The Counterintuitive Church (pt.7, Impractical Spaces)

Previously: Impractical Worship

Megachurches don’t just happen. And they’re certainly not the inevitable result of God’s blessing. They are the results of decisions throughout the lifetime of a church. Say a church plant starts out with three couples meeting in a living room. That’s six people meeting regularly to worship God and be a local expression of His body. Say that group, through evangelism, transfer, or gimmickry, grows to two dozen. Twenty-four people can fill a living room. Add kids or guests, and the space is full, right?

Most churches that find themselves in this situation do what makes sense; they find a bigger place to meet. They rent a theater, they meet in a public school, they lease a storefront. This move brings a new set of challenges- the bigger space makes it harder to hear, so the growing  young church buys a sound system. As more people come, the church introduces a video projector (in case anyone doesn’t remember the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” and to show the scripture text for all those who forgot to bring their Bibles.) Staff members are hired to keep up with all of the people. Bylaws are written.

The church grows, filling the space, and is faced with another decision. Naturally, they embark on a building program to raise money to buy some land in the suburbs and build a multi-use facility. This, of course, requires an upgraded sound system, an increase in staff, facilities maintenance, the Disneyfication of the children’s ministry area, and a logo for each of the church’s ministry programs. Then come the satellite campuses, video venues, and nationwide franchise networks.

A series of decisions, each seeming quite sensible, that solve the “problems”that a church might face. But what if a church, at any point along this path, chooses otherwise? What if a church deliberately decides not to rent a bigger space? What if they refuse to go into debt? What if they wait to raise up leadership from within? What if they intentionally do the counterintuitive, impractical thing every step of the way?

The Impractical Church doesn’t build a building. Ever. Instead, it meets wherever its people live- in their homes, hangouts, restaurants, parks, pubs, libraries, break rooms, basements, parking garages, and empty church buildings of dying congregations. They don’t pay to rent these spaces- they hardly even have to ask to use them. These are the spaces they move in every day. By paying taxes, punching time cards, and spending time and money, they’ve earned the right to use them. They find favor with the people who manage and own the spaces.

They show up to the same neighborhood coffee shop every day for two years. They’ve taken spiritual responsibility for the others who use the space. They’re on a first name basis with the owners. They start to meet one-on-one in the corner. Next as a small group during a time when business is slow. Maybe a waiter gets involved. Soon, the manager is turning down the music so the group can hear one another. Next thing you know, the group is offered keys to the back door and invited to stay after hours so they can have some privacy.

Call it the Friendly Takeover.

The public nature of their meetings challenge the church to apply their faith to their everyday lives. They’re forced to be the Church in context of the local community. Their small size insures that they remain personal, relational, and free of the overhead that burdens other churches. This church is sustainable and truly local. It is indigenous to the neighborhood. They manage growth by planting more of these churches, each interconnected and accountable, but with its own leadership and the freedom to adjust the form and location.

It takes time to expand the Kingdom by filling the impractical spaces, but taking shortcuts has cost us.

NEXT: The Impractical Churches Among Us

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.6, Impractical Worship)

PREVIOUSLY: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

The majority of evangelical churches don’t pray prayers written by someone else. Sure there’s the occasional St. Francis quote, or a Puritan prayer used in a responsive reading, but for the most part, we like to pray more personal prayers that express a personal sentiment. Yet when it comes to worship through music, how many churches sing songs they’ve written?

Is it okay to outsource the message, language, and composition of your worship to Matt Redman (or Chris Tomlin, or David Crowder)? What about the preaching? There are countless “resources” available to expand and facilitate our ministries. We outsource these basic functions of the church because it just makes sense. The quality is better. It’s easier. It’s practical. But there’s a problem:

Quality, ease and practicality aren’t Kingdom values.

People who don’t make their own stuff soon forget how. We value things more when we know what goes in to creating them. Worship is not singing (someone else’s) songs in a heart-felt manner. It’s a posture, an attitude, a natural result of interaction with the Most High. Music is a great medium for that. It’s a powerful spiritual thing that can teach, unify, sober, excite, comfort, inspire… well, you get the idea.

So the Impractical Church writes its own worship music. Their worship time might not be as polished or professional as the new Passion City Church’s, but they’re okay with that. Polish and professionalism aren’t Kingdom values, either. Sincere hearts, clear consciences, and confidence in faith are. If an Impractical Church doesn’t have any musically-inclined people, they learn. Or, they find other ways to express their adoration of God. Even if it’s messy, the important thing is that the people of God learn how to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

NEXT: Impractical Spaces

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.5, What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?)

PREVIOUSLY:  Let’s Be Clear

Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.

As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.

Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:

  • If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
  • If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
  • If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
  • If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
  • If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
  • If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.

Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of  the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”

What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.

NEXT: Impractical Worship

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.4, Let’s Be Clear)

PREVIOUSLY: Distribution

So far, three parts into my multi-part series on the counterintuitive nature of life in Christ, and I’ve yet to receive any comments accusing me of being too negative or of harboring jealousy over the megachurch’s success. Clearly, I’ve either offended (or bored) away everyone who disagrees with me, or I’ve not been clear. Let’s be sure it’s not the latter.

Megachurches are based in extreme pragmatism. Consider the rationale behind them:

  • “They allow the church to have resources that smaller churches just can’t have.”
  • “We didn’t set out to build an impersonal empire of seeker-friendliness, but its what the people wanted.”
  •  “Hey, God’s blessing it.” or, “As long as people are coming to faith…”
  • “The Bible doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a multi-million dollar building with a coffee shop and a parking structure.”

Video Venues are an exercise in pragmatism. Supporters will be quick to claim:

  • “The video sites allow our pastor to increase his influence.”
  • “This way, I can spend more time with my family.”
  • “People don’t even seem to notice that the preacher isn’t physically there.”
  • “Whether we like it or not, people come to hear (our pastor) speak.”
  • “Paul wrote letters and sent them around. We use DVDs and streaming live video.”

Professional parachurch missions are a pragmatic response to the Great Commission. Churches outsource missions to them because:

  • “Our people are better trained for missions than most people in the local church.”
  •  “People are dying and going to hell.”
  • “A small church with limited resources can’t do as much as we can.”
  • “We’ve organized the work into strategic priorities.”
  • “We have a great insurance program.”

I am not saying any of these things are necessarily bad. I am saying that they are sensible solutions to perceived problems that may not be God’s best for His church. We should not default to these sorts of pragmatic approaches to ministry, mission, and church just because they “work” or “make sense.” Why not?

How we do ministry has profound and long-lasting detrimental consequences on the churches we serve. If we elevate practicality, effectiveness, and sensibility as church values, we risk changing the very message we preach. So much of who Jesus is and what Jesus does is counterintuitive. Why is it that so much of what the church does just makes sense?

My question is this: how can someone like me (missionary, practitioner) gently and lovingly point out the pervasive pragmatism in the American church without coming across as a negative, overly critical, know-it-all jerk? 

NEXT: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.3, Distribution)

PREVIOUSLY: The Gaps

Another way the church has fallen into the trap of pragmatism is the way we distribute our resources. Let me explain:

Say I’m in a mid-sized church that meets in small groups throughout the week. We only have so many leaders willing to  lead these groups. Of those who are willing, we’re likely that we can only identify a few that have the vision, commitment, and gifting to actually to do small group ministry. What do we do?

If we’re looking for the most effective approach, we spread out our strong leaders. One in each group. We can’t afford to double them up- that might mean groups let without. Right?

But the Kingdom is often (usually) counterintuitive. Sometimes, what we consider “good stewardship” is actually disobedience. Leaders, money, opportunities, reputations, connections- we hold tightly to these things because we don’t want to be irresponsible. But what if God wants us to put all of our eggs in one basket? What if God wants us to have three churches in a five-block radius? What if it’s His design to have a team of strong leaders and a couple teams of “weaker” ones? What if we spend so much time, energy, and money doing one thing that we cease to be able to do everything. If the Lord leads us to do something like that, I’d hope none of us would disagree, claiming that there is a more reasonable way to spend what He has blessed us with.

Remember when Judas opposed using a bottle of fine perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet? How are you any different when you automatically (according to church policy) limit the amount of missions money you’ll give to a member of your church who wants to go on a short-term trip?

Who knows? Maybe the reason we have a dearth of leaders is that we ration them out like lumps of coal in a Dickens novel. Sure it’s sensible, but when has Jesus been sensible when it comes to Kingdom resources?

NEXT: Let’s Be Clear…

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.2, The Gaps)

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.1)

The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.

As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.

Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?

In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.

NEXT: The Gaps

It’s Your Fault

air.jpgWeek-long tourist mission trips that have suburban American teenagers staying in five-star hotels and complaining about the food.

Missions done more for adventure than out of obedience.

The Sunday-school class that passes out American flags and money.

Culturally inappropriate choir tours, drama troupes, youth musicals, puppet shows, clowns, mimes in the park.

Attractional replications of “what works” back home.

One-off drive-by mission trips that assuage the guilt and give a feeling of superiority.

Missionary, these you might roll your eyes at the thought of including short-term groups in your strategic approach to ministry. Church people can be consumeristic, naive, fickle. Their well-intentioned attempts to help can build unhealthy dependency. Their ignorance can jeopardize the ministry you’ve worked hard to build. You may swear off hosting church groups. I know- you didn’t come here to be a baby-sitter and tour guide. But the popular missiology that perpetuates missions-as-event is a result of your interaction (or, lack thereof) with the local church.

It’s your fault.

Those of you who scoff at the involvement of a local church (the same churches that send and support you), it’s time for you to take responsibility. If churches have a bad understanding of what missions is and should be, it’s your fault. How else will they know the reality of what God is doing among people around the world? What church members know about missions is what you’ve taught them. Or what you’ve failed to teach them.

The church is God’s design. Leadership. Accountability. Gifting. Community. Fellowship. Worship. It’s His design for His people, and you don’t get to bypass that structure just because you’re embarrassed by a church group that shows up in your part of the world wearing matching T-shirts. The church cannot be replaced. You can be her servant, but not her substitute.

Romans 12:3 warns us not to think too highly of ourselves. You are expendable. Any Spirit-led “volunteer” missionary can replace your language ability and cultural insight with a google search and a few hours in a smoky bar with a national. You’re not special. And you won’t get far without the direct involvement of the churches that send you.

Like Zoo Animals

Zoo ElephantYou may have heard about the controversy over the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The zoo is building a $42 million exhibit for Billy, its only elephant. There are three sides to the argument: those who say that $42 mil is too much to spend on one elephant, those who say the new “Pachyderm Forest” project is just what the zoo (and Billy) needs, and those who say that it is cruel to keep elephants in captivity, no matter how much is spent.

Reading about the controversy got me thinking about Christians. I’m a huge advocate of total church involvement in missions. I believe that the church’s gifting, authority, and accountability are vital to obedient and successful missions.

Nevertheless, church people aren’t always prepared for ministry in the real world. The way I see it, our modern expression of church is a lot like a zoo. We’ve got all kinds; the old urban zoos that are little more than cages in a central park.  The theme-park kinds of zoos with multi-million-dollar attractions. Some mimic the animals’ habitats in the wild. Others seem like they’re more for show. We’ve got zoos that were designed for conservation, rehabilitation, education, entertainment, even research. The thing about zoos is their influence on animal health and behavior.

It’s called “institutionalization.”

It seems to me that there are three kinds of Christians; those who have left the wild and have been brought into the zoo, and those who were born and raised in captivity, and those who continue to live in the wild.

  • Those who came to faith outside the church setting are quickly assimilated into the Christian culture. They are taught to speak, act, and think like a Christian (each according to the customs of his local zoo, of course.) On the one hand, this process is seen as a rescue operation. On the other, it’s a cruel and unnecessary act that strips a person of his ability to relate, understand, and survive in what was his natural environment.
  • Believers who grew up in church really don’t stand a chance in the wild. Their dependence on doctors, caregivers, guards, and spectators makes them unprepared to face the challenges of life in the real world. They position themselves in pecking order, clinging to the members of their small groups for social comfort.
  • Christians who operate outside the walls of an institutionalized church. Some simply slipped through the cracks of the programs that the church designed for them. Others came to faith through real relationships and have never found it necessary to trade real life for a safely synthetic one. These aren’t lone wolves- they move in dynamic but fiercely loyal packs and herds.

For some reason, the first two kinds of Christians are the ones the church sends out on mission, and left and right, they’re being devoured by dangers and distractions of life in the wild. We need more of the third kind of Christian, the ones outside the institution. The truth is, they’re already doing ministry , and they’re doing it better, more humbly, and more cheaply than the zoo ever could. It comes quite naturally to them. But they need the church’s approval, support, prayer, and encouragement.

Institutional church is bad for believers, bad for ministry, and bad for the environment. Okay, maybe not so bad for the environment, but you know what I mean.

What Isn’t There

Armchair missiologists of the world-  when deciding where to get involved in missions, don’t be distracted by what isn’t there.

Let me explain. For far too long now, missions strategy has gone something like this: Start by finding where there are a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel (or who don’t have access to the gospel, or who don’t have a church to go to), and do something there. An aspiring church planter posts a map of his city on the wall and sticks pushpins where all the churches are. He assumes that wherever there aren’t a lot of pushpins, there’s a need for a church/ministry.

What isn’t there is a bad start.

In its effort to find a niche, the world looks at a situation and says, “Where are the gaps? How can we do what nobody else is doing?” God, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to work that way. He seems to go with more of a “Shock and Awe” (to borrow an expression) sort of approach. Think Luke, chapter 10, or His work at on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.

No, a better way might be to ask whether a bunch of pushpins on the map might mean God is at work. Perhaps if God is at work in a place or among a people (as evidenced by the calling or workers, people coming to faith, or your own desire), you should join Him there.

Sure, you might find yourself working alongside other Great Commission believers, and that requires cooperation and unity. Yes, there might be places where it seems like there’s great need, yet no work. But we must trust God to orchestrate His work among the nations of the world.