Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Churches for People Who Don't Go to Church

From "Stuff Christians Like."
Read the whole text here.

All are welcome!

"I wish every church said what this church says in their bulletin," says Jon Acuff, referring to the "awesome welcome message" at a church a friend of his had visited. What do you think? How many churches really want to put out the welcome mat for everyone? Should they?

Here's something I think may be related.

Churches for those who don't go to church

I continue to think about a class I took at the beginning of this year, a course on church-planting issues. My teacher, a church planter and trainer in Germany, advocated planting churches deliberately and openly designed for their non-members, and yes, for people who don't yet know Jesus (but are interested).

Although it may not often occur to most evangelicals, missionaries and missiologists would suggest that the people who most "need" new churches are those who don't have any. It's pretty obvious if you think about it. So, if you're going to try to plant a church, you should consider starting a church for people who don't go to church.

So, what are the implications of that?

1. Watch out for those who DO go to church (at least some of them)

Planting a church to reach those outside the church can mean disappointing a lot of people, including the people who have rejected and/or been rejected by other churches and are pinning their hopes on your fresh, new, and as yet invisible thing. If it doesn't materialize they way they hoped, these are the kind of folks who could become hypercritical and really hurt you and the church.

So I guess there's a group you want to hold at arm's length. At least when all you have is a fragile, new church plant that could so easily be destroyed. People hurt by other churches and overly excited about your new, different church could be the death of it. So try not to court them.

2. What will the church be like? Whose "style" will prevail?

If you are trying to start a new church for people who don't go to church, stuff like the location, logo, name, music style, and the like should not be chosen based on looking within your own heart and asking yourself what you prefer. Nor even by looking around at your team of church-planting allies and asking them what they think would be good. Nope.

OK, disclaimers first: Study up on what the Bible has to say about what the church is and does and is all about, and make sure you know what your mission is, what your calling and best contribution and values and convictions are. For such things, yes, look within and study scripture, history, how other people do things. And be very clear on all that before you start. Communicate what you're about and what you're trying to do, repeatedly and consistently. Stay focused.

But... the Bible doesn't tell you what you should call your church or present it or where you "put it," do they? And how to draw people into prayer and worship, how to teach them in ways that reach them where they are, well, you have to know the people, don't you?

In all those areas, you should ask the kind of people you want to reach. Focus groups, man-on-the-street interviews, talking to community leaders, and a nearly endless series of "let me take you out to lunch and pick your brains," meetings with people you encounter, those will illuminate your path.

3. Finding a name

So, with all that said, you don't choose the name; you let your city choose the name.

My instructor gave the example of a process by which he got the folks he'd gathered for a church plant in inner-city Toronto to submit possible names, and told them, "we'll take these recommendations and see what the city says." He made a list of all the names they turned in and had the people vote, promising to take the top four names to the streets to see what people would say.

He had to swallow his pride when the name that he liked, the one that would link them to the church of his pastor-hero in New York, that was the name that nobody liked. Everyone liked the name with the word "grace" in it. They offered all kinds of reasons. Somebody said it's a very "Canadian" word. Also, there are "Grace" hospitals all across Canada and they have a very good reputation. Grace Toronto Church was born.

It's not about trying to be cool or something, but about trying to accomplish your mission. If the mission is about connecting with and influencing people, you need some cultural savvy to do it.

4. Flexibility

Grace Toronto Church and other churches my instructor helped plant used similar processes to come with a byline, logo, promotional materials, meeting times and locations, and more.

They got local people to help them understand things like the direction of traffic, the atmosphere of certain neighborhoods, the tacit assumptions and lifestyle patterns people might bring with them that could influence  how the church might connect and take shape.

In their early, experimental worship services - and even these delayed until the "listening" and networking process had gone on as long as they could afford - they tried out all kinds of things to see what would work, what would stick. They changed things up.

They didn't commit themselves in advance and try to present some kind of done deal. I like that.

What do you think? 

Some of what we studied doesn't jive so well with the simple church, cell-based, contextualized church-planting movement theories that form the bedrock of assumptions about church planting that I get from my work in the world missions community. Stuff like where to put your signs and fliers and how to design your church lobby or website seem a little silly when you're talking about house churches in a restricted-access country.

On the other hand, these conversations helped me see things a little more through the eyes of the US church-planters who use the same words as we do and yet don't seem to mean the same things by them. I think I see how American church planters and church-planting missionaries can be such separate camps.

I'm not sure how to harmonize all this or if that's even possible, but I'll keep chewing on these things and would be glad to talk to anyone who can help me with that.

See also: Aubrey Malphurs' book, Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century.

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