I am different than anyone else I know.
God makes every human different. Oh sure, there are some things that we all have in common, but as I have aged I have begun to celebrate the diversity in humanity. A part of that process is to begin to understand how it is that God has made me. I do have a lot in common with my wife and other family members. I have similar interests and tastes to a host of other people. (Shout out to all Willie Nelson fans!) But God made me unique.
One of the passions He gave me was evangelism. I am not convinced that I have a special gifting or calling to evangelism, but I definitely have a heart for reaching out to people who don’t yet know Jesus. Because of this, I pray a lot about and for evangelism. I follow the instruction of Jesus to pray for those who would do evangelism (Luke 2.10). I pray for those individuals who I am in a position to reach. And I pray that I will faithfully and effectively give them the support that they need as they consider the claims of the gospel.
In recent years I have become convinced that starting new groups, including churches, is the best way to spread the gospel and to do the work of evangelism. This has definitely proven to be an effective way to reach people in my ministry work in Uganda and Kenya. I believe that church planting is also the most promising method of reaching the millions in the US who haven’t been established in a relationship with Christ. But I do have some reservations about this.
First of all, the megachurch/attractional model is a failure. This is the idea that the church becomes a non-threatening, consumer (or seeker) driven experience. In this model, the church focuses on programs and events whose purpose is to draw in more people. The crowd becomes the reason for being in the church. Success is therefore measured in terms of how big the crowd is. But this model is not sustainable or effective.
- It’s too expensive. There are so many costs associated with this model that make it prohibitive for most church-planters. The overhead is so high that da-to-day operations become almost impossible. Facilities, including public address, video and lighting considerations add to the start-up costs of staffing for a huge program. It is a huge investment, and not right for most situations.
- The attractional church gives a false idea of worship. I love attending these churches – at least for an occasional visit. I love the Christian “show” that takes place. I get inspired by the eloquence of a polished speaker and the professionalism of musicians. Video projection and lights enhance the experience. But all of those things can tend to create spectators rather than worshipers.
- The mega-church model tends to encourage transfer growth. Faithful Christian church members can easily get distracted by the newest church in town. Here is a big new exciting place that has a lot going on. In fact, they sing the songs that you can hear on the Christian radio station. All it takes is for a teen child to indicate that all their friends go to McChurch. Or a dispute with the pastor about how often she should visit the shut-ins, and the whole family moves to the new church in town. I am sure that there is some evangelism happening in this church, but the exponential growth tends to come from Christians who transfer from other congregations.
- Finally, this model leaves out large populations of people. Because we need a lot of people to be a part of this congregation, we must plant it in a large community. And because the attractional church model is so expensive, the members of the church need to be somewhat affluent. There is nothing wrong with reaching upper-middle-class suburbanites, but we can’t neglect small towns, rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods. All communities need a gospel witness, not just the ones that can support the “cool” model of the moment.
If the current preferred model of church planting is less than effective, or efficient, we are compelled to posit an alternative that can answer these criticisms. I maintain that a small/simple/house church should be our preferred model of church planting. Although there will never be a large congregation of people with this model, in every other way it is superior, at least for this period in history.
- In the simple church, a church is based on relationships. We become committed to the church not because of the exciting programs or the excellent speaker, but because of the people who we are involved with. In a mega-church, you may never have a single meaningful relationship with another congregant. In this church, it is inevitable that such relationships exist.
- In the simple church, the congregation becomes a true community. Our love and commitment is to God and to the other individuals in the church, rather than to a dynamic program (that may be temporary), or a charismatic leader.
- A house church may be the most economical form of evangelism. It is certainly less expensive than the models that are currently in fashion. Staff, building, utility and program expenses are non-issues. A few people can choose to meet and begin to make a difference with little to no overhead costs.
- Leadership in this type of church requires less training than in a larger, or more traditional church. When the participants are united in their love for Christ and one another, the expertise of the leader/ pastor is less important. This is not to say that we should not have expectations of those who lead the church, just that we don’t need to wait years for a pastor to complete a rigorous training program before she can lead the congregation.
- Finally, since the church is smaller, it is necessarily more responsive to the call of God. There aren’t multiple committees from which approval must be sought for any change to schedules, programs, etc. When God leads this group to do something, they can do it without hesitation.
Moving forward let’s take into account these factors as we make decisions about evangelistic outreach. The attractional model is great for the ego of the leader, but not as effective (or efficient) in doing the work we’re called to do.