Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Reply to Hawkeye Gold

"Hawkeye Gold," whom I think must be the only reader of this humble blog, wrote:

Many small churches are like the Nishnabotna River: ten yards wide and an inch deep. There are reasons why small churches are small, some of them may have to do with demographics, but, for the most part, small churches are small because they are not healthy.

HG is right, of course. There are potentially many reasons why small churches remain small. Let me pose a few reasons for consideration:
  1. A lack of vital health. Healthy churches grow. How much they grow depends on many other factors, but it is unfair to suggest that a rural congregation in Central Nebraska is unhealthy merely because its statistics don't suggest growth. At the same time, a lack of health seen in a "control orientation" among leadership, a lack of balance in the "5 purposes of a church," an "inward focus," and so on does hamper growth.
  2. Demographics. As suggested above, a church may be healthy and struggle to grow only to see those won to Christ leave the community. Upper midwest states are experiencing a "brain drain" as younger people finish their education and leave for "greener grass" and "greener cash." Many boomers, busters, and millennials are baling out of the "rust belt" or the "ag belt" simply because there aren't good jobs for them. I have known healthy churches to labor diligently to fulfill Christ's mission only to watch those won to Christ move. In such places, "breaking even" may be the mark of success. Here in Sun City, First Christian must reach nearly 30 people a year just to "break even." Additions do not come easy when the community is comprised mostly of senior adults although as FCC becomes more healthy we are seeing renewed interest.
  3. A desire for intimacy. As noted in my prevous blog, many busters and millennials are abandoning the mega-church for smaller congregations. According to Mark Taylor, "George Barna found that many younger adults prefer smaller churches. Suspicious of larger organizations in general, many of them feel they can be better known in a smaller congregation." Other researchers are coming to the same conclusions. Does this mean that the drive to build mega-churches has peaked? Not at all! It just means that there are those who prefer smaller healthy churches to larger healthy churches. The problem is, however, that where demographics are not a problem, the healthy smaller church won't stay small. Those who desire intimacy found in smaller churches will "hive off" a nucleus and start a new congregation.
  4. A different view of church and its function. Brian Jones's article in the March 20 Christian Standard expresses the view of a growing number of people-oriented leaders. In the last two years several books decrying the CEO mentality necessarily present in the mega-church senior minister. Books like Lynn Anderson's They Smell Like Sheep are calling for a different leadership style. Although it doesn't have to, these concepts almost require a smaller flock. Some mega-churches, especially those with effective small groups (shepherding groups), can and do shepherd their people and minister effectively to individual needs. Others, and I fear this is a majority, don't see the tree for the forest! Mega-church leadership talks about assimilation and shepherding, but there is, in my opinion, a general lack of understanding about what this means.
  5. A theological aversion to commercialism that often attends a mega-church. In his book on entrepreneurial ministry, Kent Hunter suggests that the growing church must use every avenue at its disposal to attract potential members. While I would agree with this, there are still some things that give me pause. In the 1950s and 1960, Rex Humbard operated a "foundations factory" in conjunction with his Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron. By "foundations factory," I mean the church owned a factory that made and sold bras, girdles, and other "foundation garments." Nearly every mega-church operates a snack bar or coffee shop (some have full-blown restaurants or buffets), a bookstore, a tape ministry, pre-schools, private schools, or operate a golf course. I remember the day when commercial ventures in a church were considered on a par with the money changers in the temple. Some congregations may purposefully avoid constructing larger and more elaborate buildings because it avoids the temptation to finance such things with commercial ventures. Staying small doesn't mean using other means to attract and win people, it just means the congregation prefers avoiding commrcialization and starting new churches.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, mega-churches have tremendous advantages. In addition to what I wrote there, mega-churches are often highly visible, have a powerful impact on their community, and can offer programs and services smaller churches could never offer.

Smaller churches have some advantages, too. There are oportunities for interaction and involvement in ways mega-churches can't match. The minister, or the ministry staff, knows their sheep far more personally.

It is also true that in many cases, the advantages for both are also the source of their greatest problems.

My concern is that in process of fulfilling the first part of the Great Commission, we don't forget the second part. Neither small churches nor mega-churches have a corner on the market. Neither is necessarily more successful at one than the other. However, it is usually not the smaller congregation that abandons a weekly Bible Class where content can be taught and relationships built. It is not usually the smaller congregation who feels it is necessary to build great halls for worship while failing to invest in facilities and the tools for "making disciples." There is a difference between "making members" and "making disciples."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


The Christian Standard recently published its annual "Mega-church" issue. Christian Church and Church of Christ mega-churches now number 107. Attendances in these congregations range on the average from 1,009 to 18, 757. Wow!

According to statistics accompanying the list, nearly 20% of all who attend Christian Churches and Churches of Christ attend a mega-church. It is fun to look through the list and see congregations served by friends or former students. It thrills me to know God is blessing their work and they are serving Christ so effectively.

At the same time, the "ABCs" we usually use to measure success really don't tell the whole story. You know what I'm talking about. We're talking about A-ttendance, B-uildings, and C-ash. It is quite interesting to see how others evaluate your success by these things. If you are leading a growing congregation, building a new worship facility, and your offerings are on the rise you are successful. We falsely assume that such statistics mean lives are changing.

Such is not always the case. I remember a friend of mine, a staff member at a large expanding mega-church, who said, "It would be nice to have someone come forward to make Christ Lord than just to 'join an exciting church.'" In all too many cases, new people climb on board the train because the train is moving even if they have no knowledge of its destination.

While I once pooh-pooh-ed the whole "church growth" thing, I am now a strong proponent. I do believe it is God's will for the church to grow. Furthermore, I think Rick Warren is right when he says that a healthy church will grow. I was never as excited about the gimmicks of church growth as I was the theology of church growth. Dr. Joe Ellis made me read 8 books on church growth as my "internship" when I was working on my graduate degree. I wasn't too pleased! The books I read didn't stir me much until I read a book on the theology of church growth. That book converted me. Growing healthy churches "turn me on."

At the same time, in ain't all about numbers, buildings, and cash! Most of our mega-churches express their purpose as "building people," "making disciples," or "leading people to become fully devoted followers of Christ." Sadly, however, most mega-churches have little comprehension of what that means.

Jesus told his disciples to "teach them to obey everything I commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Paul told Timothy, "The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). A lot more is contained in those two commandments than building relationships. The early church held a body of teaching (the apostle's doctrine) they conveyed to others with the intent they would convey it to others. I call that biblical content. There are some things so important that they need to be taught and taught effectively. These things are so important than a church must not water them down or relegate them to the uimportant.

I believe in small groups. Small groups, as they are now being used, do not effectively teach biblical content. I have yet to see any small group curricula that effectively teaches biblical content or biblical doctrine effectively. Small groups are designed for interaction and relationship-building. Small groups effectively teach biblical application after establishing the content. Trying to teach biblical content in the typical small group ends up in a "pooling of ignorance" and "I think-ism." Small group proponents pride themselves on the supposed fact that each group does not need a teacher, they only need a facilitator. This highlights a major difference. A teacher must know the content and be able to convey it effectively. A facilitator only needs to know what questions to ask then sit back to permit the discussion to go wherever it goes. A good facilitator can also be a good teacher, but in most cases facilitators aren't prepared to define "sound doctrine."

Our mega-churches are convinced that small groups are the way to go. As a result, those who are part of a mega-church are long on the relational and short on understanding truth and content. Some would object that today's culture avoids truth claims. Others object that today's culture is relational and demands a relational context. Yet Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the light...." Paul said Timothy was to teach "sound doctrine."

It doesn't have to be this way! Mega-churches must come to realize that Sunday School Classes or Adult Bible Fellowships are small groups too. It is hard work to prepare qualified teachers who can teach others, but it must happen! Investment needs to be made in facilities in which to teach just as the make investment in theater seating, high-tech lighting and computer generated graphics. There ought to be investment in what is needed to effectively teach truth as is made in providing electronic sound boards, musical instruments, and spotlights. As much attention needs to be made to the teaching as to "the show!"

Until that happens, our mega-churches will remain a "mile wide and an inch deep" spiritually. They will continue to wrestle with the commercialism of the day and advertising will continue to be their bread and butter rather than the changed lives of their members.

It is no accident that many younger people are looking for smaller churches. Part of the reason for that is relational, they want the intimacy and closeness of a small church. But that's not all. They are looking for spiritual mentors (even those with white hair) who can teach them what they need to know and how to apply it!

I'm happy for the growth seen in our mega-churches, but I'd also like to see a depth of conviction and an understanding of biblical truth that I don't often see!

Monday, March 14, 2005

Easter Bunny

On Easter

It now appears that secularists don't like Easter any better than Christmas. Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch have stolen Christmas. Now some communities are replacing the Easter Bunny with the "Garden Bunny." I suppose the "Garden Bunny" will promote "Garden Parties" and Easter eggs will get some new moniker as well.

What the secularists don't realize is that the term Easter already denotes heathen observances. The Easter egg and the Easter bunny really have little to do with what Christians celebrate on Resurrection Day. Both have their origin in heathen practices dating back to the days of the early church.

The name "Easter" came from Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre), the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Teutonic people worshiped Ostare, the dawn goddess of fertility. This heathen deity was also known as Ostare, Eostra, Eostre, Eastur,Eastra, Auston and Ausos. Heathen religions of the Mediterranean regions, particularly the Mystery Religions, also celebrated various fertility myths of springtime. Since the earth "came alive" in the spring, heathen religious practices often revolved around the vernal equinox. Secular historians gleefully suggest that Christianity copied from these heathen religions and made springtime a time to celebrate the "myth" of Jesus' resurrection. The major problem with this is that the Mystery Religions came after the beginning of Christianity and the origins of the celebrations in northern Europe are questionable.

Since most public Easter observances have little to do with historic Christianity, why bother with substitutions? What do "Easter Egg Rolls" on the White House lawn have to do with the Christian observances? How is the Easter bunny a Christian symbol? Both are remnants of heathen myths. Perhaps part of the confusion arises out of the fact that many churches today promote their services with "eggstravaganzas," "Easter egg hunts," and giving out "Easter baskets" to the children.

Let me make sure you understand that I, for one, think that coloring Easter eggs is a harmless family activity. Easter baskets filled with candy and chocolate bunnies are okay by me. If parents want to perpetuate the myths while their children are home, I find that little more disturbing than those families that tell their children Santa Claus brings them gifts at Christmas. We gave our children Easter baskets, hunted Easter eggs in our yard, and talked about the Easter bunny. It didn't take my kids too long to figure out that the Easter bunny and Santa Claus were both about 6' 2" tall and weighed around 250 pounds. At the same time, there was greater emphasis on the greatest fact of all human history -- the resurrection of Jesus!

I'm opposed to the secularizing of our culture but I'm also opposed to the paganizing of our churches. It is one thing to decorate a building for Christmas and/or Easter, but it is another to openly promote the commercialism of Christmas or the heathenism of Easter in the church. You see, Christians don't celebrate the vernal equinox. Christians don't celebrate the renewal of springtime. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!

After all, the resurrection is the central fact of our faith. Paul wrote that "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). For me, my commitment to Christ is not about discovering meaning or purpose. My adherence to the faith is not grounded in an emotional experience or an encounter with Christ, whatever that means. My decision for ministry is not built on a desire to teach Christian ethics, although I do, or because of the biblical moral code. The fact is, I am a Christian because the testimony of Scripture tells me Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. The testimony of eyewitnesses recorded in Scripture and the testimony of secular writers and the churchmen of the first and second century convinces me that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week after his untimely death at the hands of wicked men. I can't shake it! Every effort to disprove it fails. Every effort to explain away the resurrection falters. It is true -- it is the best attested event in human history. Anthony Flew was right when he said, "You Christians live on the fragrance of an empty vase." The tomb was empty! Prove otherwise and I'll lay aside my convictions and "eat, drink, and be merry" for there is nothing left but earthly pleasure.

You can substitute the Garden bunny for the Easter bunny or sing "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" all you want. I don't care. In fact, I'll join in. But don't confuse these stupid and silly celebrations with the real event -- the birth of Christ and the resurrection of Christ!

Let me close with a word to the wise. People's discipleship will rise no higher than the tools you use to win them to Christ. We already have congregations comprised of shallow Christians who yearn for little more than "baptized heathenism." I don't think that's what Jesus commissioned us to do.