In my previous post, I revisited the story of the man who kept ordering chocolate shakes at a fast food joint, and kept receiving vanilla ones. When he complained to the teenage cashier at the counter, all the teenager could say was, “I pushed the chocolate button.” I used this story to talk about ways that the church is doing a similar thing with our “tried-and-true” methods. Although many of them aren’t working anymore, instead of finding new methods that do work, we keep splashing new coats of paint on our broken machines, trying to make them attractive and “relevant” again.
I’ve been thinking about this particularly with regard to how the church usually looks at mission, evangelism and “church planting” (a term not actually found in the Bible), perhaps because I now consider myself to be on a mission, and I don’t want to follow the ruts in the road. I’ve never been quick to do something a certain way simply because an “expert” says that’s how it ought to be done. (Maybe you folks who have read this blog the past couple of years didn’t realize this.) 🙂
Anyhow, without putting too fine a point on it, it seems like the typical formula for church planting goes something like this (with a few variations here and there):
- A core group of people gathers or gets sent out from an existing church entity, for the express purpose of starting a new church.
- The new church begins to meet and spread the word about their existence.
- Believers in the area who know the new pastors, or are for some reason “between churches,” begin to hook up with the new entity.
- Overall success for the new church plant is measured by growth in attendance.
Now, am I the only one who sees a problem with this formula? The key to the weakness is in point 3: believers start coming to the new church plant. This isn’t a bad thing inherently, but it points to the deeper problem: that our church planting system is primarily based on transfer growth. If you look at the actual numbers, it seems like most of the time church plants aren’t very effective in drawing many non-believers into relationship with Christ. Rather, we’re primarily drawing existing believers from other places, creating competing entities. Yet we will regard these new church plants as successful simply because we are getting consistent numbers on Sunday mornings.
This is what I mean by a broken machine. The machine still runs, but we’re producing vanilla shakes and simply imagining that they are chocolate, rather than taking a hard look at why our growth is primarily transfer growth–why we’re not getting the results.
Now, to be fair, many church plants truly desire to be missional, and many of them do a lot of community-oriented things in an attempt to reach non-believers in their area. Many times they are working very hard, and that should be respected. It’s just that, in my opinion, the model itself is flawed, as evidenced by the fact that most of what we’re attracting by it is existing Christians. In terms of growing the church, isn’t really growth if we’re just shuffling our own people around. (When businesses do that kind of thing with their books to inflate their profits, they get in trouble for it.)
So why is it that this model seems to attract mainly other Christians? I think it’s for the same reasons that our existing institutions aren’t attracting non-believers. Our culture is changed, and the church in its current form is seen as less and less relevant. In fact, I think overall our current church planting methods are having the opposite effect of what mission ought to do: we’re drawing plenty of our own numbers while repelling a majority of non-Christians.
If non-believers are staying away from our institutional entities (as well as an increasing number of believers, for that matter), why in the world would we think we’d draw more non-believers simply by adding more institutions? And yet, we keep on blindly pushing that chocolate button, hoping against hope that maybe this time the shake will come out chocolate.
See my point?
Now, I’m not trying to be disagreeable or to slam church planters or evangelism in general. I applaud those who have this passion. I am not about to rip the “Great Commission” out of the Scriptures; it’s there, and it should be taken seriously. But in any other context other than church, when a particular model no longer works effectively, we change the model. It really ought to be that simple. The fact that we have such a hard time re-thinking our models and methods simply proves that we have far more sacred cows in our pantheons than we’re willing to admit.
The fact is, if you look at our current church planting methods, they actually reflect corporate business models more than they do the Scriptures themselves. We tend to treat new churches like new franchises. That’s why when people start coming to them, we automatically register them as successful–because it looks like were getting “customers.” We don’t have any regard for whether the people coming through our doors are believers or non-believers; a warm body is a warm body. We’re judging our success by the wrong criteria entirely.
In the early days of the church, growing the church was admittedly a little more cut-and-tried, simply because there were so many people who had never heard the gospel. When Paul or folks like him began a new church gathering, it usually started with two or three people going into a new town, and talking to people until a few became believers–and then those new believers would start meeting together. Today, our challenge is a little different; today, especially in America, we’re hard-pressed to find people who haven’t heard the gospel. The problem is, many non-believers haven’t just heard the gospel–they’ve heard a watered-down, hypocrisy-laden version of it, which can make it all the more difficult to reach them. We need a method that speaks to these issues, rather than ignoring them. We need to stop spinning our wheels and start looking for tangible ways for the mission of Christ to regain traction in our culture. And that starts by ADMITTING that we have a broken machine, and that what we are doing is not working.
Do I claim to have a new model that works? Nope. 🙂 As usual, I’m just the guy pointing out what’s wrong. But like I said–that’s where change begins: by acknowledging what is wrong. I can tell you that these are questions burning in my soul, that are deeply informing my own search. I know that whatever community eventually forms around our efforts in the arts scene, the last thing I want to do is wake up one morning to discover I’ve created yet another Christian ghetto. I’d rather not do anything if that’s where it’s headed. I’d rather take it slow, listening to the heartbeat of our community and learning from the mistakes of our past, allowing the needs of the community around us to inform what the mission looks like, rather than following some sort of formula. I guess what I’m saying is that whatever this is going to look like, it’s more important that we make a positive difference than that we simply start some carbon-copy entity that people can see and measure and brag about.
True success isn’t found on paper. It’s found in human hearts.
That’s what I think, anyway. 🙂