I read a book recently by David Fitch which really upended my whole world. The name of the book is, “The Great Giveaway,” and it’s a buffet of food for thought for American Christianity. Fitch dedicates the entire first chapter to the potential harm of something which church leaders have consistently turned to in the last couple decades as an indication of God’s blessing: boom growth. “Numbers, on their own, say nothing qualitative about what is going on in the church when viewed as the body of Christ,” he says. “Indeed, when numbers reach a certain level, a further increase in numbers may deter achieving the goals of being the body of Christ.” He comes back on that idea later in the same chapter: “the underlying purposes of the organization cannot help but change when managed for efficiency, largeness, and effectiveness.”
Simply put: your priorities are different when you’re programming to get bigger versus when you’re building disciples.
I can already hear the browsers closing.
I know this isn’t a popular idea. We would much rather listen to Joel Osten telling us how God wants to give us enormous homes and a million dollars, but there are high stakes here. If we’re going to be the true body of Christ, I think this is really important.
From me, a marketer
So here’s a little background: I work in marketing. For almost 15 years, I have worked at a few different places to promote websites, fire helmets, thermal imagers, real estate companies, and all kinds of cool stuff. I understand when I’m pushing a sale. I understand a call to action and portraying your product to entice a target demographic.
It’s odd that I used to turn off that awareness when I was involved in church activities. For some reason, posting a picture of myself to social media during a church event just didn’t seem like the same thing as posting to social media to sell a product. I wasn’t making the connection that advertising a company for brand recognition and asking someone to remember the name of your church “in case you’re interested in coming” are exactly the same thing.
Did I do that?
Once I became aware of what I was doing, it was almost heartbreaking to see how often it happens. Taking selfies of ourselves helping someone in need. Posting pictures of the piles of stuff we’re giving to a homeless shelter. Handing out flyers for the grand production we’re putting on at Easter. Convincing ourselves that the great commission is a marketing campaign on the grandest scale.
That’s the point where the American picture of Christian success really culminates: numbers. It’s deeply rooted in capitalism, looking at sheer numbers to illustrate what a good job you’re doing. We read things like, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved,” (Acts 2:47) and we think we’re fulfilling the holy mandate we were created for. That little tidbit from Acts is connected to something else, however. It’s the final thought. It’s the ending of this:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (italics mine)
From where I stand now, that’s a pretty solid priority list. Be together, eat together, pray together. (Eat, Pray, Love? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Work toward the wholeness of those near you. Share everything. Don’t love the things you own more than your brothers and sisters. If someone has a need, do whatever it takes to meet it. Be together, eat joyously together. People will come.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t grow the Kingdom. I’m saying that numerical growth isn’t at all the point.
I’ve been reading another pretty great book by Allen Kreider, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.” I’d recommend it if you’re interested in early church history. It’s interesting that in the beginning of the Christian church movement, they didn’t do evangelism. They had no church growth model. In fact, it seems that until Constantine made Christianity a part of the government, Christianity was a slow-moving, thoroughly cautious discipline. You couldn’t just show up for worship. You had to be mentored for three years before baptism. Up to then, until you were immersed in the “living waters” (water that was flowing), you couldn’t even take part in the entire worship service. Those who became new believers learned the hard disciplines of loving enemies, serving others, and giving sacrificially before they ever got dunked. It was person-to-person, meeting in small rooms, growing in communities of people who were closely connected to one another.
It was deeply personal. It occupied huge chunks of time, it involved giving of oneself sacrificially. But… is there anything more Christian than that?
I know many Christians have a genuine love for people, they want the best for them. Why can’t we lead with that? Or even let that be the whole message? It could change the face of religion in our country.
This echoes in postmodern and younger generations, especially millennials (people who have become adults since the turn of the century). We spent a lot of time and effort to make our churches cooler and louder, yet that hasn’t resonated with them. A pew study reveals that while they believe in God, they seem to want nothing to do with organized religion. This seems ironic, considering the emphasis on delivering worship experiences aimed directly at them: rock songs, casual attire, stuff we were positive they would eat up. Could it be they’re looking for something else?
This same group of people, by virtue of the sheer volume of selling aimed at them, have developed a keen sense of being sold to. The average person pulls in 200 times the amount of information that we were receiving less than 30 years ago. The United States is by far the largest market in the world for ad sales. Millenials have grown up with this reality, and have responded in a very unexpected way: they have left the room.
They have been pitched to so often, they quickly see it coming and turn the other way. Where advertising has pushed polished pieces aimed at showing how superior a product or service is, millennials have relied instead on blogs, social media, and peers. The videos they share are most often produced by amateurs. They want to talk to real people, who tell you what they really think, who reflect real experience.
You can’t win them when a great flyer. You can’t come up with clever things to put on your church sign and suddenly find them appearing at your door. They aren’t interested in that. Frankly, neither am I. I would love to see what could happen if we spent our time building relationships for the tough stuff of life, mentoring and discipling one another like they did in the olden days. Surely it would be a revolution for all ages.
The argument that quickly disagrees with itself
I get into conversations with people who are members and fans of a megachurch (another word for “really really, ridiculously big church”) every now and again. (I know it seems like “fan” is a weird word here, but seriously… I see people with stickers on their cars for popular, enormous churches in states they don’t even live in.) When I talk to these folks, I genuinely want to know: how can you go to a church of 25,000 people and feel any sense of community?
It’s always the same response: “the real relationships happen in small groups.”
That makes sense How can you possibly get to know 24,999 other people in a way that allows you to share life? How could you even have enough time in the average day to pray for them? Of course you have to be involved in a small group.
So what’s the point of a church roughly the size of a small city? Why spend $100 million on a building to gather your masses every week if the real point is the smaller groups… which are roughly the same size as a first-century church was?
That answer also seems to be fairly consistent. “We can do much bigger things with a large church.” I don’t even know where to go from there. The church is big, the outcomes are big, the expectations are big… where does the gentle whisper that Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19:12 fit in? Could we be so enamored of the fire and the earthquake that we no longer bother to find out if God is even in it?
Fitch talks about that as well: “We rely on techniques that enable us to forsake Christ’s model of servant leadership for a corporate notion of leadership.” (p.72) We are busy promoting instead of listening. We spend our time defending the gospel when we should be living it. We are hoping that if the building is big enough, we won’t have to do any of the work of servanthood ourselves.
I love the church. I think it’s the greatest establishment in the whole history of mankind. One thing I know for sure, though: Jesus didn’t set it up so we could build monuments and personal fiefdoms. He set it up to be a city on a hill, a beacon of hope. Our savior was more likely to purposely flee a crowd than to purposely gather one. His most memorable interactions happened with one tax collector, one widow, one pharisee, one leper. If his plan was to show us what God looks like with his life, how could we possibly aspire to more? Not in some grand gesture under lights, watched by 25,000 of your closest friends; but in secret. In places where the losers and the lonely wait. Among the affluent but desperate. Realizing that God is already doing bigger things than we could ever build ourselves, and being content to serve him. When that happens, I bet we won’t even feel the urge to take a selfie with the people we’re supposed to be serving.