BIG Does Nothing for Me

According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Studies, here are the top ten largest churches in the United States:

  1. Lakewood Church, 43,500 (Joel Osteen)
  2. LifeChurch, 35,000 (Craig Groeschel)
  3. Fellowship Church, 24,000 (Ed Young, Jr.)
  4. Willow Creek Community Church, 23,400 (Bill Hybels)
  5. North Point Community Church, 23,375 (Andy Stanley)
  6. Second Baptist Church, 22,700 (Edwin Young, #3’s father)
  7. Saddleback Valley Community Church, 22,400 (Rick Warren)
  8. West Angeles Church of God in Christ, 20,000 (Charles Blake)
  9. Southeast Christian Church, 17,250 (Dave Stone)
  10. Fellowship of the Woodlands, 17,150 (Kerry Shook)

The list consists of 1,416 congregations with more than 2,000 members. (Not remarkably, there is only one in New Hampshire.) The top ten alone represent nearly 250,000 people who not only claim to be Christians but have also taken the step of church membership, however that works in that particular context.

That is awesome, and I believe that megachurches have a place in the kingdom. I say that so people who think megachurches are wonderful will not be offended by what I have to say next.

This kind of church has no appeal to me anymore.

There was a time in my life when I believed I could build a megachurch, that I would be the “next great thing” in American Christianity – like Bill Hybels was in the 80’s and Rick Warren was in the 90’s. But you know what? The appeal of that kind of thing has worn off.

I could cite lots of reasons, but the number one reason is that BIG just does nothing for me. In fact, it scares me a little bit. Almost every week, we have Christians drift in (and often out) of our doors who were part of a big church (larger than 300 congregants for the immediate purposes), and I see there is just something sadly lacking in their church journey. They might have gotten great music and wonderfully crafted sermons, but at a scale required to maintain these large congregations, they lost something far more important – intimacy.

I refer to churches under 200 congregants as intimate congregations. They are on a scale that allows people to interact on a personal level across a broad spectrum that embraces a majority of the other congregants. Sure, even at 100 people, our congregation can be easy to get lost in. We had a wonderful guy who came to worship gatherings for weeks before I had a chance to meet him, but others had. And here’s the big, I was only one relationship away from someone who had met him.

In an intimate congregation, people are never separated by more than one relationship. They know someone who knows someone else, and at that level they can be interconnected with the rest of the congregation. This level of separation is easily overcome in conversation over coffee or at a church dinner.

Relationships can remain intimate up to about 200 people, then things get messy and there are a lot of people that become two or more layers removed from others. This allows for a lot of division and the development of subcongregations.

I should emphasize as a last thought that this is not about the level of separation from the pastor. It is about levels of separation from each other. It is easier to lead people who know each other – at least for me.

I am not impressed by large congregations. They have their place, but I don’t hold them in awe as effective on the personal level because they are tend to be far less effective than intimate congregations.

The BIG QUESTION about intimate congregations is how we use the intimate relationships effectively. Far too many church leaders fail to understand how these relationships work, and (if we’re honest about it) were never taught how to work within those kinds of relationships. As a result, intimate congregations are often anything but.

 

New or Better?

Jony Ive, the mastermind of design at Apple, had this to say about Apple’s competition and why they fail to make designs with the same kind of hook that Apple makes:

 Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new — I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us — a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.

What stuck in my mind is the statement, “A product has to be genuinely better.”

I am somewhat known as a person who likes to change things. My friends in the congregation love to note that I change my office every 6-8 weeks. This is not simply because I like to mess with stuff. I am genuinely interesting in making things genuinely better.

Shouldn’t we be asking questions like, “How can I improve study habits? What kind of posture helps me think better? How can I take my spiritual disciplines deeper?”

And in the church, shouldn’t we be seeking what is genuinely better rather than that is just different or  has the appearance of novelty?

Being better than you were – doing something better than you have should be the objective, not being different or appearing new.

Often I think people want to do new things in the church because they confuse new with effective. Certainly novelty has its merits, but there is also something to be said for doing the old thing (even the ancient things, since we do after all follow a 2,000 year old religion) better – genuinely better.

 

The Last Pew

Yesterday, a group of guys from the church started work on the stage to update it. Basically, we’re just organizing wires and adding a couple of steps but it will make the stage more open and more “user-friendly” for the various people that are on it.

Along the way, Bob (one of our elders) told a couple of the guys to take apart the last pew in our auditorium. It has been sitting there for a couple of years now. It was not removed for reasons unknown to any of us. So, we took the plunge and had it removed.

As the guys were carrying the pew away, I was reflecting on how much “church” has changed just in my short lifetime. I grew up sitting on hard wood pews. There was simply no way to sit comfortably on them. Then, in New England I learned that people also have padded pews. As a pastor, I have not led a congregation that had pews. We have always had comfy chairs. Even the fundamentalist church I worked in for several years has chairs now.

The strange thing about it is how much people value their seating. Some people love pews. They have a hard time worshiping in a space with chairs. Others cannot figure out why anyone would want to sit in pews when chairs are available.

In reality, worship is not something we did sitting down for the first 1500 years or so of the church. Worship was done standing up, and in the medieval church there were not any chairs in church buildings. It was only later, when the focus of worship shifted to the lecture (or sermon if you prefer the religious vocabulary) that seats became a mainstay of congregational worship. And even then, the pews were intentionally designed to be uncomfortable so you would not come to church to feel homey. Now, we spend far more time sitting than we do standing.

I am all for the nice, comfortable chairs; but I wonder if we do not rob ourselves of the readiness to move and act by sitting all the time. This is one of the reasons I adopted a standing desk for my office. I want to be moving all the time, whether I am preparing a sermon or simply writing a blog entry.

What do you think? Do you think the church should be sitting or standing?

Resurrecting Churches

I have to say that I really enjoy reading Kurt Willems’ blog over at Pangea. I have been reading it for the past couple of weeks and while I don’t necessarily agree with his perspective on some things, he gives you something to talk about.

Reasons for Planting Churches

Kurt is an Anabaptist and currently is preparing to be a church planter. Tuesday, he posted a list of reasons people plant churches which prompted me to reflect on my own place in the Kingdom. Here is the list of reasons that Kurt provided:

  1. To replace churches that have closed, leaving some areas under-churched
  2. To replace ineffective churches that are not engaged in mission to their community
  3. To penetrate society more effectively, planting churches closer to where people live
  4. To respond to population increases and demographic changes
  5. To relocate and redistribute Christians more strategically across society
  6. To release space in over-full buildings
  7. To provide new opportunities for service and leadership
  8. To release tension and head off damaging splits in churches
  9. To provide a wider range of churches and more options for connecting with people
  10. To offer opportunities to experiment and help the church adapt to a changing culture
  11. To enable targeted and specialized churches to be formed
  12. To act as a catalyst for denominations

Let me first say that this list is awesome. I love seeing new congregations planted and growing. I think planting new congregations is key to the growth of the Church as a whole, and it does help us deal with space, personality and demographic issues. We need people planting congregations, and there is no way we could ever have too many congregations.

My friend Steve planted The Dialogue Church back in 2007, just a couple miles away from where I was ministering at the time; and there were some of our mutual friends who were concerned that we might have some kind of competitive attitude toward each other. We were two tiny congregations in a city of over 100,000 people! We could plant another 1,000 churches in southern New Hampshire and still not be stepping on each other’s toes. Both my congregation and Steve’s could increase in size by FIFTY TIMES and we would still not be competing with each other.

Our Experience

During my first couple of years in ministry, I thought God was preparing me to plant a new congregation in Manchester, New Hampshire. We even started the seed of the plant, putting together a small crew of folks and starting the planning process; but God had other plans.

In 2004, he moved us from church planting to reinvigorating a church that had gone through some traumatic times. Our entire team joined Heritage Baptist Church in Hooksett, just north of Manchester. We worked as part of Heritage until 2010, when we brought our entire congregation down to Merrimack and merged with Grace Baptist Church to help them recover. Out of this process, Bedford Road Baptist Church was born – which is a living, growing testimony to God’s ability to resurrect struggling churches and give them new direction, vision and purpose.

Since then, we have also helped another

List of Reasons to Resurrect

So, here is my list of reasons to consider that God might be calling you to help resurrect an existing congregation rather than plant a new one. Some of them are serious and some of them – well, not so much.

  1. The Holy Spirit has not abandoned the people in struggling congregations.
  2. It is an embarrassing violation of God’s vision for the Gospel that churches fail.
  3. You will get to see people who are discouraged and frustrated receive the Joy of the Lord again.
  4. There’s a pretty good chance you will not be swelled with pride over your accomplishments because there’s ALWAYS more to do.
  5. You won’t have to worry about getting a building or giving people basic training. Odds are the existing congregation has both, but doesn’t know what to do with them.
  6. Human division is not bigger than divine direction, and anyone who really believes that is a liar who should get out of the ministry.
  7. Giving birth (a new church) can be considered a “natural” thing, but resurrection is NEVER considered normal.
  8. No one else is interested in doing it, so you’ve got plenty of opportunity!

All kidding aside, if we put as much emphasis on resurrecting churches as we do on planting them and approached the task with the same kind of energy and dedication, I think the net result of doing BOTH would be much greater than just emphasizing planting. The more resurrected churches there are, the more of a base there is for planting new ones.

Just some thoughts that came to mind.

Good post, Kurt!

The Church Celebrity

I have previously blogged on the danger of celebrity and the pitfalls that pastors and church leaders may fall into when the Christian media machine gets a hold of you. Lately (I think spurred on by Mark Driscoll’s most recent book and his rockstar persona), there have been a lot of posts about Christian celebrity. The topic seems to be at hand right now. Here are a couple I found worth reading:

Paul Stewart: The Celebrity Pastor

Mike Breen: Obituary for the American Church

To be honest, the American celebrity pastor has been around as long as I can remember. In my childhood, it was John R. Rice and Jack Hyles. In college, it was Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. Now it’s Mark Driscoll or Andy Stanley or Rob Bell or whoever it is that gets the big publishing contract this year.

Let me tell you who should be our celebrities. Men like my dad who has spent 35 years of his life in ministry – sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing but always committed to teaching the Scriptures. Men who devote their lives to the Scriptures and shepherding God’s flock, knowing it will never make them famous or popular. Most of all, men who refuse to compromise the Scriptures and their beliefs to court celebrity.

The megachurch movement is a momentary blip in history. Everyone who is obsessed with the idea of “big is better” and rockstar preachers has their priorities twisted. The job of the pastor is to teach the Scriptures, to be the servant of Jesus Christ – not the servant of the media. We are not called to tour the nation and build our own denominations.

A Field to Be Harvested

You quite literally can’t read the Hebrew Scriptures without encountering harvests of every size, shape and color. Since Palestine was a highly agrarian region for most of its history, harvests loom large. They define offerings and sacred holidays in the Torah. The barley and wheat harvests in particular defined the rhythms of life and even theology, as we see in the book of Ruth. In the prophets, harvests of all types are used as anchor points – both for blessings and curses.

It should not surprise us then that Jesus uses this kind of language when describing the Kingdom of God.

A Sidebar About the Kingdom of God

I should pause for a moment and explain the terms kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven because they often get garbled. When these terms appear in the Scriptures, they are not talking about some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by place where we go when we die. They refer very directly to Jesus himself. John said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” and then baptized Jesus. When Jesus himself speaks of the kingdom of God or heaven, he does not speak about somewhere you go. If you watch what he says, it becomes pretty obvious that he is speaking about himself. In particular, read Matthew 13 where Jesus uses five metaphors to describe the kingdom:

  • “A grain of mustard seed” (v 31) – in other words, it is present now and will grow into something larger
  • “Leaven hidden in flour” (v 33) – you can’t see it, but it will transform everything
  • “Treasure hidden in a field” (v 44) – soon it will be uncovered, but it is already there
  • “A merchant in search of pearls” (v 45) – it is something others must find
  • “A net thrown in the sea” (v 47) – the fish aren’t caught yet, but they will be

Jesus makes it clear in the first three illustrations that the Kingdom is right in front of his hearers. And the last two illustrate the universal nature of what he is about to do.

That being said, it is important to remember that we are Jesus’ body, as the church, (a metaphor I will get to) and as such, we are the Kingdom. This is the great mystery of the church that Paul writes about in Ephesians 5. Somehow the Kingdom is Jesus, and we are His body, so the Kingdom is us.

We Are a Field to Be Harvested

Jesus makes it plain that the field of mankind is ripe and we are in the season of harvest (Matthew 9, Mark 4:29, Luke 10:2, John 4:35). He calls us to be laborers in these fields, even as he calls us the harvest itself. He also notes that the field will have weeds, which will ultimately be destroyed but must grow among us for the time being (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

The feast of Pentecost (Acts 2) was the celebration of the first harvest of winter barley. It was not accidental that God chose that day to fill the Church with the Holy Spirit, making it alive and active as Jesus’ body. It is a harvest that will include all nations (Romans 1:13).

James also warns about trying to harvest what is not our own (James 5:4), echoing Jesus’ parables of the unjust husbandmen who tried to claim the harvest for themselves (Matthew 21).

The motif of harvest can hardly be avoided. Today, we tend to downplay such things as unimportant or as simply metaphors, but in Jesus’ day this was as real and practical a way of describing the church as you could get.

Nobody Here But Us Sheep

Let’s consider the times Jesus referred to his kingdom as sheep. Jesus really tackles this idea in John 10:

  • As his sheep, we hear his voice and recognize his authority over us (v 2)
  • We follow him only (vv 3-4)
  • We do not follow the voices of strange shepherds (v 5)
  • He protects us as our door (vv 7-10)
  • We are his personal flock, and the relationship is not just a professional one (vv 11-13)
  • Jesus would lay down his life for his flock (v 13)
  • The flock is bigger than most people think it is (v 16)

Above all things, we must remember that we are his sheep. The church is Jesus’ personal flock and no one else’s. This is why Peter later wrote to the elders of the church:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:3-4)

There are a couple things I draw from this image of the church as a flock of sheep:

The flock follows the shepherd.

We don’t get our say on where the shepherd is taking us. When we get into deciding whether the church should really do what Jesus wants us to do, we get into a lot of trouble. Sheep are completely dependent on human beings. They would self-destruct left to their own devices.

There are a lot of congregations that are just fat sheep sitting around in the midst of a field devoid of food complaining that the shepherd isn’t taking care of them. When we refuse to follow the shepherd, he leaves us where we are – lets us have our will. But that means we’re going to die.

A flock is always moving, changing and growing.

That is the nature of life as a flock. The shepherd tends to our needs only so we can flourish under his care. He takes us through difficult times and comfortable times (read Psalm 23) but always it is with the intention of seeing us grow and mature for His ends.

The movement of the flock is necessary for new food, for protection from predators, for the birth of healthy young. A church that is not moving and changing as the shepherd leads will become inbred, self-absorbed and will eventually fall prey to thieves and predators.

Love Your Enemies

In the midst of terrorism and presidential elections (and sometimes I am not sure which people take more seriously), remember that historically human government has opposed the work of the Church far more often than government has supposed us.

Rather than complaining about the way the government makes life difficult, the followers of Christ should accept difficulty as a statement of reality. We cannot walk around with a chip on our shoulders, expecting to get special or even fair treatment from the world system.

Straddling Realities

Yochanan b. Zecharyah was a Jewish teacher and prophet known to the Christian world as John the Baptist. In the gospel of Luke, he is Jesus of Nazareth’s second cousin and the son of a Jewish priest.

Appearing at the beginning of all four gospels and described as the “forerunner” of the Messiah and the last of the Hebrew prophets, John straddles the line between the days of the prophets and the “Day of the Lord.” If we are to believe the gospels, then we must acknowledge that the authors of those books saw John as the end of an age.

Every gospel tells his story a little different, but in all them John’s message was simple: Repent, for God’s Kingdom is at hand. There was nothing complex about this message. John was saying that God was coming, and the time had come to get right. To drive home the point, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah:

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:4-6 ESV)

It was hard to miss or misinterpret John’s message, and yet for all of our supposed ability and intelligence, we miss what he was saying.

Jesus is the Kingdom of God. He is the Temple of God. He is the Lord’s Messiah. And we live in “The Day of the Lord.”

John represents all that was Hebrew, all that was rabbinical. John is a Jew declaring the end of Judaism and setting the stage for the Messianic Age.

That’s why John’s message is not normative for the Church today. The era he lived in is over. The Law and Prophets are fulfilled in Jesus. The Hebrew epic has been completed and has been transformed into something more. Now what has been anticipated is at work.

The Kingdom is not somewhere we go when we die. It is the One who died for us. Heaven is not some other reality. It is the fully realized reality of Jesus and His resurrection. It is not this life somewhere else, but this life as something else. We are being transformed into Christ’s image, collectively.

The Kingdom is being realized imperfectly now, but will one day be fully realized when Jesus returns. But that does not make it any less real now. We do not perceive it or live it all the time, because we are blinded by sin and restricted by the forces of this world and its would-be usurper who styles himself the Prince of This World, Satan. But make no mistake. Jesus is the Kingdom, and those found in him are citizens of that Kingdom.