Believe me: In ten years, only church plants will be left.
Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but here’s where I am coming from:
Recently, I was discussing with someone from an older church in an established denomination an incredibly difficult situation that her home church was experiencing. One party in the church had made a decision. This led to a lot of hurt feelings. A bunch of people left the church.
The person went on to visit a new church. The people there did not seem interested in welcoming outsiders or building community.
Not surprisingly, both churches were immersed in internal politics and jargon, making hospitality nearly impossible.
These are difficult issues that all communities face. However, it is hard to imagine either of the situations she described taking place in a missionally focused church plant.
Many established Churches are fighting to maintain their definition of orthodoxy, enforce their traditions and finance structures and staff. The number of people who understand or care about those things are burning out or dying of old age.
It’s only a matter of time before Church plants are all that is left.
The underlying assumption that will lead to slow death
For the purpose of argument, let’s define established churches as organizations built on the underlying assumption that people want to “go to church.” They provide the best possible experience for those people. They employ professional staff with professional training. They own high quality facilities. The goal then becomes how to get people to take advantage of the services the staff provides by coming to those buildings.
In other words, established churches say “you want church here’s why you should come to ours.”
Right about now, you’re probably saying “that might be true, but not in my church!”
Maybe. But I believe this applies not only to traditional denominations, whether they be Catholic, Mainline or Evangelical, but also to the non-denominational churches built by the baby-boomer-church-growth types. (Ironically, it also applies to some approaches to Church planting, which will inevitable deal with the same problems.)
Five Choices Church Plants Can’t Afford to Make (that some established Churches do.)
Many established churches were built on a model that assumed a city or neighborhood already had a sense of community. The church is just a fixture within the community. As cities have grown and technology has de-personalized interactions, this can no longer be expected.
Established churches are often full of nice, even welcoming people. However, that doesn’t mean they have women and men who have cultivated the skill of hospitality. Even harder to find is a person with the ability to open up, share their life and their stuff.
In a time and place with a pre-existing sense of community, such sharing is not essential. Church plants have no choice but to facilitate opportunities to build community.
On Sundays at Austin Mustard Seed, we get started late, we take an awkwardly long break in the middle, we have open-mic prayers and then we go to lunch together. Our main activity is meeting up once a week for drinks and trailer food.
We do this because we can’t assume that we will be discipling people in our community. We have to build a community where discipleship can take place.
Sinking Money into a Meeting Space
There’s a well-known megachurch in my city that is going bankrupt. They went through a boom over a decade ago, so they decided to move to the suburbs and build a campus.
Their growth slowed. Kids graduated and didn’t come back. New people aren’t filling those seats. Now they are laying people off left and right, trying to pay the mortgage.
I don’t mean to diminish this problem, but only point out that it is a problem of luxury. A newly started group, trying to figure out how to be a church together has lots of problems. For most, a mortgage isn’t one of them.
Splitting Over Denominational Distinctives
Most established churches were built by distinct denominations in a time when church was “in the water.” They had a responsibility to make it obvious to the world around them what made them different from the church across the street. In some streams, this created an addiction to heresy hunting, excommunicating and splitting.
It’s important to take our theology seriously. However, it’s hard to believe that such rampant church-divorces were caused by arguments over orthodoxy.
Missionally minded church plants are in the job of distinguishing themselves from a non-Christian world. As they surrounding culture becomes increasingly secular and occasionally hostile to belief of all sorts, Church plants have to demonstrate a better way of life. In other words, they are addressing much more fundamental issues.
Assuming People Understand You
Every organization has its jargon. Every subculture has its dialect. Every church has its liturgy.
Established Churches were aimed at people convincing people why their church approach was best. There could be an assumption that people knew who Elijah or Paul were, what a “testament” is and why “grace” matters. When people already had a basic familiarity with Christian doctrine and teaching, all an established church only needed to sell was their nuance.
Church plants, committed to expressing the body of Christ in whatever culture they find themselves don’t have this luxury.
As Vince Antonucci says, church planting is like “selling steaks to PETA activists.” This will require constant and creative explanation of what we do and why.
In an established Church, one common solution to many problems is “just hire someone to do it.” Again, this is a luxury that a church plant simply doesn’t have the money to afford.
Developing leaders is unavoidable in Church Plants. If you want something done, you have to do it internally. That means encouraging others to take charge and equip them and empower them along the way.
What Churches Will Be Left in 10 Years?
With many established churches stuck in a model that is becoming increasingly unrealistic, this begs the question: what churches will be left in 10 years?
As I’ve argued here, I believe the answer is church plants. They have a gun to their heads that make them think missionally.
There is hope! Established churches aren’t out of the game yet. But if they are going to thrive, it will require learning to think like a church plant and supporting those who do.
Here are three questions that will help established churches change their thinking:
- If we were to start over today, what would we do differently?
- Who is in our neighborhood, and what would have to change for our churches to look more like them?
- How can we resource those who are experimenting with new ways of being church?