Numbers, money, sheep and function: a few thoughts on the business of church

Kingdom Grace has been blogging again on Church as Business. A few thoughts.

The corporate model of church permeates the American scene much more than it does here in the UK. There are few, if any, mega-churches over here. That said, most of the people Grace quotes are making the connection between business and building-based churches in general: basically, having overheads (buildings, paid staff) means that you have to play the numbers game. Church becomes about getting (and keeping) a number of people through the door.

Ok, lets have a look at this…

Numbers

I remember having lots of conversations with my pastor about this, back when I was working for the church. He very much saw (and probably still does) church ‘success’ in terms of numbers: preferably people making fresh commitments to Christ, but bums on seats was a good second place. I’ve never been that comfortable with this, but it has to be said that there are few ‘measurables’ when it comes to churches, so how else do you know if you are doing the right thing?

Even if your focus is on building a strong, biblical (whatever that means), open and sharing community, isn’t your measure of whether you are doing that well that other people want to join? And if people are wanting to join, then you are going to grow in terms of numbers.

That was Pastor Matt’s argument, anyway. Although, it has to be said that in pursuing genuine close community the church has actually shrunk numerically over the couple of years. So maybe it’s not a case of numbers being the best measure, but them being the only real measure we have (however imperfect).

Sheep

OK, before talking about money, I want to drop in a quick thought about sheep. Grace’s post is largely quoting others, so I’m not sure if this was a thought from her or someone else, but there was a…

“…[lament] about church pirates who steal sheep, clearly communicating a sense of territorialism about church growth rather than an open and inclusive view of the body of Christ extending the kingdom.

Umm, yes… er… actually, no.

Having worked for a church, I’ve hung out with a few pastors, and pretty much all of them get hung up about sheep stealers. I remember having a conversation with one friend who was hugely against church-planting, because her home town has had a succession of plants that became ‘the next best thing’. Churches would set up, the word would get out, and passionate believers would come along to devote their energies to the vision… until a year or so another new church would be planted and they would head off over there, leaving the church they’ve left raped of the resources it needs to function (we’ll get onto the f word in a bit).

I am absolutely positive that there is tons of territorialism between churches, but I really don’t think that’s the main reason pastors get het up about this issue. Sheep stealing bothers them because they are all, by and large, passionately engaged in what they see as Kingdom work: building community, spreading the Gospel etc. And losing people damages their ability to pursue that work.

Most churches have a limited supply of ‘engaged’ attendees; people who are prepared to get in, get their hands dirty, give time and energy to the work of the church. Most churches, no matter how large or small, or how many paid employees they have, cannot function without that pool of volunteers. And, for some reason, it is that ‘engaged’ minority that are so often tempted away to new church plants down the road, or whatever. When they go off to church B, seeking that ‘calling to a better expression of my giftings’, the pastor of church A is left bereft, unable to keep running the house group or children’s ministry or worship team or whatever that they were involved in.

So don’t be too cynical about pastors who bemoan sheep stealers…

Money

I used to be the finance guy at my church, banking the offering, paying the invoices, doing the payroll etc. I know how much a modern church costs, even ones with limited ‘programmes’ and few paid staff. And I know those monthly meetings with the pastor where we worried why ‘giving was down’ this month, and would we be able to pay all the bills. And, y’know, during those moments you do seriously ponder if this was at all what Jesus was thinking of when he called us ‘church’.

As a church we were proud (still are I think) that we gave 10% of our income to missions. Towards the end of my time there we started thinking about if we could maybe give 5% to the poor as well. 5%! – it leaves you thinking, where’s the other 85% going? But I tell ya, none of us were getting rich on this (I was making around £10k, living in the most expensive city in the world) – it was all going on overheads.

So, most of the voices in Grace’s post are in agreement that those overheads, those building costs etc, are just not what church is about. Well, ok. I agree (sorta). But it is very hard: buildings just cost money, even when you are renting (40% of our costs, buildings rented – more than ½ of that on a venue for 4 hours a week). If you want to get rid of that cost, then you need to get out of the building.

Otherwise, that church is going to need your money. (And going to have to think a bit like a business because of that fact)

Function

So, here’s the rub (as master Will would say). What is the function of church?

The whole emerging/deconstructing conversant crew will argue that church is about New Testament community lifestyle, personal relationship with Christ, engaging with the missional focus of Jesus. Living the life, so to speak.

Ok. The problem is that, when they try to do this, sooner or later they come back to meetings. And meetings, once they are too big to fit in your living room (lounge), need a building. And buildings cost moolah; which brings you right back to the business model again.

There are other ways of being church, but few people escape that focus. And the NT is no help to us here, because the believers clearly met in the Temple Courts in Jerusalem, and in the Synagogue in places like Corinth and Ephesus (as well as in each others homes). Which is fine as long as you have a neighbouring faith community who is willing to share.

The other issue: My contention is that, at this point in our history, most believers want meetings. They want church to be a place as well as a community. Which is why most emergents end up having meetings (even if they start by stopping them).

Instead of being the sacred places they were meant to be, our churches will only become more and more like the world around them; like businesses chasing the latest market niche.

If you start with the intention of being a sacred space, you will end up with a business model. Because you will have to find a way to pay the heating bill. 

Beginning Here

My lesson is that I shouldn’t want to go “there” to find my spirituality, but if I can’t find it “here” (with my local community) then I’m looking for some inspiration other than the Spirit who should, I would think, be working in everyone around me.”

The quote is by Paddy O, on a post by Emerging Grace. I wanted to draw it out because it is pointing to something that has been niggling at me for a while now.

Andrea and I do a lot of talking, thinking and reading about active faith, about ‘missional’ lifestyles. We discuss community living over, and over, and over again. These are subjects that we are constantly turning over in our own minds, and regularly talking about together and with friends. It is very easy for us, for me, to think that we should in some way leave our current church and friendships in order to seek the kind of lifestyle and praxis of faith that we’ve been talking about.

But then there is that niggling thought, that challenge that Paddy sums up so well. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It is so easy for us to look at someone else’s situation and think “it was easier for them”. That if we only get in the right place, with the right people, that somehow things will run smoother, we’d find it easier to step out and do the things we’ve been dreaming of…

Paddy’s comment was on a post about conferences. I have been to a lot of Christian conferences. I have travelled to a lot of events seeking the ‘hit’ that will change me, that will catapult me into the life I want to be living (rather than the one I am). Surely, if I get that person to pray for me, or take on board this persons message, then I’d ‘get’ it, I’d be able to take the steps I’ve been incapable of so far…?

Yeah, right! Isn’t the limiting factor there… me?

The buzz phrase at the moment, in all the circles, seems to be ‘community’. Andrea and I want to be part of genuine intentional community. People who share faith; bear each others burdens; spur one another on to love and good works; care for the poor (the list goes on)… Yet as we look for that, long for that, it is so easy for our eyes to be looking a long way further than the people that surround us.

I shouldn’t be looking there for something I can’t find here.

I have some great friends around me. Our little gathering in the East End of London are an imperfect, broken bunch, but they are real friends who have come alongside Andrea and myself at a genuinely difficult time, and have stood along side us, been community to us. And many of them also want to see a more ‘intentional’ form of community develop, a more ‘missional’ lifestyle to grow… But that hasn’t stopped us looking over the fence, wondering about greener grass elsewhere…

Dave, Jacky, Fiona, Dan, Joanne, Aidan, Alison (and there are more). I love you guys loads, and I’ve been really blessed by knowing you and journeying with you. I pray that together we can slowly, imperfectly, limp towards the dreams God is beginning to place in our hearts…

Lord, help me to find here,
What I’ve been looking for there
Amen.

What is church for?

A very good friend and I were having an in depth discussion last night based around the (somewhat ambiguous) question “what is church for?

The pastor of our church had been asked this question and had answered the following:

It’s easier to love God, love each other and love the world in a group, than on our own.
Our shared life helps us to:
- worship God & pray;
- provoke each other to love & good deeds; 
- serve one another including those of us who are poor or suffering;
- work together on behalf of each other & those outside the church
Our church community should be the most attractive thing of all to non-members.
All of these things are partially true for an individual Christian – but only have the possibility of real fruition if we share our lives together.

So, this got us talking. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the above statements, but then I’m not sure if this is the sort of question where you get a ‘right’ answer that you are fully happy with… What is church for?!? What is church? Where does the Christian stop and the church begin? How does our ideal for church relate to the institutions we see around us? 

For my friend, it was the wrong question. The issues and imperfections of the institutions we see round about us mean that we can’t ask this in terms of ‘church’, because surely that is a loaded term that will always draw out the “what should our institution act like?” mindset. For him the root of what we should be is based on individual transformation. As Bonhoeffer said:

“…the Christian life is the participation in the encounter of Christ with the world

Which is totally right, but for me still falls short.

Yes, we have to base our questioning of “what we should be” on a strong understanding of “who we should be”. We should talk in the terms of discipleship and spiritual formation. But even if our understanding of spiritual formation is a more corporate one, there is still a need to move beyond what are inherently individualistic expressions.

I, as an individual Christian, am called to “participate in the encounter of Christ with the world”. But we, not I, are called to be the body of Christ. This is a corporate undertaking, a calling that cannot be fulfilled by individuals, no matter how godly they may be.

Jesus said to His disciples that they (corporately) would be known by how they loved each other. Paul said that “you (plural) are the body of Christ” and “your body (both plural) is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. These are famous quotes that we all know, but do we really take on board the genuinely corporate and cooperative understanding behind them? Or how incredibly challenging they are?

We are the body of Christ. Not the image of the body of Christ, but Christ’s actual body. When we speak to someone on the street it is not just us, it is Jesus; when we feed the poor it is Jesus reaching out and feeding them, not us. When our words or actions towards the world are hostile then the world receives a hostile Christ, because all they see of Him is us.

This is not something we can embody as individuals, because not one of us could live up to the challenge. Where my non-Christian friends know only me as a Christian… well what distorted image of Jesus they must get. It is very deliberate that we are called to be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, to be church together. Because together we can reveal the love Jesus talked about, together the collective image should burn brighter than the messes of our individual lives…

What is church for?
Church is called to be the body, the hands and feet and face, of Jesus. Not to participate in the encounter of Christ with the world, but to be the encounter of Christ with the world. It is to enact the Mission of God, bring in the Kingdom of God; to reveal God to the world. How should the world know Jesus? They should see Him in our shared life together.

***

Of course, my friend has a point; you can’t talk about church without getting bogged down in institutions at some point. And one thing that is very clear is quite how much of a mess our institutions can be (and what a bad image of Christ they can project).

Let me be clear; there never will be a perfect institution. We can’t pack up our churches, move and create some new, perfect church that will truly be the body of Christ. As individuals we are all ‘cracked eikons’, broken vases, dim reflections of the Glory of God. Our institutions are automatically more fractured than the individuals that make them, too often reflecting human greed, pride and avarice as much as the image of God. The institution cannot be the answer; but that doesn’t mean we can reduce our search to the individual out of despair for the future of the corporate.

Tertullian said:

wherever three are gathered, that is church”.

Visible church; invisible church; true church: that’s not where it’s at. Church is the fellowship of believers, the gathering of individuals Christians around a common goal. It may be nothing so organised as three friends praying in a room, seeking to love and inspire each other and to keep each other accountable. As long as it is plugged in to a greater awareness, a sense of ‘church’ as the body of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, then we’re getting there…

***

You may have guessed, from reading the above, that this is still something I’m bashing out. There will be many more conversations like the one last night, with lots of different friends. This is an internal dialogue of mine that I’m now expanding to as many people as possible, because I really want to get to an answer. It may be, as my friend last night suggested, the result of reading too many emerging church blogs, but it’s a path I’ve gone too far down now.

I hope this post has stirred your thoughts, even as it is helping me work through mine.
Thanks for reading!

Emerging Perspective

Wow.
Well, I seem to have been included in the Emergent Village blog round-up of the latest Mark Driscoll furore (see my post here), mainly thanks to this post of Grace’s, (which obviously got a lot more traffic than its 36 comments suggests!). I guess that brings me much more fully into the ‘emerging conversation’ than I thought I was, which probably warrants some clarification…

So far I’ve seem myself as a spectator on the whole emerging church thing; standing on the outside, looking in critically (in the positive sense of that word). I’m part of the New Church stream here in the UK, which is not exactly mainstream, but is definitely not emerging either (although I believe Andrew Jones considers the UK charismatic church as a precursor to emerging stuff over here). My upbringing is in the Anglican church.

I see the emerging conversation as broadly positive. It seems to me to be part of a wider move within the Western churches to reassess themselves and their position and purpose, which has to be a good thing. The driver for this particular movement (although I’m not sure it can be called that – movements tend to be led, and this one definitely doesn’t seem to be) is the desire to be Relevant (it does seem to need to be capitalised for some reason) to post-modern society. I don’t entirely agree with that perspective, but I that’s because I see post-modernism to be almost solely the proviso of media-savvy educated white middle class people; I’m not sure that the characteristics of post-modernism extend beyond that sector of society yet.

I can understand a desire to be Relevant, I just think that people make their own relevance when the message is challenging enough. What we need is not Relevant, but Authentic.

Like I said in my last post, I’ve not read Brian McLaren’s “Everything must Change yet, but from what I can gather I think the book is part of an honest attempt to critically re-evaluate our faith; to try and discern how the 1st Century message of Jesus translates into our 21st Century context. What would Jesus have to say to us about how we follow him, about how we express our faith to the world? I’ve not worked it out yet, but I’m pretty sure it would have a lot to do with ‘widows and orphans’.

Anything that drives us to reconsider ‘how should we then live?’ is positive, in my opinion, which is why I see the emerging conversation as positive. I’m not sure that I would always reach the same conclusions, but it is at least a genuine question: “how do we love? How do we reach out to those that don’t know Jesus? How do we minister to the poor, the rejected?”

To me, the question ringing in my ears is, if I were there, walking in 1st Century Palestine, would my current faith put me with the hungry followers of Jesus or the indignant Pharisees? I think for too many of us here in the West, if we are truthful with ourselves we would find ourselves with the religious establishment of the day decrying the radical who dared to claim he had a better understanding of God… At least within this conversation are those who are critically asking themselves this, and working out how to change direction.

Godspeed to them, I say.

Everything Must Change: Emerging, Reformed, and the lack of a Kingdom theology

[UPDATE: Scot McKnight is beginning a series on this which looks a good deal more balanced. He makes clear that the title “Everything must change” is, in context, about the gospel: Jesus’ Kingdom message is so radical it demands that everything must change to accommodate it. I await with interest the other parts in this series.]

Tim Challies has posted up a review of Brian McLaren’s new bookEverything Must Change”. It’s got me a little riled…

For those of you who haven’t come across Tim Challies, he is the writer of Challies.com, which is purportedly the most read Christian blog on the internet. Which says something terrible about Christian blogdom. Tim writes a lot of book reviews, which seem to mostly consist of giving a brief summary and then loudly declaring every theological hole he can find with a magnifying glass. Its not an approach that endears him to me.

Challies.com is not a blog I read regularly, but I do pop along now and then, simply because this is what a large proportion of Christian blog-readers are feeding on, and I think its useful to keep track of such things. Maybe I should stop.

Brian McLaren, for those who don’t know, is writer of A Generous Orthodoxy (a book with one of the longest subtitles in non-academic literature), one of the founders of Emergent, and is considered by those outside of the emerging church to be one of its foremost leaders and writers.  I’m going to confess right away that I haven’t read a Brian McLaren book yet (although I want to, just so I know what the fuss is about), so I have no way of pretending to be remotely authorities on what he thinks. So this post is going to be one of those badly-researched, ill thought out rants that the internet is famous for. Sorry.

***

According to the Tim Challies review, Everything Must Change seems to be an attempt to widen the scope of Christian thinking to include a response to the profound socio-political and economic issues of our world. It is a suggestion that maybe the message of Jesus included a response to those oppressed by political regimes, or trapped in poverty and hunger. i.e. “What are the global crises and how can Jesus provide a revolution of hope?

McLaren seems to argue a need for a new “framing story” or understanding of how our faith encounters the problems of the world. As a radical polemicist, McLaren overemphasises his new way of thinking and exaggerates the issues he sees with ‘traditional’ Christian thinking. Challies quotes a McLaren reframing of the Magnificat which shows his issues with this way of thinking:

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my personal Savior, for he has been mindful of the correct saving faith of his servant. My spirit will go to heaven when my body dies for the Mighty One has provided forgiveness, assurance, and eternal security for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who have correct saving faith and orthodox articulations of belief, from generation to generation. He will overcome the damning effects of original sin with his mighty arm; he will damn to hell those who believe they can be saved through their own efforts or through any religion other than the new one He is about to form. He will condemn followers of other religions to hell but bring to heaven those with correct belief. He has filled correct believers with spiritual blessings but will send those who are not elect to hell forever. He has helped those with correct doctrinal understanding, remembering to be merciful to those who believe in the correct theories of atonement, just as our preferred theologians through history have articulated”

[Compare to the ‘original’ here]

McLaren states that the reality is:

“Mary celebrates that God is going to upset the dominance hierarchies typical of empire so that the nation of Israel can experience the fulfillment of its original promise.”

Challies deplores this approach, in fact McLaren’s whole way of thinking, writing off the entire book as a completely false gospel. I’m not going to go through all the details of this battle, but Challies’ closing remarks are telling:

“It seems increasingly clear that the new kind of Christian McLaren seeks is no kind of Christian at all. The church on the other side of his reinvention is a church devoid of the glorious gospel of Christ’s atoning death. It is a church utterly stripped of its power because it is a church stripped of the gospel message. McLaren’s new gospel is a social gospel, a liberal gospel and, in fact, no gospel at all.”

***

I want to make clear that, from the quotes I’ve read in this review, I don’t entirely agree with McLaren’s viewpoint or theology. But I can see validity to the point of the book, which is to widen our viewpoint away from the idea of a solely personal gospel. I take great umbrage to the comment “a social gospel [is] …no gospel at all”. A solely social gospel is deficient, but then so is a gospel based entirely on substitutionary atonement.

Jesus’ message was a holistic one, for all levels of community and society. It was a gospel of hope and transformation for the whole world. Yes, it was a defeat of sin and death through the cross. But it was also a radical new way of living; a reissue of the Genesis message that we are all, equally, ‘made in the image of God’; and an instigation of a community of transformation that was intended to express “God is Love” to the whole world.

I have issues with the way McLaren seems to talk here, in the same way that I have had with Steve Chalke. But those who try to push us into new ways of thinking often settle on provocative means of doing so, simply because they are the most affective in the short term. If someone gets your blood up, you at least have to ask yourself why!

Can somebody tell me, does the Reformed tradition have any understanding a Kingdom theology? Do they have any concept of what Jesus was saying (before His death and resurrection!) when he declared “the Kingdom of God is at hand!”? Do they have any answer to verses like Micah 6:8 and James 1:27?

Of course Jesus came to deal with the ‘problem of evil’. He came to ‘reconcile man to God’. But he also came to bring comfort to the poor. Read his mission statement, and tell me if, somewhere in amongst all the rhetoric, McLaren might not have a valid point.

Rant over. I’m off to find another book reviewer.

The weirdness of my wish list…

I’ve had a link to my Amazon Wish List on the side bar for a while now. The idea of the “be nice to me” category was originally something like the Pay Pal donate buttons you see on other peoples pages. It was going to have things like a link to Andrea’s Stewardship account, but Stewardship are about 2 years behind their original plans to move into online giving…

The intention wasn’t to beg for anything, but just to create avenues should anyone ever want them. And if no-one ever did, well, so what?

The inspiration for this post though, was a conversation I had with Andrea some time back, where she quizzed me as to the somewhat-eclectic nature of said wish list. I guess you’d hope that a look at someone’s wish list would give you an insight into how their head works; well, what on earth does mine say about me?

I’m not sure what the point of a wish list is, (probably something to pass onto your family at Christmas time) but for me it started as an overflow of my Amazon shopping basket. Books (and it is almost invariably books) that I wasn’t quite sure I wanted right that moment would often sit in my basket for weeks if not months. At some point I worked out that I could drop these items into the wish list so as not to be consumed with indecision when it came to making a purchase (“I want Irresistible Revolution, but I still have these two Old Testament overview books here; do I want them as well?”). Here they would quite happily sit, and the list would slowly grow in the same fashion.

The next category of item is the “people who shopped for… also bought”, which seems to be the main way Amazon makes money. There are quite a few items of this nature on the wish list. Things I spot inadvertently while browsing (which probably happens once a month or so). CDs like the REM fall into this category.

However the main content of the wish list, and the reason of its inherent weirdness, is that I started reading blogs. And on blogs people seem to review books a lot. And every time someone talks about a book that in some way intrigues me… it ends up on the wish list!

So I guess that if you look at the books on this wish list, you at least get an idea of the kinds of books read by the authors of the blogs I read. They are mainly related to religion, especially Christianity, and often about explorations and journeys within that, especially the whole ‘emerging’ thing. Looking at the list, I’m not at all sure how many of these I would actually buy. I always want to read more than I actually read, and knowing this I am selective as to which books I part cash for, however much the general subject interests me. I think we can safely say that (almost) all the books on the list I’d like to read if I had infinite capacity and infinite resources… just so I can be more roundly educated on the subjects concerned.

Some of the items on the list are really never going to get bought. No one is going to come along to this blog and decide “hey, I like this guy’s writing, I’ll buy him a MacBook!” (The Nikon D50 is similarly daft). But these larger items are things that I would probably buy myself, if only I could afford it.

So its an eclectic mix, and as often as not a running commentary on my forays into the blog jungle (blungle? jubgle?) searching for wisdom. The one that prompted the conversation with Andrea was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but that is just along the same lines as the Book of Common Prayer; it is part of a growing desire in me to understand the richness and the diversity of the Church in all its forms. However random the list is, however far from a Christmas present list, I guess it is all part of that searching for truth and wisdom…

Make of it all what you will. ;-)

Heresy

I think we use the word Heresy too much.

Grace has posted an open conversation on yet another controversy regarding the comments of one Mark Driscoll. Mark, talking to a group of pastors in the states, uses the platform to ‘constructively criticise’ some of the more prominent US ‘emerging church ‘ voices. Mmmm…

I haven’t heard the podcast, and I haven’t even read the books of the people concerned. I’m not going to get drawn into a ‘who’s right, who’s wrong’ thing here. If you are interested in the issues, then the conversation going on in Grace’s comments stream is (relatively) balanced. My point in postsing on this, is because I disagree with the principle behind it, and this is something that is happening way too often at the moment.

The Church, globally, is big, colourful, and very, very diverse. There is a wide range of perspectives, opinions, theologies and approaches between countries, and that diversity often extends within countries as well. In the West we have many, many different churches and a celebrated history of freedom of thought and expression, that fully extends into the church. We may have burned people for believing the wrong thing a few hundred years ago, but we’ve stopped doing that now…

Except that, especially in the American Christian blogosphere, we seem to be regaining a passion for (un)healthy criticism. It seems that a section of the Western church that has issues with freedom of religious thought is getting rather vocal. I’m not going to say that Mark Driscoll is heading this up, or even a bad offender in this regard, but his actions in this talk are symptomatic. He took the stage in a public forum (its podcasted on iTunes!) and denounced some of his fellow ministers as having ‘incorrect’ beliefs.

There is such a thing as Heresy. You can’t read the New Testament and not understand that some beliefs cross the line into what becomes un-Christian. But what constitutes Heresy is things like the denial of Jesus as Christ, it’s promoting another saviour, not whether or not someone uses rabbinical sources to help them understand the bible!

We don’t get to point at people in that way and shout ‘you’re wrong!’ Our faith is bigger and more complex and more mysterious than can be fit into a systematic theology book; there has always been space for differences in approach and understanding. That’s why we have so many different churches.

It is fine to disagree, even strongly, on what constitutes the right expression of our faith. But I really don’t think it is fine to stand up in a public forum and say, effectively ‘I am righter than these other people’. It is not fine to promote and perpetuate this form of badly researched antagonistic criticism.

If Mark Driscoll has a problem with the other pastors he mentions, he should talk to them about it. If someone comes up and asks him “what do you think of X’s teaching on this” he can go “I disagree with them and see it this way”. But I really don’t think its right to stand up and say “this person has it wrong” in a public forum like that.

But then, maybe I’m just the pot calling the kettle black… ;-)