If You Build It Will They Come?

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.~Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Church

The ground is shifting under feet. Methodology that we considered incontravertible 25 years ago has shown itself to be built on sand. The church as a business has gone bankrupt and her creditors don’t even seem to care.

We should have known better. Running a church as a business, complete with CEO (pastor), Vice Presidents (associate pastors) , Department Heads, and yes, complete with a board of directors (read “elders”)–all that should have caused us to question our structures. That none of this appears in scripture should have been a tip off. That our society is awash with this economically driven pattern, should have given us a clue that we were looking in the wrong place for a church model. Learning to live in the world is one thing, becoming like the world is another thing entirely. The following came from Out of UR the Christianity Today Blog:

James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry–church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage–has impacted every evangelical church in the country.

But, according to Sally Morgenthaller, author of Worship Evangelism, things are changing. Her book promoted the idea that an intimate and quality worship experience would draw seekers into a relationship with Christ. She, like the Hybels, has come face to face with a new reality.

Truth may hurt, but if there’s something leaders do, they tell it. In 2000 I didn’t have all of the numbers I have now, but I had seen enough to know what was happening. The contemporary church–including the praise-and-worship church, the worship evangelism church–was in a holy huddle, and I began to talk about it. It was excruciating. It was career suicide. But from pastors conferences to worship seminars to seminaries, I began challenging leaders to give up their mythologies about how they were reaching the unchurched on Sunday morning. Yes, worship openly and unapologetically. Yes, worship well and deeply…But let our deepened, honest worship be the overflow of what God does through us beyond our walls.

Church may gather in a building, but the work of the church does not happen there. The church is charged with going, not luring outsiders to come in. Even we who have spurned the building and retreated to our living rooms aren’t doing any better if we merely gather for a smaller “holy huddle.” Our love for each other and for the Lord must drive us outside where the world awaits. Morganthaller observes:

….culture has become incessantly more spiritual and adamantly less religious, we … have become convinced that the primary meeting place with our unchurched friends is now outside the church building [and living room]. Worship must finally become, as Paul reminds us, more life than event (Romans 12:1-2). To this end, we will be focusing on the radically different kind of leadership practices necessary to transform our congregations from destinations to conversations, from services to service, and from organizations to organisms.”

Although the form is not the real issue, I am still convinced that the church in the home, or at Starbucks, or the pub, or the community center comes closer to the heart of the unbeliever than the structures most of us grew up with. While I don’t advocate a rebel’s exodus from the traditional church, I do call for a ruthless evaluation of what we have called church. Without it we may unintentionally exclude ourselves from the world we are charged to win.

Social scientists observe that in this increasingly mediated world, people are increasingly isolated and lonely. Crowded churches don’t necessarily feed that human need. When Jesus gave his new commandment He didn’t call us to be acquainted with one another, but to love. Fulfilling that commandment means sharing at a deeper level than is possible once a week in a crowd watching the show.


SALLY MORGENTHALER speaks about leadership in a “flattened” world. She is a contributor to An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Baker).

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