The Drew Marshall "We'll pay you to go to church" experiment

I'm finding this fascinating. Canadian Christian radio host Drew Marshall has hired two non-Christians to visit five churches and report on their experiences.

I really didn't like the idea at first. To me it seemed like hiring two vegans to go out and rate five steakhouses.

Maybe I was wrong. So far they've visited four churches. I don't agree with everything they've written, of course, but they've made some very perceptive observations.

For instance, they visited one of the fastest growing churches in the Greater Toronto Area that is known as a "the church for people who aren't into church" - in other words, a church for people like these two hired visitors. I'm impressed by the quality of teaching at this church, and I have many friends who attend and some who work on staff.

Were they impressed? Listen to some of their comments. One wrote:

Why should the institution be rich, and the congregation not? If you really believe you should be living the ascetic life led by Christ and his apostles, why aren’t you doing it? If money and possessions aren’t important, why aren’t you meeting to discuss the meaning of Christ’s ideas and life in the local park? Notwithstanding the need to broadcast to your rather large congregation, and obviously you’d have to come up with a solution during the winter months, but really: why the son et lumiere? I found the medium more than a bit out of whack with the message.

Which brings me to another point: all that razzmatazz kind of unsettles me. We live in a culture where distraction is often misdirection - like a magician who gets you to look at his left hand while he’s disappearing something with his right. I found myself wondering why a group that liked its preacher so straightforward felt most at home in a medium of flashing lights and sound. Maybe it’s a generational thing - 30-45s are mostly Gen Xers, after all. But I still felt disconcerted.

And the other:

I had a little problem with their arguments involving material goods and our “media saturated culture” as they make their Sunday services available on your 80Gb video ipod.

It's worth reflecting on some of the things that got in the way of connecting in this church that is built for people like them. Not just reflecting on what this says about this one church, but to many of us as well.

And it's worth thinking about why they've finally found a church they seem to appreciate. The church is Sanctuary, pastored by Greg Paul, author of God in the Alley. The thing that you need to know about Greg is that he is as theologically orthodox as anyone I know. He didn't appeal to these non-Christians because he's abandoned theological moorings or because he doesn't stand for anything. Quite the opposite.

Listen to some of the comments:

My fear had left me, there was a calm sense of wonder now. We met the pastor first, he was wearing an eccentric yellow Hawaiian shirt with the usual brightly colored flowers, he spoke very calmly in a quiet voice that exuded a wisdom only achieved through many years of heart wrenching reality. He introduced us to a fellow who looked like he had seen a hard time too many, as it turns out he used to be homeless and had it not been for the Sanctuary who knows where he would be. I could tell then and there we had found what this experiment was set out to accomplish, a church that saw past the money, power and the heighten sense of moral superiority that we have grown accustomed to...

This place gets it, there was no collection plate that I ever saw and what they gave back to the community could not be measured. There isn’t enough good things to say about this place.

The other:

Amidst all the pomp and circumstance of the Christian world out there, here lies a simple, honest place that really means it.

Even the message - "He talked about the need for Christians to accept that it was an either-or proposition - if you accept that Christ is the Son of God, you must 'die to everything else'" - really connected.

Some are complaining that it's unfair because this church was tipped off before they came. But it's the only church so far in which Drew and his friends would be obvious, and they didn't change a thing. This is Sanctuary every single week.

Drew comments:

This is the only Church where the majority of time, finances and energy is NOT spent on the Sunday service. At Sanctuary, it actually would have been unfair to only score them on their Sunday service, the smallest part of what they do.

I'll be thinking about this for a while.

We spend a lot of time making Sunday mornings what they are, and focusing on the quality of the teaching and the music. But the church that has best embodied and communicated the gospel so far is not slick and would not get noticed for its attendance records. It's not going multisite and pastors don't drool over what they're doing.

There's a lot to think about as I read the reports of Drew and his friends visiting these churches. Reminds me a little of the letters to the churches in Revelation.

Patience for the simple ways that work

This post is from the defunct blog "Dying Church"

Cerulean Sanctum on the problem with technological solutions to organic problems:

Our churches launch some guaranteed program backed by the slickest marketing and the best sound bites from the hottest church leaders and we hope and hope. A couple years later, that program stands forgotten. Sure, it was billed as the pesticide for whatever plagued us, but it wasn't God's way, was it? No fruit.

It's all about the fruit. If all our work produces no fruit, then we're just being wasteful. Sadly, that's what a lot of churches are doing, just wasting time, money, resources, and people's patience.

I think our problems with patience underlie the greater issue here. Yes, people get upset when the newfangled program bears no fruit, but it was sterile from the get-go. What people need is patience for the simple ways that work, the real discipleships that spans decades, not months. You try too hard to rush the fruit and you wind up with tasteless fruit. Think your typical grocery store here. Sure, you bought a package of mass-produced, industrial-strength strawberries. But they taste more like straw than berries.

We may be doing the same with our disciplemaking process. Better to go local, go organic, be patient with the old ways that served us for eons—even when it comes to making disciples.

God knows we have enough spiritual pests out there, but we can’t poison our young “plants” in our attempts to kill the weeds or wipe out the bugs.


How to Emerge Without Being Emerging

My latest column at Christian Week:

Whenever someone tells me that the emerging church is a fad, I say that I hope so. As much as I appreciate some qualities of the emerging church, I also have my concerns. And, in the end, the whole church matters more than the emerging church.

I believe we can learn from the emerging church without joining its ranks. In fact, some who are opposed to the emerging church are arguing for ministry that has a lot in common with the emerging church.

For instance, a group of Reformed pastors and leaders met in Chicago in May to form what they call The Gospel Coalition. Many of the organizers have been scathing critics of the emerging movement. Yet they released a document that blends the best of their tradition with some emphases normally associated with the emerging church. This approach makes sense. Instead of becoming emerging, why not learn what we can while holding on to the best of our tradition and theology?

Here, then, are some ideas on how to adopt the best of the emerging movement without actually becoming emerging.

Challenge the status quo - The Gospel Coalition Foundational Documents state, "We are troubled by the idolatry of personal consumerism and the politicization of faith; on the other hand, we are distressed by the unchallenged acceptance of theological and moral relativism." Like many within the emerging church, The Gospel Coalition identifies some key problems within the North American church. Most of us recognize that we are not as counter-cultural or as vibrant as we had hoped. Pretending will not help. We should raise the alarm and look at the causes of our current crisis.

Engage the issues - Many of our doctrinal statements were written to address issues of half a century ago or more. The Gospel Coalition addresses current issues like the cultural crisis of truth (epistemology), how to read the Bible both propositionally and as narrative (hermeneutics), and how to relate to the culture around us (contextualization). We can learn from the issues of the past, but we must also wrestle with the new issues facing the church today.

Think theologically - Many in the emerging church express frustration with the pragmatism of North American Christianity. They argue that we must engage with the issues we face at the level of theology, and reject pragmatic solutions that are not rooted in theological reflection. The Gospel Coalition does the same, outlining a confessional statement and a vision for ministry rooted in that theology.

Get past our subculture – Many see the evangelical church as self-righteous, tribal, and more concerned with personal morality than social justice. The Gospel Coalition argues that the gospel "removes self-righteousness and selfishness and turns its members to serve others." It is not only concerned with personal morality but with "the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice." It leads churches to not only reach cultural conservatives but "highly secular and postmodern people" as well.

Get past religion - Many see religion as detrimental to society. In a sense, this is true. "Religion and morality in general tend to make people tribal and self-righteous toward other groups," The Gospel Coalition says. "But the gospel of grace, centered on a man dying for us while we were enemies, removes self-righteousness and selfishness and turns its members to serve others." As in the emerging church, the church ceases to exist for its own advancement and benefit and instead turns toward service for the good of the community. It gets past the trappings of religion to true gospel.

Engage culture - "Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word," says the Coalition's Foundational Statements, "but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship - all for God's glory and the furtherance of the public good." Therefore, churches should envision ministry that includes "cultural engagement with art, business, scholarship, and government."

I have been struck by the similarities between The Gospel Coalition's emphases and the values embraced by the emerging church, even though these two movements are radically different. Maybe there is a way for us to learn from the best of the emerging church without actually becoming emerging.

Transcript of the "pastors are losers" message

I got in a little trouble last month with a post on a conference I never attended. Here's what I wrote:

Last week, a speaker at our regional convention said, "95% of pastors are losers." I wasn't there, but from what I can pick up he was saying that 95% of pastors are not made of the right stuff to grow churches the way they need to be grown according to this model.

95%? That number could be a little low!

But here's the thing. From what I can tell, God can do some pretty amazing things with losers. At least he can in my Bible. They seem to be the group that he likes working with the most, actually.

I don't doubt that 95% of pastors are losers. To tell you the truth, it's the other 5% I'm worried about.

You can read the discussion that followed if you're interested.

I finally received the CD of the message in which the quote was made. Here, without further comment, is what Paul Borden actually said:

One of the reasons why I think our churches are turning around is because we have focused on leaders. We knew that when churches lose a pastor, it's the best time to talk about change.

Now, because we're in a Baptist church where I have no authority over the church, over pastors...We knew that if we wanted churches to change, we had to attract them to what was going on. So here's what we did.

We'd go to a church. I used to call it my Monty Hall "Door Number One, Door Number Two" approach. I deliberately wanted to make one really bad and the other one really good so that hopefully if they had any brains they'd pick the good one.

I'd say, "Now, you can find a pastor the traditional way if you want to." In our denomination we have a whole pastoral placement system. I'd say, "I can get you 100 names, I can get you 200 names, I can get you 300 names. However many you want, I can get them for you.

"Now, you've got to realize, 99.5% of them are losers, because they're all looking for a job. It's not happening where they are." Somehow pastors have this idea that if it doesn't happen here, I'll go someplace else as though this is different. The problem they don't realize is that they've just brought the problem with them.

We want pastors to stay. We want pastors to succeed. We want to see pastors make it. We're convinced pastors can make it wherever they are if God is involved. And we'll help you do it.

So I say, "By the way, we'll give you the names, and you're on your own. Pick the best possible loser you can."

Now, I realize there are some people looking for ministry, but in my tribe they really are losers, I'll guarantee you. That's why we're dying, we're trying to sell our main buildings so we can survive another five years. We're in bad shape.

Or we say, "Door number two is this: If you will work with us, we'll take you through a church consultation. We'll show you how to be healthy, how to grow. We'll do an envisioning day for you. We'll bring in an intentional interim. These are old retired pastors who understand how to do ministry. They're my velvet-covered bricks. They can come in, and their job is make all the changes they can, take all the arrows possible, and then leave. And they do it. You talk about spiritual people, they do it.

But then here's what we'll do. We'll go interview pastors who aren't looking...who are in churches larger than yours, and we will recruit them to come interview with you. We don't believe in hiring on potential; we believe on hiring on experience. And if this pastor has grown a church to 400 and you're 50, we know that he knows how to get you to 400.

And we did that. We recruited now about 60 pastors who have done that, and 55 of those churches are growing. Now, to find those pastors...we've had to go outside of our denomination. Our denomination doesn't have those kind of people. Two of our best pastors were United Methodist, but they went to Asbury Seminary so I knew they loved Jesus. I just said, "Could you just use a bit of water when you baptize, we would really appreciate that." They said they could. And one of them - both of them have done a great job - but one of them has led a church from 70 to 1,000. And 500-600 of those people were not disciples of Jesus Christ three years ago. It's all about leadership.

Turns out that the number is 99.5%, not 95%. Still, there's some context. I hear some good things about Borden's approach in some circles, and others (like my friend Andrew) have some concerns.

Thoughts? (Don't be nasty!)