Does It Matter Whether The Community Would Miss Your Church?

closed-churchIf your church closed it’s doors, would the community around you miss it?

This question, and the many variations of it, is exceptionally popular in the ministry world. It’s been rumored to have originated with one of several famous pastors – I’m not sure who was first to use it in public. It’s prevalent in the world of church planting: “You want to plant the kind of church that five years in the community would miss if you weren’t there anymore.” It’s used in church revitalization circles, often to attempt to move a dying congregation into action in their community: “Right now, if we were to close the doors of this church, the community wouldn’t even miss us. Let’s work together to change that!” It makes for an excellent rallying cry and a very useful tool for inspiration and motivation.

But I don’t believe it’s a biblical question to ask. Or to put it another way, I think the way this question is commonly used tends to put the church onto a trajectory that is not mandated or modeled in the Scriptures.

I could be wrong, but I can’t find an example of this being a goal of any New Testament church. I’ve read Acts over and over, but I can’t find it. The closest I can come up with is the fact that Acts 8:8 says there was much joy in Samaria because of Phillip’s ministry of exorcism and healing. But the ministry of Phillip does not equal the ministry of a local church. In addition, when this question is asked today I have not heard anyone use it to spur a church on towards engaging the community with miraculous healings and casting out of demons. I’ve read the epistles over and over, and I can’t find one instance of an apostle telling elders in a city to make this their goal. I can’t find one call to a local body of believers to make their congregations so appealing and winsome to the unbelieving city around them that the city would miss them if they were gone.

Instead, we see examples of unbelieving cities hating the proclamation of the gospel. Believers are persecuted and scattered. As people come to faith in Christ, the economic systems of cities are challenged as idolatry is no longer a lucrative market. As the gospel goes out idolatry is challenged and hour long riots break out. None of this seems to match the description of “the community would miss the church.” As a general rule, unbelievers are quite happy to have the proclamation of Law and Gospel be dispensed with as soon as possible. They’re not asking for it or missing it when it’s no longer there.

My fear is that this question puts an unnecessary burden on pastors that has no root in Scripture. Rather than stay focused on the ministry of the Word, they believe that in order to have a fruitful ministry in a community they must make the church something that the community loves. They give their time to hosting block parties, producing top-of-the-line drama presentations, organizing huge Easter egg hunts, and putting on Fall Festivals. Often these community events have little-to-no gospel focus, and are seen as simply ways to bring the church into the goodwill of the community, and perhaps build relationships that may one day lead to the gospel being presented. Maybe.

Other times, pastors trying to earn the affection of the community by rallying a small army for community service projects. One church growth expert said in a recent book, “Plan weekly practical deeds out in the community. It doesn’t really matter what these events are as long as they: bless the people you’re helping, bless the city, and provide visibility for your church. Notice that the church must get credit for being a blessing; do not do anything anonymously.Doesn’t sound quite like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, does it?

The truth is, a church may be completely faithful. They may be boldly proclaiming the gospel during Sunday worship, to hundreds throughout the city on street corners and one-on-one over cups of coffee in a local Starbucks. They may be loving one another, meeting each other’s needs in practical ways, demonstrating the character and love of Christ in their day-in, day-out interactions with one another. They may be faithfully administering the sacraments and prayerfully exercising church discipline. They may be making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded… and the community may not even know they exist. Or they could be completely apathetic to the church’s existence. Or further still, the community may hate them and wish they weren’t there. It really doesn’t matter – Jesus loves this church, and is well-pleased with their faithful service to Him.

What do you think? Am I missing something? Am I off the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts…


Top Five: Uncool People Need Jesus Too

Written four years ago now, this post is by far the most read and commented on piece I have ever written. It was also the most controversial. So much so, that I posted a near-retraction shortly after, which you can (and should) read here. While it may have been an ill-advised rant, I still hold much of the concern that fueled it – there is a generation of young pastors that is flocking to the city to plant churches that will undoubtedly be very cool. What newly-developed suburbs were to church planting in the 1990s, rapidly-gentrifying urban cores are to church planting today. The artists and executives in the cities need the gospel, but so do the suburban soccer moms, blue collar factory workers, and rural farmers.

Also, I am happy to say that I am seeing more and more diversity happening in church planting. I’m grateful for friends like Jared Wilson laboring in rural New England and Justin Hyde pastoring in small town, TX. Acts 29 in particular, and church planting as a whole, seems to be widening its reach. May it continue to be so…

hipsterThrough my work with the Acts 29 Network, I get the privilege of assessing a number of potential church planters each year. I also get to hear about dozens more from fellow pastors as well. When I guy comes in to get assessed, by the time he gets to the interview stage he’s already submitted a lot of paperwork. Resumes. Plans. Budgets. Demographic Analysis. Dental history. (Ok, just kidding on the last one).

And as I’ve looked at some amazing plans from church planters, I’ve started to notice a trend. They all sound the same.

It seems as the unique vision that God’s given so many church planters is almost identical. Phrases like “gospel-centered”, “missional”, and “cultural renewal” are littered throughout their proposals. It seems that the phrase “In the City. For the City.” or some variation of such has become church planting boilerplate.

Not only is the language the same, but so is the target group. It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelsitic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

Why is that? I can’t offer a definitive answer. It could be that God is legitimately calling an entire generation of young pastors to turn their focus to a small segment of the population that happens to look very much like they do.

Or it could be that we’re simply following in the footsteps of the church growth movement that we’ve loved to publically criticize while privately trying to emulate – we’ve just replaced Bill Hybels and Rick Warren with Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

Just thinking out loud…

Top Five: Miracle Crusades and Miracle Gro

miracle-groAs I’m getting back into regular blogging, I thought it might be fun to repost my top 5 favorite posts from the past. (Believe it or not, I’ve been blogging since 2004 and actually used to post much more regularly!) This was first published five years ago in February 2005. When I wrote this Kaleo was under 6 months old. A lot has changed in our church over the past decade, but the heart behind the post still holds true.

So, Benny Hinn is in town today. He had a crusade last night and one more tonight in the Toyota Center.  There are billboards announcing the “miracle crusades” all over town, featuring the unmistakable white suit and combover that makes even Donald Trump blush. Here’s a quote from the Houston Chronicle about last night’s services:

Thursday night, thousands responded to Hinn’s altar call during which he asked everyone to give their hearts to Christ. Later, hundreds responded after Hinn began to command illnesses and diseases to disappear in the name of Christ.

“I command arthritis to go,” he said, bringing many to tears.

Hinn listed several diseases that were healed Thursday night including cancer, emphysema, spinal curvatures, tumors and other maladies.

Over 17,000 people were there last night. That’s more than the average attendance at a Rockets game this year. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say things over the past few days like, “Well, with so many people following his ministry, it must be of God.” (The crusades have been a pretty popular topic on local talk radio.) I know that line well – it used to be one of my favorites.

I used to explain to people that all healthy ministries grow – because anything that’s healthy grows. Well, that is partially true. But cancer grows pretty rapidly too – and it’s definitely not a healthy thing for us. Seeing thousands flock to Hinn’s crusades and to Osteen’s spiritual pep-rallies makes me realize more than ever that lots of people attending does not equal spiritual blessing.

But what about things that really are healthy? Don’t they grow also? Well, yes they do… but not exponentially. I’d always been lead to believe that if something (*cough*, a church, *cough*) was truly healthy, that it would grow steadily and rapidly, and that this growth would continue as long as it was healthy. If it stopped growing, it must not be healthy anymore.

That sounds great, until you start to really think it through. I believe healthy things grow to the size they are supposed to be, and then they stop growing. Imagine if a child grew exponentially – we’d be walking in a land of giants! We grow until we get to our natural, healthy size, and after that any growth usually isn’t healthy at all. (We start to grow around the waistline – something I’m all too familiar with as well). I think churches are the same way – God has a size for each church, and it will grow to a healthy size as long as it remains faithful to the gospel and pursuing the glory of God. But what is that size? I can’t tell you that one. Could be 30. Could be 3000. Only God knows that. I do know that if a church that is very healthy at 30 tries to become a church of 3000, there could be problems ahead.

So how do you know? How do you know if you should try to keep growing? Very simple answer: you don’t. You don’t try to grow – ever. Instead, you focus on being healthy and taking care of the body. You make sure your church is feeding on the Word of God, worshiping with their lives, depending on God through prayer, serving your neighbors, sharing the gospel, etc. and then you trust Christ to take care of the growing part. (After all, isn’t that what he promised to do anyway? “On this rock I will build my church…”)

So what do I think about Benny Hinn? Not a big fan. Something about commanding God to do things doesn’t sit right with me, and neither does much of his theology. (Anyone read Counterfeit Revival?) But he reminds me of what God is teaching me about growing my church (or more aptly, about NOT trying to grow my church).

He reminds me of the greatest church growth principle of all: if you preach a me-centered message and promise people that God’s greatest desire is to make much of them and make them healthy and wealthy – you’ll have no problem drawing a crowd.

But then I think of Christ’s words in Matthew 7.13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

“Out There” Preaching

“I believe I never was more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields…I now preach to ten times more people than I would if I had been confined to the churches.” -George Whitfield

My friend Steve McCoy has been wrestling with something for awhile. We’ve talked about it some privately, and my heart has been captured by what he’s been thinking. I’ve begun thinking about it too…

Today he posted an article on his blog that lays a challenge out there to pastors like me: What if evangelicals hit America with 200, or 500, or 1,000 theologically strong, gospel-centered pastors who start preaching in open-air and public places in their cities, beyond their Sunday morning worship services, at least once a week for the rest of 2011? What would happen?

To the modern ear, this sounds almost ridiculous. Preach in a public place? Who would do something like that?  In fact, the suggestion probably brings to mind the image of someone with a bullhorn, yelling angrily at people as they walk buy, maybe even carrying a large sign with phrases like “God hates sin” or “Turn or burn”.  But that is not what Steve is talking about.

For centuries, it was common for preachers to proclaim the gospel in the public square – Wesley, Whitfield, Spurgeon… great men of God like these and many more spoke plainly of Jesus and his work of salvation to many who would come to listen.

In more recent years, evangelicals have adopted an almost exclusively slow and private approach to sharing their faith – build a friendship, earn trust, and look for opportunities to speak about Jesus. This is good and right – we should do this, and far more often than we currently do.  But it’s not the only way…

I’m excited to think about what might happen if winsome, theologically sound, humble, prayerful, Spirit-dependant men of God took the challenge to find a way to begin to preach publicaly – what might God be pleased to do?

Not angry, unnecessarily controversial preaching – but the firm news of our sin and the gracious news of the gospel proclaimed with gentleness, passion, and love.

Not setting up a step stool right outside a restaurants patio seating and disrupting people’s meals, but finding a public setting in which those who wanted to listen could, and those who would rather not can continue on.

I want to be a part of this, and am praying about what God might have me do. I can think of a million excuses not to do anything like this, but at the end of the day most of them come down to my own insecurities, fear of men, and wanting the approval of others. I’ve tried, but I don’t think God is going to let me neglect his prompting because “it makes me uncomfortable”.

So what do you think? How and where could this work?  Is it a dream dependent on a culture that no longer exists, or is there a way to make it work today?

Rework: Start Making Something

As promised last week, I’m going to keep working through a few of my favorite chapters in Rework – a great new book that takes a pretty down-to-earth look at startups. I’m reading through the lenses of my own context – specifically starting new churches.

The next chapter I want to highlight was only one page long, but so important – Start Making Something. Here’s the killer quote:

What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan… Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The original pitch idea is such a small part of a business that it’s almost negligible. The real question in how well you execute.

As in many start up situations, a new church looks great on paper. In the early days of vision and planning, when the church exists solely in your head and on the pages of your Moleskine journal, things are flawless – finances are solid, discipleship is happening organically, leaders are being multiplied… Revival is sure to break out!

But then you hit the ground, and things don’t go quite as planned. Church planting is a lot like marriage – no matter how many books you’ve read and seminars you’ve attended to prepare, it is never what you imagined it would be like. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s harder. But it’s always going to be different.

And so when the plan doesn’t look like reality, all church planters have a choice to make – will you stay engaged in actually doing what you know you should be doing (meeting people, sharing the Gospel, discipling believers, raising up leaders, praying fervently, etc.) or will you tweak the plan?

I’ll be honest – in the early days of Kaleo, I retreated to continually reworking the plan. Why? It’s a lot easier. You can sit in your office with a whiteboard and “dream”, “visioneer”, or whatever word you want to put on it. You can even tell yourself that you’re working “on the church, not just in it”. I know, because I did.

But in the early days, there is no church to “work on”. It becomes easy to spend 90% of your time without actually engaging people, which is about as backward as I can imagine. But I did it – and so do many others, I’d imagine.

The bottom line, particularly as you’re getting started – your strategic planning and brainstorming will pay far less return than finding ways to sit across a cup of coffee, a meal, or a living room with as many people as you can in order to talk about the gospel.

If you’re looking for more, one of the best resources I know of is a talk given by Kevin Cawley and Hunter Beaumont at last year’s Acts 29 Bootcamp in Houston. It’s an immensely practical session called People Gathering in Church Planting – check it out.

Great Church Promo Video – Check it

Every wondered what it would be like if a church did promotion without a lot of hype and focused more on the Gospel than selling their church? It would probably look a lot like this:

Grace Community Church is a church plant in the heart of San Antonio, TX that I’ve followed for awhile. They meet in a burger joint (Fatty’s Burger Restaurant) for worship on Sundays, and from everything I’ve seen are doing great work. They are passionate, diverse, and unashamed of the gospel. They’ve also got some talented video guys, who have a put a site together called I’ll Be Honest – lots of good content there as well.

Note: If you’re reading in an RSS reader, be sure to click through to see the embedded video.

Workaholism Doesn’t Make You A Hero

Last week, I read through a new book called Rework by the guys who are behind 37Signals, a great software company that produces some really helpful applications. The book is a short, easy to read, and on-the-ground-practical look at what it takes to do a start-up that works.

Now, while starting a church and starting a business are not the same, I think the book would be really helpful for those who are trying to get any project off the ground – including church planters. Over the next few days, I’m going to blog through a few sections I thought were really helpful and important.

The first section I’ll highlight was a short chapter (all the chapters are only a few pages long) called Workaholism. My favorite quote:

Not only is workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.

Many work cultures have come to pride themselves on producing this kind of person – the person who gladly sacrifices free time and family time for the good of the company. Churches are notorious for demanding long, extended hours from people all in the name of ministry. And ultimately, it doesn’t lead to getting more done – just to burnt out, bitter people.

In the chapter, the authors list the reasons that workaholism is horrible for a team – it leads to guilt trips and low morale, it encourages simply showing up in your office rather than actual productivity, and it lessens your actual effectiveness due to fatigue.

In the margin, I made my own note as I thought about it through the lens of a Christian: Whether you’re in ministry or working for a Fortune 500 corporation – workaholism ignores the call of the Gospel. It forces us to trust innately in our own hard work and efforts more than we should, often causing us to find our identity in our own work ethic rather than the finished work of Jesus. It also robs us from honoring biblical priorities – namely, to invest in our families. Our spouses need us. Our kids need us. And not just “quality time” – my toddler doesn’t know what that means. She needs me to be there with her – a lot.

What’s your experience: ever find yourself being drawn towards “burning the midnight oil”? Is the pressure from those around you or does it come from inside yourself?

Taking the Long View

A few years ago I read  A Narrative of Suprising Conversions by Jonathan Edwards, and there is one particular paragraph that God used to shape and change my heart. In this paragraph, Edwards is talking about his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who preceded Edwards as pastor of his church. Listen to how Edwards describes him:

He was eminent and renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry, in the conversion of many souls.

Edwards goes on to tell us that this happened in five seasons or “harvests” as Stoddard called them, spread over the course of his 60 years in ministry. Edwards tells us exactly when they happened, following this pattern:

Harvest one errupts, and many are saved… Four years pass… Harvest two comes, and a great number of people are converted… Thirteen years pass… Harvest three happens, many come to know Christ… Sixteen years pass… Harvest four comes about, people flock to faith in Jesus… Six years pass… Harvest five errupts, and many are saved.

Did you notice the pattern there?

Years passed, sometimes more than a decade, between the times in which this church saw God bless them with great seasons of numerical growth by conversion. This great man of God pastored in the same place for nearly 60 years, pouring his life out for the sake of Jesus, and was blessed to see amazing things.

We like to talk about those periods when growth is happening. It’s exciting. It’s energizing. We love to tell stories of churches that are seeing many people coming to faith. New services are started. Locations are multiplied. Baptisms are happening. But my question is, what about the seasons in between? What was happening then?

Well, for every harvest there must be a sowing. When you add up the numbers, for 39 of his 60 years in ministry, Solomon Stoddard didn’t see extraordinary growth. To be sure, people came to faith. Undoubtedly, the Spirit of God was at work. But by most standards today (at least those we use in the American Church), Solomon Stoddard wasn’t much of a success.

At the heart of his ministry that is unfortunately all but forgotten by many: faithfulness. If Stoddard had been evaluated today, he might have been told to give up. To reevaluate his call. To change things up, try something new, adopt another strategy. Why? Because we are so tempted to trade the call to faithfulness for the allure of success. It is not sexy or glamorous to spend decades faithfully preaching the Word of God, investing your life in the people God has entrusted to you while seeing very little visible fruit.

But for a true harvest to come, there must be seed sown. Cared for. Watered. Tended to. Protected. Nourished. It is only after this hard work of faithful care has been done that a lasting harvest can come.

My prayer today is that God would give me the long view of ministry, and that my desire would be to give my life in faithful service – trusting God to bring a tremendous harvest!