This road I travel…#6

This Road 2I spent many years of my adult life functioning in circles that assumed if your church was small, there was something wrong with it.  I was also led to believe if your church was large and growing in numbers (people, buildings, and budget), it was healthy and receiving God’s blessing.

These two assumptions were simply givens.  And you know what they say about assumptions…

I grew up in a small church, but moved on to the world of big churches in my early twenties.  I became enamored and enthused by growing churches and the dynamic leadership teams that managed the forward movement.

I attended leadership conferences and hung on the words of church growth experts.  Big names and big churches and big strategies and big organizations convinced me of what I needed to do and be, if I dared to embrace the role of leader in the body of Christ.

I even began my personal ascent (such a horrible concept) to significance and recognition in that arena.  I was pursued by much larger churches.  I was encouraged to enlarge my territory and expand my influence. I spoke at conferences.  I was asked to write for publication.  I taught in Bible college.  I lead worship at large outreach events.  I played an Ovation Custom Balladeer, for crying out loud.  With pearl inlay…

But I don’t think my soul was ever at peace in that role.  It was certainly what I did.  But I never wore it well. And in my heart of hearts, this square peg in a round hole was constantly looking for the square hole.

And then North Point happened.  The square hole found me nearly twenty years ago.  1500 miles away from what I had always called home.  The story still amazes me.

My old world would probably pat North Point on the head.  “Hang in there, little camper.  Maybe someday you’ll grow up and become the church God designed for you to be.”   I never would have said that, but there is no doubt we all thought that about small churches.

So wrong.  So very wrong.

There’s a new book out called “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”, by Chris Smith and John Pattison.  Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

In the beginning, the church ate together, traveled together and shared in all facets of life. Centered as they were on Jesus, these seemingly mundane activities took on their own significance in the mission of God. In “Slow Church”, [the authors] invite us to leave franchise faith behind and enter into the ecology, economy and ethics of the kingdom of God, where people know each other well and love one another as Christ loved the church.

It’s the book I should have written twenty years ago.  I speaks well of my change.

I read a post today that inspired me.  If you are part of the North Point family, read it.  Really.  Read it.  It will inspire you and affirm why you are part of this familyby somebody who has never met even one of us.  If you are not, read it at your own risk.  Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite

I can’t help thinking though, that our Christianity in America is losing something, little by little; that as large, modern churches become the rule in our spiritual landscape, we’re sacrificing the unique, special, artisan expression of Jesus that can only be found in the small and the personal.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shopping at a big box store and picking-up a nationally-known pizza on the way home, but I’ve always believed in “shopping local”, and in supporting the little guy. It’s about retaining something intangible; something elemental; something worth holding onto.

Wow.  The beauty of such finely crafted words touches deep.

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This road I travel…#4

This Road 2During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the church growth movement was hitting its stride.  For the uninitiated, the CGM was an organized approach of studying the characteristics of churches that were experiencing noticeable numerical growthand developing principles that any church could adopt and experience similar growth.

Components such as vision, mission, goals, objectives, programming, budget, hiring practices, leadership and the like, became the staple subjects of study.  Surveys and statistical analysis and marketing and development were the cornerstones of the movement.  The pastor role was redefined by the corporate model.  He was no longer the minister.  He was the CEO.

I studied church growth as a discipline.  I have a master’s degree in it, for crying out loud.  Church growth became both the goal and the method.

And somewhere along the line, I stopped buying what was being sold.

The science of church growth says if all of these certain components of church life are aligned properly, growth in numbers should, and most likely will, happen.  And when it doesn’t grow, the assumption is the church has violated (knowingly or unknowingly) one or more of the strategic principles of church growth.

Or could it be that God has just designed certain churches to remain smaller for a strategic ministry purpose?

The truth is, the way we (North Point) operate as a church family probably has a certain built-in  lid on growthhow we act, who we connect with, how we operate, how we govern, how we structure and program, how we budget.  It is both intentional and a reflection of the personality and character of our family.

The majority of people who make up our framily are drawn to the lack of structure and the absence of hyper-programmingtwo of the critical principles of church growth.  If we were to adopt a reach as many as possible – as soon as possible mentality of how we do church (and the systems and methods that generally go along with it), we would cease to be who we are.

Many people simply don’t live out their faith that way.   I’m pretty sure our family would undergo a complete change, if we made the shift to the style and structure that demands getting bigger as a first priority.

Our singular focus, as a church family, is not to reach as many as possible as soon as possible.  I believe numerical growth is certainly part of the overall focus or mission of the church, as a whole.   But it is not necessarily the singular calling or design of each local family unit.

I believe it is absolutely essential for some expressions of the Body of Christ to function at a smaller level, in order to reach those who cannot or will not connect to the style or personality generally associated with something larger.  And this seems to be happening more and more often.

I believe that North Point (and the myriad of other smaller, flexible, stealthy, unencumbered local church families around the world), are, in fact, partners in the greater mission of reaching as many as possible, just as much as the church that intentionally programs to get big quickly.  And the numbers bear this out.

Look, there are things you can do on a jet ski that you simply can’t do on a luxury yacht, no matter how hard you try!  HeyI even miss some of the amenities I used to have on the yacht, back in the day.

In spite of what all the “leadership experts” say,  growth is impossible to predict. Sometimes it happens despite our failures.  Sometimes it happens when we aren’t looking and planning for it.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen, even though you’ve followed the playbook, down to every detail.  Maybe it’s just my rebellious attitude or the fact I am a natural skeptic, but I’ll probably always believe church growth is more of a mystery than a science.

If you are interested in being part of a growing network of people who see and appreciate the value of smaller churches in the Kingdom, here is a great blog for you to follow.  Great ideas.  Great encouragement.  Check it out:

New Small Church

A Sunday night thought

one of the most-read and relied-on studies about the growth of churches in the united states is a book titled, “one size doesn’t fit all”, by gary macintosh.  i read it a number of years ago and a lot of his ideas made a whole lot of sense back then.  some still do.

others not so much.  here’s a quote about medium-sized churches (which he identifies as church families between 200 and 400 attendees):

“…many medium sized churches face the decision of having to adjust their ministries to continue to growing into a large church.  If they don’t make the appropriate adjustments, they will either plateau for a time of decline back to a small church size.  Some medium-sized churches will plateau and stay at the medium church size, but the pull downward is stronger that the pull upward.  It’s usually just a matter of time before the plateaued church gets smaller.”

he even goes on to suggest something even more unsettling:

…that there is no such thing as a healthy medium size church (201-400 attendees).  churches are either growing or shrinking.

now here’s my personal reality check.  north point is firmly entrenched in the medium size camp.  these days, we have about 325 people who make up our church.  

i know (from both reading and experience) there are things we could do right now  that would result in a bigger church family.  for church growth folks, it’s all about formula and statistics and trends and strategies that will result in moving just about any small-sized church to a medium-sized one…and then on to a large church…and then upwards to mega-status.

it’s all based on one primary assumption:  god wants smaller churches to become bigger churches…so we should do everything we can to get bigger. 

now i’m not going to debate that assumption here tonight (though is worth some healthy questioning).  what i will concede is there are a number of things we could do at north point right now that would definitely position us to get bigger right a way.  changes in our programming.  different approaches to raising funds.  hiring more staff.   developing a marketing strategy.  new equipment.  upgrading our facility.  maybe even adjusting our theology.

with all of those changes, though, there is one major shift in ministry priorities we would have to adopt.  we would have to grow comfortable with the idea of acceptable collateral damage.   that means it would not be just okay to lose some north point families along the way (because they didn’t want to get on board with the new growth plan)… but it would actually be better to lose those people,  in order to replace them with others that are better suited to grow with us.

it happens all the time in churches.  leadership makes decisions and changes in the direction and priorities of the church family…people question the “wisdom” of decisions…said people become labelled as insubordinate and divisive…leadership is privately glad to see these people move on…people who are attracted to “growing, bigger” churches are soon assimilated to some level of involvement…former members quickly become out of sight, out of mind…then voila!  church growth.

here’s why i don’t think i will ever be that kind of pastor…that kind of leader…and why we will probably never be that kind of church:

i cannot bring myself to view people as acceptable collateral damage.  ever.   i don’t want people to leave, just so we can get more and better people come.  just can’t wrap my head around that idea.

consequently, i think we’ll just keep loving and shepherding those people who find their way to our doors and our homes and our places of work and where we play…and make the best of the strategic mess we find ourselves in.

tonight, that sounds pretty good to me.

Just saying…

so i just finished reading the february issue of  “church relevance”…a nationally recognized blog devoted to the study and evaluation of significant churches…and the collating of information from various lists of top churches in america that are published each year.

according to the publication,  there are roughly 320,000 churches in america…and through some kind of intricate system of fact-gathering, churches are evaluated in the areas of growth, innovation, church planting, size, influence, and overall.  then the ones that score the highest in said areas are ranked and listed.

alas…yet another year has gone by and our renegade church in old town has failed to measure up.

*sighs*

I thought I was a smart guy

not that anybody ever asks…or even cares,  for that matter…but i actually have a master’s degree.

i got it years ago.   i worked really hard for it.   tons of reading.   a 150-page master’s thesis/project.   i got a nifty diploma…i have no idea where it is.   and i got a really cool green hood.

i don’t know why,  but i reminisced about it tonight.

my master’s is in church growth,  with an emphasis in preaching.   church growth is an area of study.   there are hundreds of books written on the subject…maybe thousands.   all of them dedicated to educating church leaders on the discipline and strategies of growing the church.

there are hundreds of workshops and seminars and conferences that pastors and church leaders can attend (for a pretty hefty fee…usually charged to the budget of the church they serve) to learn the newest techniques and creative ideas for how to grow bigger and stronger and even,  healthier churches.

pastors of large,  influential churches are always in demand to speak and teach and pass on their wisdom and proven approaches that have produced the successes they have experienced in their church leadership and the growth of their churches.

yup.   and i’ve got a master’s degree on the subject.

here’s an irony:   for all of our talk about church growth,  jesus just doesn’t use the same kinds of words we use.

we use terms like growth…

  • and success
  • and strategy
  • and programs
  • and leadership
  • and design
  • and paradigms
  • and theories
  • and organizational shifts
  • and goals
  • and objectives
  • and praxis
  • and concepts
  • and operational models

and jesus said we need to come and die.

apparently,  jesus’  “strategy”  for  “growth”  was for his followers to die to self  and pick up their crosses and follow.

i don’t really mean to be argumentative or judgmental…or even snarky.   i guess i’ve just come to the conclusion (since i am a master of church growth,  you know…) that the church’s job is not to grow.   it’s really not even our job to survive.   our job is to die…continually…on behalf of the kingdom and on behalf of the world.

with every death,  there is resurrection and life and hope.   paul writes to the corinthians that it’s god’s job to make things grow:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.   So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.   1 Corinthians 3:6-7

i’m content to let god do as he wishes.   big of me,  isn’t it?   i figure that dying to self and helping others to do the same is hard enough for me.   trying to create a strategy for growing the church is something i would have probably screwed up anyway.

so get out there and die.

preachers

over the past few years,  there are a couple of popular trends in church growth that make me scratch my head.   they are similar to each other.   they both have to do with the preacher-pastor-lead dog role.

the first trend is for a church to find a really gifted speaker and hire him to be the up front preacher of the church.   that’s his only job.   he shows up on sunday to preach.   all the leading, counseling, program management, people stuff, etc…is handled by other people on the staff.

the second trend is for a big mothership kind of church to join forces with a smaller church that has it’s own venue.   the big church pays for the installation of modern audio-video technology for the smaller church… and the gifted preacher of the big church does his thing live (or tape-delayed) via video at the small church.   this can be done at multiple sites.   the smaller church retains it’s pastor and staff to do the business of the church…but all the preaching is done by gifted speaker from the big church.

as an effective strategy for growing a church,  i have no criticism.   i can be a pragmatist.   this way of doing church seems to work.   people are going to these types of churches…drawn in by the charisma and giftedness of the preacher.   i assume they stay for a variety of reasons.

here’s where i scratch my head…

what’s up with our infatuation with speakers?   i’m not throwing stones here.   i’m have been just as guilty as the next guy throughout my lifetime.   i am inspired by gifted preachers.   i go and listen when i have the opportunity.   i carry some of them on my ipod.   their books adorn my bookshelves.

we simply need to be careful.   the goal is not to spend our lives listening to gifted speakers.   the goal is to open up the book and feed ourselves.   the goal is not to have a gifted speaker tell us what to believe.   the goal is to open the book and study and seek truth.   for ourselves.

if you are coming to north point because you can’t wait to hear what i have to say…be cautious.   if my words inspire you to open the book for yourself,  then i am grateful for your loyalty and encouragement.   if my words do nothing more than make you want to come back and hear more of what i have to say,  you have missed the point.

the goal is not to flock to the feet of gifted men.   or gifted women.   the goal sit at the feet of jesus.

Space

so i got another email from my friend,  nelson,  today.   he was talking about the nine barriers that keep a church from growing.   here’s how he started:

The first, most common Growth Barrier that every church faces is….

SPACE

I can hear some of you right now… Space?  Is it really that simple?

Think about it – If you don’t have enough space for new people in your church’s worship center, then it’s going to be tough to keep growing.

The question becomes, how full is “too full?”

Well, in coaching over 800 senior pastors in all sorts of states, styles and settings, I’ve found that when a room is 70% full, it’s full!

A room that is 70% full feels full – think about the last time you visited a movie theater…

And when it comes to your church, when the room is full people:

  • Stop inviting friends
  • Stop talking to guests
  • Stop attending regularly

So, is space a barrier to your church’s growth?

What is 70% of your maximum seating capacity?

Here are a couple of questions to think about when it comes to the Space barrier:

  • What if twice as many people showed up to your church on Sunday?
  • What would  you have to do to accommodate twice as many people?

those last two questions got me thinking.   what would we do?  if twice as many people showed up in our first service, we would have room for them to sit.   if they came to the second hour,  it would be a disaster.

i’m  curious.   do you really believe that the reason we don’t have more people joining us is because our space on sunday mornings in our building is too crowded?

what about in our tuesday night bowling league…is there room for more?   is there more room for people to join when we serve people in our community?  would there be room for new people at our building if someone started a monday night bible study or a friday night support group?  can we buy more tickets for a ranger game or make more room for people on swim night?   what about the space around your dining room table or around the barbecue in your backyard for a group that meets at your house?

is there room in god’s economy for a church family that doesn’t define itself by the size of it’s sunday morning gathering?