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.
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’