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. 

Babies and Bathwater

Kingdom Grace blogged the other day a very honest post about her current faith journey, and how it is taking to the very edges of organised church. A heartfelt, searching piece was quickly followed by a long (and growing) list of encouraging comments. Its really worth a read.

I’ve already ‘stuck my oar in’ in that comment stream, expressing an opinion which isn’t really shared with the other commenters. I feel a need to attempt a clearer expression of my thoughts on this subject, but I wanted to do it way from Grace’s comment stream, so that it could be more general thoughts on the subject and divorced somewhat from her current journey (although using that as my example, as it is the inspiration for posting). Its very important that in reading this you understand that I am not intending to criticise Grace or the decisions she is wrestling with at present. I have a great deal of respect for Grace, for her well reasoned and passionate writing, her openness about her faith journey, and her as a person (from what little I know of her).

This is a post about church, not a criticism of any one individuals faith journey.

So, the question is ‘is it possible to have a churchless faith’? Certainly, a lot of the regulars at Kingdom Grace seem to think it is. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m not so sure…

‘Faith deconstruction’ is kinda the ‘in thing’ at the moment; it is a journey that God seems to be taking many of us through. We look at the implicit and explicit assumptions in our understanding of what church ‘is’ and what church should ‘be’, and try to strip back to something less inculcated. We end up with loads of perfectly understandable question marks over church practices, and often with a hunger for what Grace describes as “some church thing that [is] amazingly awesome”; ie, something that is not like church as we currently experience it.

Certainly there are lots of reasons to question church as it is often expressed in all its institutional forms. Why are we meetings focused? Why is that guy (and too often it’s a guy) at the front doing everything while I just sit here? Why are we not more open and honest with each other…? In my own journey I’ve frequently got frustrated with the church community I’m part of, and with the others I see around me – some of my journey and frustrations have been played out on this blog. So I understand why people get to that place…

I also understand how difficult it can be, once you have been uprooted, to get rooted into a community again. Somehow each new community you encounter doesn’t seem to offer anything close to the value of the long-term relationships from our previous home. In short, I get it: if, like Grace, you find yourself going through a real faith deconstruction alongside leaving your long-time spiritual home, it is going to be really hard to find any spiritual community that seems to cut the mustard.

My problem is that, how ever understandable it is that you have reached that place, abandoning participating in ‘formal’ spiritual community is really a step too far: to me it’s the proverbial from the title above. Hebrews 10:25 was quoted in the comments stream, and although I agree with the commenter that we can apply this too narrowly, it, like many other biblical passages, is encouraging us to keep meeting together.

The argument implicit in there is that there is actually something beneficial to us in the process of gathering with other Christians. We are fed, we are encouraged, we are challenged, we have our rough edges worn off, by other Christians. Other Christians are, I would say, the primary mechanism by which God changes our character and builds in us the fruits of the Spirit. (And don’t we just know how much you need meekness and patience and self-control if you are in the Church for any length of time!)

I would go further, as I have in the past, by pointing out that almost every time in the New Testament the word ‘you’ is used, it is plural. We are the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, only as a corporate identity. It is our love for each other that is what makes us known as Christians. I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to be a Christian in isolation. We can only follow Jesus when we do so as part of a community.

Now, you would probably say to me that just because you leave the organised church, it doesn’t mean that you stop ‘meeting’ with other Christians. We can be in fellowship with people who are not part of our institution. We don’t need to be part of an institution to be part of The Church.

I agree with all of that.

BUT, I have two issues with taking that route (without invalidating it as a possibility).

1) If you are not part of some form of intentional gathering (however informal) it is much much harder to ensure that you are experiencing fully honest and open communion. You have to establish fresh ground rules with each and every person you fellowship with. Yes, it can be hard to have genuine openness and accountability in a church setting, but at least with ‘formal’ groupings of Christians there are shared values, ground rules and understandings: these can (and should) make openness a more realistic possibility.

2) Without being part of some grouping that you yourself do not define, you can effectively (and easily) pick and choose who you are open with. In fact, you are very unlikely to have real fellowship with anyone you don’t like, or don’t have a great deal of similarity with, or find ‘difficult’. But like I said before, it is the difficult and the different people that God so frequently uses to shape us and to enrich us.

Like I said, babies and bathwater. There are many reasons to be tired, frustrated and really hurt by and with church. Many reasons why you might (quite legitimately) want to leave. But even our very broken, imperfect and human institutions are real tools that God uses to shape us. And without them, I think we are poorer people.

If God is calling you into a new season, then you’ve got to go with where He leads you. But if you feel that He is leading you away from any form of ‘church’, then I think you need to ask yourself some searching questions. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Just that ‘church’ even though it is broken, even though it is much need of deconstruction and reconstruction, is still something God made, and God loves.

That’s my two cents (as they say across the pond). I hope it has come across sensitively enough; if not I apologise.

God bless

a

Singles Church

Last night, a friend was telling me about their theory that Megachurches develop and thrive because they provide a forum for social mixing. Essentially my friend was saying that churches become large because they provide opportunities for boys to meet girls (and vice versa).

Ok, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, but somewhat compelling (in a twisted fashion).

man woman

As the topic has run round my head, I thought that this was a good opportunity to try and tackle a (related) thorny issue I’ve been putting off blogging for a while: that of Christians and marriage. OK, on reflection, that should be Christians and singleness. Continue reading

Deconstruction

…believe that God is not confined inside a systematic theology book, that numbers do not equate “success”, and that God is offended by the pursuit of the Great Commission when it violates our call to live out the Great Commandment.

Another great quote, again from the comments on Emerging Grace’s blog, this time by Gary Means. I’m not sure if I could have thought up a better way to summarise my own feelings, had I spent weeks on it. I think I’d add:

…that busyness does not equal holiness, ministry does not equal microphone, and worship is not an ‘I’-centred experience”.

Of course, the problem with deconstruction is that, once you’ve done it, what do you have left?

wrong

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.

Space to grow

Emerging Grace has just pointed towards this great post from author and emerging congregation leader Rick McKinley. I’d not heard of Rick before, but his post is balanced and full of grace.

Rick essentially argues that we resist our impulses to theologically categorise the emerging church, giving it space to grow into maturity before we make it comply with our protestant tribalism. He argues:

“…if we insist that this young emerging church declare their college major right now, we may be killing the very thing that God is doing by putting a yoke upon them that God did not ask them to carry, but was one that we invented out of the fear of what they might become.

The whole article is worth a read; find it here.

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!

Unity

20″My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24″Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25″Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

[John 17: 20-26]

“…that all of them may be one”.
I’ve been thinking about church unity quite a bit recently. Michael Spencer has posted on this in the last few days (here and here), but thoughts on this have been running through my head for months now…

Have you even wondered at why so many of the prayers and prophecies in the bible seem so resolutely unfulfilled? Like Psalm 103:3 or the above prayer from John 17. Jesus himself prays for us, those who would believe through the message of the apostles, that we would be unified in Him and each other.

…well, that one’s not true, is it?

Which gets me thinking. Is it that we are deluding ourselves, far from the truth? That God doesn’t exist, or at least that what we see revealed in the bible is untrue? Or perhaps is it that we are not co-operating with Him, in seeing His prayer fulfilled?

I am a great fan of the diversity of the church. I really wouldn’t want every London congregation to look like mine, especially not with our severely limited ecclesiology… I think it is great that there are groups of believers gathering together who express different elements of God’s character, or His passion for the world, or our response to the Gospel.

But what frustrates me is that we don’t see this diversity as strength, we often are unable even to recognise other streams of our faith as valid. Churches meeting within half a mile of each other, each desperately passionate about their community never meet together, never pray together. They put out a hideously fractured view of the bride of Christ to the community they care so much about.

“I pray …that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

So I ask myself, is it possible that we live as enemies of Christ’s purpose, because we are so stubbornly uncooperative to His prayer? Are the church leaders and watch-bloggers and prayer ministries and aid charities and all the other diverse expressions of this Christian family failing because we don’t actively seek to engage and fulfil this prayer?!?

We’ve talked on this blog about the criticisms of the emerging church laid out by characters such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Challies. I’ve highlighted them not because I take any joy in being critical back, but because the fact that we are not striving for unity rends my heart. We are meant to be one! Not identical, not united in perfect theological and ecclesial conformity, but recognising each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as colourful and valuable facets in that beautiful bride.

This is not a vision or a prayer that will miraculously be fulfilled; we will not wake up one day and suddenly find that all those divisions have melted away over night. Our human nature means that we have an inbuilt drive to tribalise, to define the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. We will always see differences in belief, and even expression of that belief, as controversial and divisive. We have to fight those impulses, and deliberately, consciously move towards loving expressions of mutual worth.

“In essentials, unity;
in non-essentials, liberty;
and in all things, love”

***

I had a conversation with someone about church unity at a party during August (which says something about the kind of party I go to). I was asked how we get towards church unity, because it seems such a hard road to walk down. Now, I don’t pretend to have all the answers: I hope that is not the impression I give on this blog. This is the gist of what I said.

I think unity has to grow as a grass-roots thing. Its not that ecumenical councils don’t have their value, or that church leaders are inherently prejudiced; but our leaders have a high level of buy-in to their particular church ‘flavour’, and it is very hard for them to look beyond that to see the value of different expressions… Let me paint you a picture.

There’s a murder, or a violent attack in your neighbourhood. It shocks, appals and probably frightens both you, your Christian friends and your non-Christian neighbours. In conversation with some friends you ask “what on earth can we do?” and you decide you should pray. It starts with you and a couple of friends from your church who live nearby. Then one of you mentions it to a friend in the area from another church, who asks if they can join you… Slowly more people join to pray with you, now from several different churches, some in that neighbourhood, some from across the city. There are no leaders; just ordinary Christians appalled by a horrific incidence on their doorstep.

There is no limit to how far this can go. When we pray with people we realise that there is actually very little that separates us. We all believe in Jesus, in His love and compassion, and in the power of prayer. As we pray we might notice differences in style, in wording; people who pray at once, who pray in turns, who use strange phrases and other languages. But we choose to be enriched by this diversity rather than offended by it, because we recognise the earnest desire in our fellow pray-ers to see change in our community.

Over time, who knows? Maybe joint meetings and celebrations, maybe parties and new friendships… but there is a level of unity at that most base level: here is someone who cares for this community as I do, who calls to the same Lord in hope and desperation… Here is my brother.

Peace
andy