Matchmakers and church growth

There are two kinds of church growth: births to Christian homes and converts.

Globally, births in Christian homes are by far the larger number (about 10x: 45 million births vs 15 million converts and losses of 12 million defectors per year).

When a church faces a situation in which it there are fewer and fewer births to Christian homes, it loses a significant form of church growth, and its share of the population will begin to shrink.

This is one problem in smaller churches (such as Turkey, Iran, Egypt), where believers find it hard to find other believers to marry, and often leave the country.

But it can also be the case in the West, as this article in Christianity Today points out: How the dating scene became stacked against women (and especially college-educated religious women).

Megachurches in this respect may succeed more than smaller churches, because they have larger male/female pools and more effective ministries to singles (both in helping them sustain their faith and, for some, helping them find matches).

Christian and quasi-Christian matchmaking websites (e.g. eHarmony and their like) can also help church growth in this respect.

It’s important for its future for the church to help believers to marry believers and raise believing children.

When the church is a building

When the church is a building it cannot move easily with refugees.

When the church is a building it cannot be placed on the back of a camel.

When the church is a building it can be easily smashed, torched, bulldozed.

When the church is a building, it can be caught in the crossfire and called unfortunate collateral damage.

When the church is a building, it can easily become a trophy of its most substantial donors.

When the church is a building, it must be fed (rather than the people).

When the church is a building, where it stands can be regulated by civil authorities, builders, and renters.

More about agencies, churches, and when a church is a church

My recent post on whether ActBeyond should exist (in which I argued that it is essentially a body of believers) generated a couple of responses that highlight an interesting issue.

Both suggested that an agency isn’t a church because parachurch organizations (or parts of such organizations, like individual teams) don’t meet together, either for (a) fellowship (Acts 2) or (b) to influence their geographical surroundings.

So, if

  • an agency doesn’t get together with other agencies
  • or teams of an agency don’t get together with other teams
  • or agencies don’t get together with other churches
  • or people on a team of an agency don’t gather together

then it’s not a “church.”

My response: we ought not equate any specific human organization or its specific actions with the church (see “Church“).

Rather than think of the agency-as-church or the congregation-as-church or the small-group-as-church or whatever, we should consider the believers themselves as the ekklesia (the community of called out ones). When and where they gather, it is a localized expression of the ekklesia–an “instance” (an example or single occurrence), if you will–of the ekklesia.

Some of these “instances” or “examples” are recurring and formal (“weekly church service” or “monthly celebration” or “quarterly festival” or “triannual mission agency gathering” or “annual conference”). Others are recurring but less formal (“weekly small group gathering” or “accountability group”). Others are more one-time (“we got together for supper at Sally’s” or “we hung out for coffee at Starbucks”).

You might argue if a single instance lacks an “element” of church in its setting, it’s not “church.” But do we define “church” according to what we do, or according to who we are? Defining by what we do is a slippery slope. Many “churches” (e.g. weekly services) often lack one or more of these elements. I’ve been to vastly different kinds of worship services, some which have communion every Sunday and others which don’t, some which have offerings every Sunday and others don’t, some which sing and others don’t, and so on. Further, I am reminded that we are not saved by what we do! What we do follows from who we are, but does not define it.

So if any single instance of believers gathering can be a localized expression of church, then an “agency” is to these instances what a “congregation” is to similar instances – just a framework for people meeting each other and finding about times and places to gather. The organizational structure determines the people-boundary–who is “part” and who is “not”–mainly by who finds out about when/why/where we gather. The actual “ekklesia” – the community of believers associated with a specific structure – may be far larger than any single gathering time/place within the network. For example, the membership in Saddleback’s small groups is 120% the regular Sunday morning attendance–they have more people in small groups than on average come to Sunday morning services. (Consider: someone comes to a church on a regular basis, worships, goes to a small group, gives, but has not signed any sort of membership document–are they a member of the church? Maybe not for “voting” purposes, but I’ll bet anyone would think of them as “part.” So, what if they never come to Sunday morning service, yet regularly attend a Saturday night small group?)

So, if our agency team members gather only once every three years, and if any single team member rarely sees other Beyonders due to his location, is he part of a church? Well, maybe, because the “ekklesias” associated with, say, Beyond, can be larger than Beyond itself. Our team members are to be developing local teams. These are made up of the Beyonders and people who are not formally part of Beyond–local workers that we are helping (See “A team of 1“). In this sense, a Beyonder is part of Beyond, but also part of a local team, and both are ekklesia-instances. The Beyonder is thus part of a local Beyond-sparked ekklesia. This ekklesia may not be a “congregation” as we traditionally think of them, being more apostolically-oriented “church planting teams,” but they are ekklesias nevertheless.

Think about it: when a local apostolic team made up of nationals, Beyonders, maybe people from other agencies, gather together, talk about what’s going on, pray for each other, pray over each other, probably have a time of worship, usually have meals together, maybe even have Communion at the end of the meeting–how is this not “an ekklesia gathered”?

Of course, a structure (agency, church, small group, seminary, business, whatever) may have extra-Biblical goals for its membership. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. An agency may be focused on bringing the Gospel cross-culturally. A business may be focused on serving the surrounding community in some way. A church may be focused on discipling its members and reaching the surrounding same-culture community.

But I think when we consider the “church” (service) the “church” and the agency “not” the church, we define “church” as something other than what it actually is–the community of believers.

 

Church

Church as building: “We need to do some repairs to the church this week.”

Church as organized event: “I didn’t see you at church this morning.”

Church as legal institution: “The church might lose its tax exemption.”

Church as spiritual institution: “…the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners…” (Lewis)

Church as possession: “Our church is the best.”

Church as the community result of disciple-making: “I will build my church” vs. “Go and make disciples” (Stetzer)

These are not the same.

Not all of these are present in the New Testament.

When you say “church” – which one of these are you referring to?

How to change paradigms of church and discipleship

Q. How can we change the current paradigm in the US of “Church” and “Discipleship”?

This question (asked in the June Challenge Survey) might be asked of just about any country in the world.

Let’s say you have a paradigm or idea or policy or practical thing you want all (or at least most) of the churches in an area to adopt. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s think of this as not an idea about discipleship but something simpler: “Churches should advocate small groups as a way to have more effective church life” (or some similar phrasing). How will you bring this about? It’s obviously not easy, but there are four possibilities:

Go for denominations: Many or most churches will be part of church groups ranging from formal denominations to loose associations to very informal networks. You can’t change a denomination and expect all member churches to change: some churches will leave denominations if they disagree with the decisions, while others will remain but simply refuse to implement new policies. Still, going for individual niches is not a bad idea, because there are some commonalities and agreements within denominations, and there might be more willingness on the part of individual churches to try something.

Go for big churches. Megachurches are growing, and the practices of megachurches often trickle down to small ones. They are more likely to have young people, and more likely to have more involved people. Possibly because of the independence granted them by their size and budgets, megachurches tend to have more orthodox beliefs than any other size and to be more evangelical than ever (and also more ethnically diverse). What would it take to find a megachurch that is generally friendly to the idea (small groups, for example), implement it, and then pass their success on to other churches?

Go for small churches. On the other hand, you could also try and find smaller churches interested in growing but needing a different model to do it. (Unfortunately many small churches fall for the trap of having the pastor or a handful of powerful people in charge of everything–those sorts won’t work.) Going this route might be quicker than trying to change a megachurch’s policy, and if the small churches are connected in an informal relational network, a highly successful model might pass virally between them.

Start over. Perhaps the most direct way to change the church paradigm, however, is to simply plant a new church planting movement. While this can be quite difficult in places where the existing church is well established, it can also be the path with the least baggage and internal resistance. (And remember, a movement need only double from 1 person 15 times to “take” the typical city in America, and 17 times to “take” 90% of cities.)

Church, defined

When my organization, ActBeyond, reports statistics about churches and believers, it’s because we have spreadsheets and lists of those entities, and we use the following definitions.

Baptized believers: A person from the people group who has made a profession of faith in Christ (Romans 10) and has received baptism. The baptism has been verified.

Group: a regular meeting to learn to obey the commands of Jesus (not necessarily baptized believers!) and/or baptized followers of Christ. DBS and T4T formats are typical of the group meeting process. These are “seeker-oriented” groups – they do not always become churches, and are not counted among church numbers.

Church: A group of baptized believers who regularly meet and carry out the functions such as described in Acts 2:37-47, have recognized leaders, and have self-identified as a church.

Some movements do not define a church as a church until it starts another ekklesia.

Also, because of the distinctive focus on obedience-based discipleship, combined with studies of Acts 2 and other passages on the responsibilities of the church, some movements will not define a church as a church unless they are feeding the poor, healing the sick, helping the widows, etc.

Finally, we emphasizing discipling whole “households” – pre-existing social units – to faith, rather than grouping strangers. In these situations, leadership is typically already present in the group, and then enhanced by God’s giving of gifts, etc.

A church is not a random sampling of the place it is in

It is not a foregone conclusion that a church in any given place is a random sampling of the community.

In other words, if you are in a city of 10,000, and you look at a church of 100 (1%) or even 1,000 (10%), it’s not altogether certain that the makeup of the church reflects the make up of the community.

Look at some key areas to prove this: mixture of marrieds vs. singles? Mixture of age ranges? Mixture of professions? Mixture of ethnicities and languages?

If a church does not reflect the community it is in, the things that drive the church (needs, desires, values, etc) will not be reflective of the community, either.

What drew the people in the church to the church is not necessarily what would draw the rest of the community.

Outreach programs that will draw the rest of the community will not necessarily be immediately appealing to those in the church.

You need apostolically gifted people who are able to function ‘on the edge’ between the church and the community, and reach into the community–and those who are successful will likely be very unlike the church.

You have to make space for people unlike you if you want to reach into communities that are unlike you.

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When we disagree about church (or anything)

The kind of church that reaches unbelievers is not always (or often) the kind of church that reaches believers.

So what happens, when one person wants to start a group, effort or church that reaches unbelievers, and those from an existing church challenge him (or her)?

“Who gave you the right to do that? Why are you doing it that way? That’s the wrong way! You shouldn’t do that.”

There are many potential responses, but this may be the best one:

“Why don’t we study what the Bible has to say about it, together?”

Can everyone make disciples? What Scriptures would you study?

Can everyone baptize new believers? What Scriptures would you study?

Can everyone give/take communion? What Scriptures would you study?

Often we make knee-jerk, reflexive statements (“You shouldn’t do that” or “Of course I can do that”) without going to the Scriptures and studying it out.

(Going to the Scriptures and studying it out does not equate to reading someone else’s one page devotional, or their commentary on the Scriptures. It means actually reading the Scriptures themselves, praying together, and discussing what they mean and how they can be applied.)

Not everyone will agree with everyone’s interpretation of Scripture. For example, consider 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Do these Scriptures suggest that an elder in the church must be married and have children? Does this automatically disqualify anyone who is not married, or does not have children? What then does this say about those who choose to live unmarried (as Paul urged, 1 Corinthians 7), or those who are childless or barren? What about the widowed?

If the best way is to study Scriptures together, how do you handle disagreement? What would you do?

The kind of church 

The kind of church that reaches unbelievers and the unevangelized will likely not be understood nor appreciated by those who are already believers and trying to attract their children to church. 

In fact, the forms of church that teach unbelievers and help unbelievers follow Christ and reach other believers… May be felt as invalid forms of church by longtime believers!

“Who gave you permission to start groups? To make disciples? To share the gospel? To take communion together?” Many reasons for this conflict, but it is not abnormal for it to happen. Expect it and prepare for it.