The Counterintuitive Church (pt. 8, The Impractical Churches Among Us)

PREVIOUSLY: Impractical Spaces

Lest you think these last few posts reflected only the thoughts of a lone anonymous cynic, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many other intentionally impractical leaders among us:

When he started the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, Bob Hyatt had a vision- he knew what he wanted his church to be (biblical missional community of faith), and what he didn’t want it to be (legalistic, programmatic, location-dependent). Now, five years later, Evergreen meets in three locations (two pubs and the facilities of another church), and has established itself in Portland as the church for people who are burned out on church. Evergreen’s intentionally small gatherings allow for conversational dialogue and the kind of accountability that only true community can provide. “Community isn’t optional for followers of Jesus.” Bob counterintuitively says, “So if you’re not sure Evergreen is the place for you, there are lots of other churches in town that might be a better fit for you.”

Michael Carpenter planted intentionally nontraditional Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN. The Nashville suburb’s claim to fame? It’s the proposed site of Bible Park USA, a “Christian” Theme Park. Matthew’s Table is an impractically missional gathering of believers in an unlikely place. Why Lebanon? “I have to honestly say that this is the VERY last place I thought we would plant, yet I am glad we are here.” writes Michael. But for him, it’s not so much about strategy as obedience. “This is where God sent us, period.”

Todd Littleton is the epitome of Impractical Church leadership. While most of the players in the “missional” conversation plant their own churches in trendy neighborhoods where it might be easier to find like-minded people, Todd has remained pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in rural Tuttle, OK for the last 15 years. Their worship isn’t focused on twenty-somethings or lighted with candles, but Snow Hill is an incarnational gathering. I visited one Sunday morning, and was greeted by a little old lady who spelled it out for me: “We are a different kind of church. Around here, we try to be ‘missional.’ That means that we take Jesus to the people instead of just inviting them to church.”

The list is long: Marty Duren in Buford Georgia. Steve McCoy outside Chicago. Both traded denominational influence for influence in their local communities. Kevin Jamison moved into Middletown, Ohio just as everyone else seemed to be moving out. Dr. Thom Wolf is a brilliant thinker and teacher who left a prominent teaching position to move to India. Andrew Jones and his family live in a truck. There are many Counterintuitives among us.

I don’t have a problem with megachurches or their pastors. I do have a problem with the fact that we listen to them so much. We read their books. We pay to hear them speak at conferences. We look to guys like Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Batterson for practical tips on how to grow our churches, open video venues, or make them more relevant. They are great guys- godly men, to be sure. But I think we’ve heard what they have to say. I think we need to hear from the Impractical Churches among us.

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

Vocabulary Test

Not Biblical, no longer helpful:

-”the 10/40 window,” “last frontier,””edge of lostness.” When the world was two-dimensional (and to most Christians, that was until very recently…), it made sense to think of people as places on a map and to put them into categories (population, religion, demographics, reached-ness, number of churches, accessibility, etc.). Today, people defy taxonomy; the world is dynamic. Tribes used to be discovered in uncharted corners of the world, now we’re discovering them hiding in globalized urban centers and on the internet.

-”Nations.” Yes, the Bible uses the word “nations.” But missiologists (actually anthropologists) have defined the therm to mean, “ethnolinguistic people groups.” But were there really people from every ethnolinguistic people group present on the day of Pentecost? What about third-generation Muslim immigrants in Paris?

-”Reached/Unreached.” As the church rediscovers her role as incarnatioal (rather than attractional) image-bearers, people are realizing that it’s better to go where God leads (through relationships, gifting, opportunity, interest, connects, etc.) than to engage a people simply because they are “unreached.” God orchestrates the church’s strategic missional engagement, so we need to forget what we think we know about who is “reached” and who is “unreached.”

And then there’s the ambiguity of the concept of “reaching” people….

It’s time to replace the old missions vocabulary with a new one.

Call It What You Will…

Recently, there’s been some discussion regarding the use of the term “missional.” Some claim that its a useful way to distinguish incarnational ministries from those which are more attractional. Others point out that unlike the “come see” approaches to church, so-called “missional” ministries aren’t especially productive.

I’ve written about the dangers of pragmatism before. Evaluating a missiological concept (or its resulting ministry) by its “effectiveness” or “efficiency” is the worst thing we could do.  In fact, I believe this is the greatest factor in our disqualification from full participation in God’s redemptive work around the world today. Our rush to do more and do it better stands in direct opposition to our complete obedience to the step-by-step guidance of God’s Spirit.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you call it, “missional/incarnational,” ministry is about doing what God leads you to do (and has commanded in scripture) regardless of the outcome. When we start with “what works,” we’re getting ahead of God by making a human-centered assumption about what He wants us to do. As I wrote previously, why would we value something that God never does?

Note to my colleagues on the mission field: Please don’t allow your desperation for results to influence your strategy. Broad seed-sowing will never be better than obedient seed-sowing. Rapid reproduction will never be better than God’s timing. You, your team, and your ministry will never be so cool, innovative, or attractive as to attract people to Jesus; Jesus attracts people to Himself. Be sure your desperation is for God, and that your strategy is born of your pursuit of Him.