Seminar: Fast Growing Churches. What they do. What we can learn from them.

Click title to go to pdf and download slides and notes:

Seminar: Fast Growing Churches. What they do. What we can learn from them.

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You Don’t Seriously Think… What we do in church matters?

This is the first in a series I am calling “You Don’t Seriously Think…” about ecclesiology – how we should do church. Feel free to join the conversation. You can agree, disagree or file ideas away for future cud-chewing, which is actually a great thing to do. You do not need to agree with me, indeed, that is how “iron sharpens iron.”


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Someone wrote today with a comment expressing an idea that at least a hundred people have made on thegospelside blog. Here it is…

“It doesn’t matter how the message of Christ is brought, as long as it is being spread, all glory goes to Him. God works in more ways the one, think about it, each person is different and responds differently to situations. Therefore if church is done in just one way, not everyone will respond the same way. I say do church the way God wants you to, weather (sic) that means with hymns or what looks similar to a night club. That’s the beauty of church, finding what moves on your heart and where God wants you to be.”

Hi Leslie,

Thank you for commenting. You articulated the sincere, well-meaning belief of most of evangelicals I know.  A belief that I once held. It is based in a positive movement toward unity in Christ. So it is sincere, but there is a back side to that coin that makes it one that I don’t think we want to carry. So let me push back a bit…

I am actually saying that how we bring a message does matter. How leaders lead matters. That if this is really about souls, it really matters. This isn’t about style at all, actually. Style is merely what you point to, like symptoms of a disease.

The message matters too.

So a mainline church that has buried the Gospel and preaches pablum matters.

A megachurch that hides the Gospel under moralism matters.

People going home without actually participating in the worship of the living God matters, regardless if that happened in a “relevant” church or an irrelevant one.

Faith as being an hour we attend and a small group rather than a complete conversion of our beings really, really matters.

I don’t just know this from Scripture and the 20 centuries of the faith, I know it from the hundreds of comments on this site about how wounded, abandoned, and left flat people have been from well-meaning Christians and the church. For a year, hundreds of people have gone to a non-media distributed blog someone linked them to on Facebook, logged on and poured out their pain. Gee whiz, it isn’t even what the post was about! These are people who should be surrounded by a community of joy and hope and love in Jesus…umbilically tied to a group that comes together to surrender their lives to the Living God, finding power as they are changed. There are communities that ARE like that, to be sure. But too many of us are buying the book and copying what church X did in Little Rock or LA or wherever instead of loving people and going to them.

The attractional model is about “coming” as a passive response. The missional model is about “going” as an active, Matthew 28 Great Commission response. That is a core difference. One that matters.

So the Church, as the body of Christ matters. And that means how we do it matters too. Because God matters and so do his peeps, both those in and outside of the church.

And, it should be said, this is not about 4 songs and a sermon vs the liturgy. “Come here our organ and choir and see our stained glass” is not any different from “Come hear our cool band and see our cool light show.”

So lets talk about how to love God and be the Church in a way that harms less people. This is not about the “packaging” a message. It could be about repurposing the Sunday gathering in order to honor God, be more biblical, uses the gifts of all Christians and reach a lost and hurting world, many of whom’s pain was caused by us!

“O Yeah!” And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002Years ago a friend of mine went into a bar. He was a young hotshot stockbroker coming from work in an expensive tie and tailored shirt. He was trying to buy a drink for an attractive young lady when an even more confident guy walked up on the other side of the girl, reached in front of her, grabbed my friend’s tie, looked him in the eye and said, “Buddy, your tie is ugly and I’m going to take your girl.” He asked the girl for her drink order and left with her. All my flummoxed friend could muster was a tepid, “O, yeah…” He told me later, “The next day I had a whole list of things I wished I’d said. This is my “next day” regarding my “Cool Church” post…

the-world_s-top-10-best-ties-for-nerds-101. The post sub-title “killing Christianity.” Obviously I did not mean that literally. Christianity won’t be “killed” by weak ecclesiology, segregating students, reductionist theology, moralistic teaching and the new cultural shifts which are rendering “relevant” irrelevant in many places already. But there will be an enormous demographic hole in the church if young adults continue to fail to connect at the rates that they are.

2. Citing statistics: I didn’t. The “Cool Church” post was a summary of a talk I did for an Urban Youth Worker’s Institute Reload Day in 2010. In that address I cited sources of those and many other statistics. They ended up on the cutting room floor in the blog. (I can provide those to anyone who would like them.) I was a brand new blogger and a friend said, “you get 500 words and they tune out.” I was at 1500. If I would have known the traffic the post would generate, I’d have kept those 100 words. 🙂

3. The original talk: The most interesting thing with the UYWI address was the audience reaction. I was the morning keynote. In 30 years of ministry I have never seen a keynote that high-jacked a day the way that one did. Those who were over 30 were visibly angry-scowling even as I critiqued their sacred cows-things that were instrumental in the development of their faith…but were beginning not to work as well any more. The under 30 were as enthusiastic as the older group were angry. They were shouting “AMEN!” “Preach, bro.” “Tell it like it is.” (It is really much so much fun to speak to an Urban audience!) After the keynote I was mobbed by the young who assembled at the front and said, “Thank you for giving voice to what we feel!” Afterwards, the over 30 (the seminar leaders) used their teaching time the rest of the morning, not to present on their topic but to disagree with my keynote. Why this reaction? I think it has something to do with the noise of our culture and young adults wanting to be part of something larger than themselves…including have the church help provide space for silence in the noise. There is a reason that I suspect may be at work here, at least in part, I blogged about it once :https://thegospelside.com/2012/10/11/why-the-big-box-church-works-for-the-over-35-but-not-the-under-25/

So the pushback of the elders, some of whom were literally the architects of “relevant,” was profound. But not nearly so much as the thanks from the young people. Point: Since the culture is ever changing, today’s relevant is tomorrow’s irrelevant. The old ways (of the last 20 years) will simply not work as well in this new cultural context of discontinuous change that we are experiencing. This generation literally has the information of an entire planet at the tips of their fingers.

4. Hater: I should say that I am not against churches being big and I want churches to grow. Not every large church segregates and panders to fill seats. But a lot do. The operative principle of relevance as a model is attraction. This is a matter of movement: Is the direction of engagement “come” or “lets us go”? At its core, “attractional” is the idea that the sanctuary is the locus of evangelism. “Missional” is the idea that the locus for evangelism is the world. Leading from that, in a missional church, the individual believer is the instrument of evangelism in the world vs primarily functioning as an inviter for the real evangelist-the senior pastor. If the time and energy are focused around the facility and the personality of the pastor, then it is attractional and must play the game of being “relevant.” Attendance numbers do not determine the ministry model being embraced. In our context there are a number of really great churches that are large (over 5000 in Sunday Attendance) and NOT relevant by model. Three because they teach the Bible strenuously, the fourth because they serve others. Both of those are good things.

5. We become what we count: What I am opposed to is relevant as a model of church and the idea that big equals effective. That is certainly an assumption in many big-box churches. I am not saying big equals ineffective. Just that it doesn’t necessarily mean effective…unless our definition of “effective” is “big.” The question is “what will you count?” If our metric is bottoms in pews then we will do anything to be full. The church might want to consider metrics that help us measure “disciple-making disciples” for instance. It would be a slower metric, but with a great long-range payout for the church. And it is a biblical metric.

6.  A word for those of us who are older: I would also like to offer an idea for those of us over 30 to look for as we read what millennials are saying (and what is implied) in the plethora of articles out there right now: The opposite of relevant as a movement isn’t “irrelevant.” It is “transcendent.” Relevant means to “be like something else.” Rather than “be like something else,” what I hear millennials asking the church for something is wholly unlike them. Something that has reverence and awe and a sense of the holy. Cultural contextualization isn’t the problem. It might have LeCrae perform at it, but it must be something that also has room for silence and ancient words and actions. Not worship done rote and without excellence, but something that is done artfully with acknowledgement that we are called into something more ancient and rooted than we are in this rootless place of our culture at this time.

7. Not really. I don’t believe that most millennials actually want the church to contort its beliefs and practices to suit their whims. Some will say they do. My children also say they want us to break the rules for them. But they feel more secure when we don’t. We are all like that. It is human nature. The church should be like marriage vows: A marriage that is based on vows we make up is a bit weak. We take the vows that have worked for 2000 years and conform our relationship to something greater than ourselves, that has withstood the test of time. Several recent posts by millennials has said exactly that: First Andrea Dilley, in Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Then Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing simplistic answers and desiring greater social engagement. Then Brett McCracken wrote http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/07/31/how-to-keep-millennials-in-the-church-lets-keep-church-un-cool/ saying, in effect, conforming ourselves to some focus group opinion of what people want is as desperate as it looks.

My friend was left standing at the bar, trying to formulate a response as the girl walked away. He so wanted to be “the guy.” He wasn’t. He stood there insecurely wondering if he should ditch the tie and thinking about what he could have said to keep her. The church will never be “the guy” with whom the millennials go home until we get over with our consuming need to be “relevant.” We don’t need to ditch the tie!

In “Cool Church” I said, “What if instead of giving them what they want, we give them what they need.” The irony is that “relevant” isn’t actually what millennials are saying they want. It is the cool thing we think they think is cool. And that is so very uncool.

What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…

…empty churches.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…

…“Bye-bye.”

What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

So many have commented on this post in the last month that I did a follow-up: O Yeah! And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”