of churches in Australia, this was Ruth Powell’s conclusion.

It’s not working…

What we have been doing to live out the gospel in our society and culture is not working’

And it hasn’t been working for a long time!

Now to be fair Ruth did indicate that by this simple numeric metric larger churches did appear to be ‘working’. ‘The attractional church works‘, she said. The problem is that it is resource intensive, so that when small churches try to copy them it usually results in either leader burnout or a pale imitation of what can be achieved with top rate musicians, speakers and resources.

Her point was that the vast majority of Australian churches are small 50-60 people and while the larger ones may be able to attract people into the building, 95% of those without those capacities are struggling just to fill their rosters each Sunday let alone fill the building.

We put a lot of weight on filling the building don’t we?… As if this was the best indicator of health and maturity. Don’t get me wrong – it does tell a story. When we count the numbers on a Sunday morning it tells us exactly how many people were present in church on that day.

Let’s be clear – this is what we are measuring and by that measurement the National Church Life Survey tells us that the church in Australia has been in decline for some time now.

I would assume a correlation between higher attendance and formation into Christlikeness, but it’s not a given. I remember having this smash me in the face one Sunday. I looked out when I was preaching and saw Clive in the congregation. Inwardly I thought ‘it’s good to see Clive in church so consistently.’ As Clive was a new Christian I was happy to see he had begun to prioritise church attendance. But what about his wife Jane? She was rarely in church. I worried about her.’

Eventually one morning I caught up with her and began chatting. She was quick to let me know why she was rarely in church. ‘I can’t stand to be around him! He’s off with prostitutes Saturday night, then in church on Sunday morning. I can’t stand by him and sing songs of worship!’

I realised I had equated regular church attendance with ‘doing ok’ and regular absence with ‘not doing ok.’ Not in this case. Perhaps not in other cases too.

To be fair I think there is a correlation of sorts, but it’s not a straight line. Perhaps it’s our easiest measurement to take as it would be a lot trickier to measure Christlikeness, unselfishness, kindness, generosity and so on.

But back to the ‘it’s not working’ statement. How do we progress from here? Do smaller churches just keep trying harder to be a pale imitation of their highly resourced larger churches? In my own context I stopped worrying about the attendance numbers a long time ago and became more concerned with the question of how we are living our faith out in the world. This quote from Martin Robinson has been formative in my own leadership:

“What would it look like for a church to function in such a way that the primary goal of church life was not to attract more people into attendance and membership, but to produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with them” 

~ Martin Robinson ‘Invading Secular Space’ p.111.

I’m not sure that question is given sufficient priority in our thinking, but rather it is hoped that if they come on Sunday they will be then ready to go back out. If our goal were to prepare people for the life that they live each day then I wonder what we would change to enable this to actually take place?

I know for some who are busy and focused in their workplace the Sunday gathering is like a drink of fresh water after walking in a desert. For some their Sunday experience is an essential part of their ongoing sustenance, but given we now count 1 in 4 attendance as ‘regular’ it would seem that for many it is not the case.

It’s been said many times that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. I sense many of us are feeling the reality of this, but we are mystified as to what we can do that is different – and that will actually better equip people for their everyday life.

We can safely assume that if someone is turning up 1 in 4 to a Sunday gig then then either a) they are struggling to see the value of the gathering, or b) They have found ‘better’ things to do with their Sundays and are simply ‘ticking a box’.

When it comes to reimagining how we can “produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with themwe are often caught in a type of Sunday centric stalemate. If we try to adjust the parameters of discipleship by re-shaping or scaling back on Sunday events we instantly run into opposition from those who find sustenance in Sundays and also those who struggle with change. This often leads to a decline in attendance – a correlating decline in giving and then the inability to pay the pastor who initiated the process. That pastor is then forced to leave and it is concluded that ‘these new ideas really don’t work! Best to stick with what we know, even if it isn’t working…’ If you’ve led churches for long enough then you would be aware of this challenge.

Perhaps the answer is to plant a new church and instill something completely different in the DNA – a focus on discipleship for everyday life rather than simply Sunday gathering? But what does that look like? Having been down this road around 20 years ago with our Upstream community church plant I know that for many Christians anything that doesn’t resemble their safe familiar Sunday experience can be a bridge too far. Entering a space without a dedicated kid’s program or a tight band can make them weak at the knees. For many it just doesn’t ‘feel like church’ so they resist. Even for those who aren’t Christians we had the experience of them asking ‘ok so when do you guys do the real thing?’

Perhaps we need to seriously look at combining our efforts in such a way that smaller neighbourhood churches operate in partnership with a larger regional church? I dunno how that would all play out, but perhaps it would mean that smaller churches working their butts off just to get Sunday happening could throw their hand in with a well resourced church and then turn their own efforts to highly focused discipleship groups. (Of course this is in an ideal world where people’s egos are deflated and where personal agendas don’t rule the roost.)

I am aware of 4 country churches all within driving distance of one another who are struggling to find pastors. And the focus of their efforts is largely on making their own Sunday gathering happen. Surely… surely… surely… they could see their way to having larger combined gatherings and then operating in smaller focused groups outside of those gatherings?

But I sense I am dreaming and expecting too much – that people would be able to lay down minor theological differences (even bigger ones too) to pursue a church better equipped for the world in which they live.

The bottom line is that more of the same isn’t the answer to impacting our society with the message of Jesus. And that ought to concern us more than it currently does.

As a ‘non-pastor’ at the moment i can theorise all I like but dreaming and scheming is easy. What gets hard – really hard – is putting new ideas into action with a community of people who are weary, dis-spirited and suspicious of anything that differs from the norm. If you are one of those leaders well aware that ‘it isn’t working’, but completely at sea when it comes to fresh alternatives then I pray you are blessed with wisdom, courage, creativity and perseverance because you will need all of these qualities and more.

For now I cheer from the side-lines and I add my voice to those who are saying ‘surely we aren’t just going to keep flogging this horse because she died a long time ago.’

When Feeding the Monster is Easier Than Taming It

Don't Feed the Monster by Ltd Make Believe Ideas | 9781800582415 | Booktopia

Every now and then there is a part of me that gets rubbed raw and I have to articulate what’s going on. There were two moments today that brought that inner disturbance to light again, so let me fire off some thoughts and you can tell me what resonates and what is just dumb

I was listening to the Rebuilders podcast today, where Mark Sayers was interviewing Terry Walling mostly in regards to what we have learnt from the ‘Mars Hill’ podcasts (google it if you are out of that loop). During the conversation they got talking about the priority of making disciples and how this has been supplanted by the challenge of growing an outwardly successful church (think BIG – funky, cool, busy etc. To be fair discipleship is not purely correlated to church size. You can have a small church with no discipleship going on and a large church with a culture that forms people into Christ. But by and large we must concede that no one sets out to maintain a steady 60 or 70… We all want to ‘grow’ and in that aspiration there is also a subtle seduction – to give top priority to Sunday gatherings – to the shop front.

From Pete Scazzero

Ok so Sunday gatherings aren’t ‘bad’ and they do some good, but Wallings observation was that because the sacred cow of the Sunday morning gathering is the epicenter of church life, actual discipleship will always be a challenge. While the focus is on attracting people to Sunday events – either as congregants or as participants, our most significant energy is spent here. Hence there will be less time and energy for the kinds of relationships and conversations that are confronting, transformational and purposeful. In fact simply put, when we focus primarily on Sunday we take the focus away from everywhere else.

So – let’s ditch Sunday gatherings and just focus on ‘discipleship’?… Let’s get up close and personal – the kind of interactions that stretch us and challenge us… yeah?…

If only it were so simple. The problem we have is not one simply of structure – it is one where both pastors and congregation perpetuate the problem. Many people like a large Sunday gathering where they can come and be inspired, uplifted and then go home while remaining largely anonymous. ‘Church box’ ticked and now I feel better. All good right?…

Many pastors also like a larger gathering where their oratory capacities are praised and they get to feel good about themselves. (Not me – other pastors…) But when we play this game we end up in a co-dependent cycle where people are educated, inspired and maybe even formed into Christ, but the focus is on growing the crowd and discipleship comes second if at all.

Sometimes I think to myself ‘let’s re-organise Sundays into smaller groups so that we can facilitate the kinds of interactions that enable more gritty conversations – that evoke honesty, vulnerability and transparency… but I know exactly what would happen if we took that approach.

People would either stay home that week or (if it continued) they would simply go to another church. We have en-culturated people into a particular liturgy (whether you are high or low church) and they have come to see this as the primary expression of church. This is church to them.

But this is not church. It is but one expression of it – and one I feel we have given way too much weight too. Sunday looms large every week for churches and the need to do it with polish and pizazz often contributes to a culture that is reflective of this. Typically churches with more flair and polish attract the beautiful people, the hipsters and the cool, while churches that are just ‘passable’ on Sunday are populated by aging congregations or people who don’t care about ‘cool’.

That said, I honestly can’t see a way out of this maze. If we choose a path away from the Sunday centred church – the church that is all about the gathering – then (unless there is very skilled leadership) people will simply leave. They will stop coming, find a ‘real’ church and any pastors dependent on them for their income will soon be tested as to whether they really want to pursue this path… I remember when we led Upstream, many years ago now, people wouldn’t join us because we were unfamiliar, we didn’t look like church as they knew it. They just wanted an ordinary church to attend and we didn’t tick any of the boxes on their wish list. It was really difficult leading a community that struggled to grow. Even those who weren’t Christians still were curious about when we did ‘real church’. This perception of church as a gathered community on Sundays where songs are sung and sermons are preached is present in non-Christians because they have seen it in the movies.

Having led in both Upstream (smaller home based) and in more conventional church I can’t say that the discipleship processes of one clearly out-did the other. In each group there was a ‘normal curve’ of how people followed Christ. Some went hard, others ambled. I sense this is just how people are.

But I am concerned that we are trapped in a co-dependent cycle that keeps us nibbling at the edges of discipleship rather than opening the floodgates to the real deal. What do I mean by that? Simply people who show up wanting to follow Jesus more – who want to know him better – live their faith with more integrity – encounter God more genuinely – where these conversations pervade the life of a community, not in a weird way, but simply because it is who we are.

I sense the ‘success’ of discipleship in any church will have more to do with the culture set by leaders than any structure or process. If leaders clearly communicate that Sunday is the big deal and you don’t want to miss it then that will be heard loud and clear, but if leaders communicate that Jesus is the big deal and your priority is always moving closer to him then perhaps this will be seen as core.

But can you communicate that Jesus is the big deal – and so is Sunday?… Honestly – I am not convinced it is possible. The Sunday box is easy to tick – especially if it’s a rockin funky place, but ‘Jesus’ box requires much more than a tick. It is long hard work to form disciples.

I sense we have become so reliant on the Sunday form that we always struggle to re-imagine church without it. Perhaps the test of discipleship is in the kinds of relationships we participate in outside of Sundays. Do we meet with people who both inspire and challenge us? Do we have those in our lives who sharpen us and who call us on to follow Jesus more closely? Or do we just have people who will discuss football, interest rates and cars?

I get the sense that so long as Sunday is growing and feels energetic we are content, but I think Pete Scazzero’s statement (pic above) is on the money. We have to change the scorecard and I feel like I have been banging on about this for so long now… but perhaps that’s because we are still stuck in the Sunday loop.

I wish I had an answer, but I sense we have created a monster and now, because we don’t know how to tame it, instead we feed it.

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 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.

8 Things the Church Could Learn From the SLSC

On a dark gloomy Sunday morning around 6 years ago big swells, high tides and some people desperate for abalone combined to create a chaotic and tragic situation at our local beach.

The Yanchep Lagoon is generally seen as a beautiful, calm spot to go for a swim, but it is also a place of significant currents and genuine danger for those who are unaware and have little water awareness. When the swell is up (like in the pic above) its just plain treacherous and best avoided unless you are a strong swimmer.

On that morning my friend Scott and another co-lifesaver were the only two on duty. No one should have even set foot in the ocean that day, but the lure of abalone was too strong for the 70 or 80 people who hit the water – some fully clothed – armed with screwdrivers and knives to pry the shellfish off the rocks. Many lost their footing quickly on the jagged reef and were swept off – in need of rescue. The two men on duty worked without a break to do their best to make sure people were safe and by the end they were exhausted physically and emotionally.

In that one hour they completed 13 rescues and for their efforts they were awarded bravery medals but it’s a story that most in the community would be unaware of. In the midst of the 13 people rescued one man went missing and was never found. Tragedy…

If there was ever a group of people who are loved and valued by the community they are part of then surely it would be the local Surf Life Saving Club. Stories as dramatic as the one above are rare, but live savers exist because people get into trouble and need saving.

On Sunday at our Yanchep Church gig I shared a bit of why I believe the Surf Club is a fantastic metaphor for who we hope to be as a church. There are some strong parallels between their presence and activity in the community and the kind of people a church ought to be.

What can a church learn from the surf club?

1.Clarity of Purpose – The SLSC know what they are there for. Its not difficult. It’s to save lives – to be there for those who are going under. When Jesus was on earth he said ‘I have come to seek out and to save those who are lost’. His mission was ‘salvation’ in its most holistic sense. Any church that is going to serve its community will have ‘saving lives’ front and centre of its mission – otherwise it probably aint a church…

2. Presence and Stability – The life savers are always there – rain, hail or shine over the summer months. They don’t bale on difficult or miserable days. They are a stable presence – a sure thing in a fickle world. I have driven past the lagoon on some terrible days and seen the guys there in their hut and felt for them. But it’s what they do – they ‘turn up’ regardless of weather or how they feel.

3. They read the conditions – The SLSC know the water. They know what’s going on and how to navigate the tricky currents, the tides and the reef structure. We need to know how to navigate the cultural currents in our society. There was a day when we would have started a church by sending people out knocking on doors. We don’t do that now – people don’t appreciate a visit from their church. The cultural climate has shifted in so many ways and reading that is part of being effective rather than swimming against the tide all of the time.

4. They are loved and valued by the community – The SLSC are loved and valued because of the service they provide and they would be missed if they disappeared. Wouldn’t it be great if the same could be said of the church? One of the questions we have to consider is what would it look like for people to love us and want us in the community?

5. They are prepared – these guys have started training already for the coming season. They keep themselves in shape and ready to respond. The comparison is pretty obvious – we want to be a bunch of people who live lives of faith so that we are able to lead people into that journey also.

6. They do it often unappreciated – Another SLSC friend told me stories of people they dragged up onto the beach who simply walk away without a thank you – sometimes to get into trouble again… If you lead a church then you’d know that this is just how it is.

7.They only rescue those who want rescuing – They sit on the beach and they wait – and they watch – until there is a need and then they respond. They aren’t swimming out to people not in need trying to drag them onto the beach. They aren’t performing CPR on people who don’t want their help. In the language of faith we would say its responding to the spirit as we see him drawing people in. Seeing someone in trouble is one thing, but until they acknowledge their need to move into their space to ‘rescue’ will be seen as an intrusion.

8. Rescues are done with grace & kindness – when someone’s in trouble then chances are they know they have done something stupid. They already feel dumb, so a rescue that preserves a bit of dignity is important. My friend told me that people getting rescued often feel shame – they know they have stuffed up. So he told me that rather than sitting on the beach and waiting for the ’emergency call’, they watch people constantly and when someone enters the water looking like they are going to get in trouble, they drop the ski in and paddle alongside them – near them. When the call comes its a simple invitation to hop on board rather than a full scale mission. I loved this picture of watching, being alongside and responding as needed.

John wrote of Jesus as the ‘word who became flesh and moved in the neighbourhood’ – how God became one of us. The one ‘full of grace and truth’ – the same one who came to seek out and to save those who were lost…

For many people life hums along nicely – they feel no need of any ‘salvation’ or the like – their life looks more like the image above, but one day there may come a time… when the wheels fall off, when life no longer makes sense, when hope is lost…

And then isn’t it good to know there are good people right there, prepared and ready to help, willing to leave their own comfort and do whatever it takes to show the way back to life again?

That’d be the church doing what it does best.

Church Planting in Reverse

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be putting up church signs.

But a couple of weeks back I ordered twenty of these to splash around the suburb in different places and at different times. I’ve also paid for an Instagram ad to get a little bit of promotion – again not in my church planting repertoire previously!

In my mind church planting should begin with moving in and getting to know a place, getting to know the people, becoming part of the fabric of a community and then forming a church community that is indigenous and specific to the kind of people who live there.  It is a slow, unhurried process and the whole Sunday gig comes second to the community engagement.

So for church signs to figure so early in our process of church planting felt a little odd and arse-about. But as I reflected on this I realised that in our core team there is probably more than 20 years of living in this area, getting to know people and becoming part of the community. We live here – we belong here – and we love this community.

That ‘living’ wasn’t done with any thought that one day we might plant a church. It was just ordinary life, but it turns out that it has been the foundation of a church community – ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ordinary people living in their community and being a part of it.

So when the impulse came to plant a church we didn’t need to then start connecting and become part of an otherwise foreign community. We just needed to let the people around us know that this thing is gonna happen.

And so it is… This Sunday we have a ‘launch day’ another phrase that wasn’t in my vocabulary previously. At this rate we will be having pre-service countdowns, offering sermons and Bunnings like greeters at every entry… Ok just kidding.

Its been a slow slow burn, but a fire is starting!

The Default to Activism

Its like a nervous tic that kicks in when life feels too calm and sane… ‘I should be doing something BIG – starting something – firing something up – kicking big goals – setting BHAGs (do people still do that?) and it feels like a default setting that so easily gets tripped if I don’t consciously resist.

Its not that I’m against doing worthwhile things, but I am very much disturbed by my tendency to see these as ways of validating ministry work.

Think – ‘The more I do the better a pastor I am’ or ‘the bigger a project I take on the better a leader I must be’. We all know that’s a nonsense but its very much a part of our way of being as western Christian leaders.

As I read Petersen’s memoir I came across the story of his church in ‘building mode’, energised, focused and passionate, but then he went on to write about the malaise that followed this – the lethargy and lack of energy that seemed to pervade once the tangible tasks had been fulfilled.

In his struggle with this he sought advice from a mentor. The advice was to start another building project – because people need something tangible to keep them motivated. This advice floored him and he had a ‘lights on’ moment as he considered the type of disciples we are producing if we need to have a tangible project constantly on the go to cause them to feel alive and engaged in the work of God.

He describes it as the ingress of American culture into the life of the church – a not so subtle syncretism that earned the applause of many, but it also became a turning point for him in his understanding of ministry. He wrestled with the need to be busy for several years before realising that his best work was done when he had space to think, pray and listen. He could pastor better when he wasn’t busy – even if he still felt the urge to prove his worth by activity.

Its a tough line to walk because the choice to not be busy can devolve into ‘one more episode on Netflix’ rather than intentional space to pray and listen. Over the last 15 years I have managed to let go of busyness fairly well, but I haven’t always managed to live well in the new space. And at times I feel like it’d be easier just to ‘get cracking’ and start some things up – that way I can see what I’m doing and feel productive again.

However when I use the ‘space’ well and genuinely tune in to the voice of the spirit I find myself doing things that are useful