Thinking Out Loud

June 24, 2020

In the 1970s and 80s, Church Planting, Wasn’t Always “Churches”

In 1987, I wrote an 8-page document entitled, “Proposal for a New Kind of Church in Metro Toronto;” went to a copy store and had 200 copies printed to younger Evangelical leaders. The particular church itself didn’t happen — perhaps it was ahead of its time or perhaps God knew that I just wasn’t ready to lead something that significant — but it’s with some regrets I consider that I could have been known today as the founder of _______ Church. I’d like to think that because the recipients of that document were especially hand-picked that its distribution had some impact.

By 2007, I was part of a cohort of people from different cities who met monthly to discuss what had become a boom in church planting. People who didn’t quite know how to spell ecclesiology were talking about it. Lay people. Not clergy. The term was well-traveled.

This was reflected on the blogs, and I started one myself on a now-defunct religion forum at USAToday, and it was also the subject of many, many books that were published, many of which I carried at a small chain of Christian bookstores I owned. Our small group met every six weeks in a city chosen because it was somewhere in the middle. We continued to have some contact when the group disbanded. The phrase “a different kind of church” was on everyone’s lips and alternative churches were becoming mainstream.

I’ve had a lot of opinions on this subject, but a key word search this morning showed that not all of them have landed here at Thinking Out Loud. I would have thought they had, because this subject is something close to me.

Someone once put it this way,

“Church planting is the extreme sport of ministry.”

In 2004, I started a church of my own. Transformation Church was located in downtown Cobourg, a small town about 70 minutes east of Toronto, Canada. Our first series was 17 weeks entitled, “Ground Zero: Where Everything Ends and Everything Begins.” Just four years out from the World Trade Towers falling in New York City, the series name had more resonance then than it does now. That church ran until March of 2006. (It’s a long story.)

I was reminded then that while it’s probably a good idea to be theologically trained to administer a church, you don’t need a degree to start a church. Of two significant ones in our town, one was founded by a woman they simply refer to as Grandma Caffin. Another came out of a meeting of five families at a picnic table in the park. Most of the people attending those churches — Baptist and Alliance respectively — probably have no idea as to their inauspicious beginnings.

But today, in June 2020, I want to return to the title of today’s piece, but to do so involves one more time travel.

Back in 2008, I wrote an article about a weekly Saturday night event in Toronto called Reach Out.

The setting:  The first Reach Out took place in a Lutheran (I think) church that was built overlooking a large river valley parkland. The front of the church was all glass, so when you looked towards the front, you looked out on a beautiful view. (A later incarnation of Reach Out took place in a downtown church. I only attended that once, and it was so packed I had to sit on the stairs.)

The motto:  “Everyone Gives, Everyone Receives.”  Reach Out was based in I Cor. 14:26 which says, “When you gather together everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”  (NIVMOL – stands for NIV more or less) So people would jump up — sometimes suddenly — and say, “I have a Psalm;” and then read it; and other would jump up and say, “I have a teaching;” and would give a 60-second teaching; etc. They always said at the outset what it was they were going to say. That way nobody could jump up and say, “I have a cute story about my dog!”

The format:  People gathering talking, mostly in their teens, 20s and 30s; then they would sit down; and then — I don’t know how else to say this — a holy hush would fall over everyone.  What a moment! There would be silence for a minute or two, and then someone would start playing their guitar.   There was blended worship.  This is where I first learned “Oh, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” and I had never heard younger people sing classical hymns with such passion. Then there was an extended prayer time. I can’t remember if we broke up into groups of 3 or 4 — I’ve got this part confused with another group I belonged to — but there was plenty of opportunity for people to share requests. Then a teaching.  Then some worship.

I don’t know if we considered it church or not. The test would be to go back in time and ask the people attending if they also had a connection on Sunday mornings. It was just an event that happened and we didn’t try to over analyze. The problem with dissecting a cat is that once you’ve got it all figured out how it works, the cat is dead. Today, Twitter provides us with far too much dissection.

There were other similar things in Toronto. A Christian Church on A Hill, Catacombs, Shekinah. Sadly, I never made it those. I did frequent Christian coffee houses — there were so many in Toronto that several people undertook to publish directories — and a monthly camp reunion (for a camp I’d never attended) called Power and Praise.

Part of what got me thinking about this was watching a YouTube documentary this week about Love Inn, a ministry in Ithica, New York founded in the 1970s by Christian radio personality Scott Ross and part of the Jesus People revolution which was taking place at the time. Watching the 8mm film footage reminded me of the whole vibe.

I know what you’re thinking. When are you going to get to the title of today’s article?

The point I want to make is that on reflection, those early events were created in lieu of church planting. The people who today might be scouting for community centers and high schools to hold weekend service were back then content to put together Tuesday night or Friday night events. They were interdenominational which means the people who attended, often under 30, were part of other fellowships on the weekend, including some who were mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.

These days, the energy that might go into promoting something like this at a local level is often put toward conferences. They have the advantage of reminding everyone that ‘it’s a big tent’ and that we’re part of a larger family, as well as being able to bring top name speakers and musicians, but they do get expensive and unwieldy.

What about where you live? Is there a weekly Christian event that’s not church your city is known for? Or do people simply attend the megachurch for one service and then go to their own smaller church for connection to family and longtime friends?

I think that gatherings like the ones I described are still needed and hopefully — after the pandemic — we might see new expressions of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

February 26, 2017

Requiem for Christian Bookstores Not Needed

fc-logoOn Friday we reported the impending closure of 240 Family Christian bookstores. If you missed that, you can read it here. I started my Saturday morning at Internet Monk, and was a little surprised by both the negative comments concerning this type of establishment, but also the great number of people bashing the stores compared to those saying they were sorry they were closing and that the store would be missed. Such as:

  • So Family JesusJunk Stores are closing. I feel for the employees, but I can’t say I’m disappointed otherwise. Those places were an abomination.

I’m not sure what you are expecting. Here: Take $100,000 and spend it on products that will be of interest to: Mainliners, Evangelicals and Charismatics; kids, teens, twenty-somethings, middle-agers and seniors; seekers, new believers and veterans; scholars, students, and blue-collar workers; people needing help with their marriage, parenting, addictions, finances, interpersonal relationships, prayer life, devotional life and bad habits; those wanting to learn more about missions, church history, denominational distinctions, and church leadership. To all this add some products which enhance Christian life for those who want to: fill their home with Christian music including hymns, chants, country, adult contemporary, modern worship, rock, rap, etc.; have a few inspirational quotes on their walls and tables including plaques, paintings and picture frames; offer their family a wholesome substitute for the movies they would otherwise watch; have some little gift or novelty that they can give to a child to remind them that God loves them.

Oh yes… and Bibles!

And this is an abomination? That’s rather strong language.

  • I already have more than enough Bibles, and I can’t think of a single other book they’d carry that I would want to read.

Seriously? There’s nothing there for you at all? Not one author who represents your brand of Christianity? Nothing you need for personal enrichment? You’ve got it all.

  • I am sorry for the employees losing their jobs in depressed places – but the closing of Family Values Propaganda Market is a good thing, IMO. Good riddance.

To the above we now add propaganda? By definition, this is material that a group writes about itself. There isn’t one book on the shelves is about Jesus? Maybe you simply (think you) know too much. You’ve been totally jaded and can’t see the good that is still be accomplished through those books.

Or…maybe you’ve never been in a country where nationals would give their eye teeth to get their hands on a commentary or Christian living title or even a praise CD.

  • Yeah, I am not sorry to see the Family Christian book stores close. So much “Jesus junk” made in China; candles with Bible verses, straws in the shape of the Jesus fish, sox that have some religious symbolism, and a few cheesy books but very little that is truly theological.

You focused on the non-book products, and when you did look at the books you wrote them all off with the term cheesy. Perhaps you don’t realize that the high-brow academic tomes you seek are sold in places like that by special order.

Oh, and by the way, if something is anti-theological, bookstore chains and independents vet their product very carefully, something you can’t say for the “Christian” section of Barnes and Noble.

  • The last couple of Bibles I bought for gifts, I got online just to avoid the bookstore.

The bookstore was more than a store. It was a meeting place for Christians and performed a large number of non-retail functions, including referrals to local churches and Christian counselors; as well as staff trained to help new believers connect with that first Bible and parents get the appropriate Bible for their kids, rather than buying one online and then finding it’s too young or too old for them. In 240 places, that will not happen anymore. Your disdain led to the demise of something which you judged as not necessary.

Sorry. That attitude does not emanate from someone who possesses the Spirit of God. A Christian wants to be with and encourage fellow Christians. A Christian wants to come alongside the people, places and ministries which God is using.

And God used those bookstores. You just don’t hear those stories as loudly as you hear from those who seem to be almost rejoicing at Family Christian’s demise; a behavior I would more expect — forgive me for this — from demons.

  • I haven’t set foot in a Christian bookstore in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

Again, a personal choice perhaps, but being flaunted like a badge of honor. I haven’t given to the Salvation Army in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t been to a Christian conference in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t listened to Christian radio stations in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

It’s just too easy to fill in that blank, but to what end? It’s not particularly righteous sounding is it? But it has enough of an air of spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness that someone might be impressed by it. For at least 60 seconds. And then it kind of hangs there and the speaker’s heart is laid bare.

So…want to know the real reasons Family Christian stores closed? It wasn’t the stores’ fault.

  1. The U.S. publishing establishment is caught in a “hardcover first edition” mentality which diminishes sales potential through high prices. When a “trade paperback conversion” happens a year later, the sales momentum is completely lost. As more and more Christian authors migrated from the traditional Christian publishers (Baker, Cook, Tyndale, etc.) to the big publishing houses (Hachette, Harper, S&S, etc.) where this mentality is more entrenched, average retail prices for new releases by the bestselling authors actually skyrocketed.
  2. The industry is founded on a “stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” mentality instead of a common sense, “just in time” distribution and delivery system. They send out “floor dumps” and “planograms” with an “if you build it they will come” confidence while failing to see to the organic nurture and cultivating of an author over time.
  3. The parent company never embraced the “order online; pick up instore” concept, even as record numbers of parcels were being stolen off front porches. Or the idea of “shop online, refine your purchase instore.”
  4. Christian publishers were too content to produce products for Christians, when in fact Christians were looking for things to give their non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers.
  5. Individual FCS stores were caught in national marketing programs that necessitated purchasing of products nobody wanted or needed at the expense of things for which there was demonstrated local interest.
  6. There was no equivalent to the woman at the big box store handing out samples. First chapter excerpts of the latest Christian titles were simply too hard to come by online. Give people a taste of the author, let them understand his or her heart and intention, and perhaps they might have made the purchase.
  7. Chain stores and publishers have no consumer product panels and no working customer feedback mechanisms. There’s no suggestion box, no place for people to offer their opinions except for the angry rants when a chain shuts down. (As an insider, I can tell you that some of the major players in Christian publishing have nobody to whom store owners and managers can send an email suggestion. They know it all. They have all the answers. They create the products, the stores just sell them; a condescending relationship.)
  8. The industry lost credibility when authors and artists admitted moral failure and yet they continued to market and distribute their products.
  9. Ten years ago, publishers offered print on demand as kind of second life for slow-moving backlist titles and series, but then got seduced by the quicker, lower-cost solution they found in eBooks.
  10. Some pastors got too big for their britches. Once they started to see national success on a grand scale they stepped down from their churches and lost a big part of their platform overnight. I challenge you to show me a “former Pastor of …” who is better known now then they were then. (Okay, maybe the guy who teamed up briefly with Oprah.)

This is a crisis for American Christianity generally. Don’t blame the people at Family Christian. Yes, management mistakes were made; but many were doing the best they could with the materials they were given.

If the industry doesn’t shake itself awake, LifeWay and Parable are next. Hopefully, the requiem for the entire retail genre is still not needed.

March 13, 2016

Christian Community: Priceless!

Christian College Student Discussion

Last night we sat down for an hour and ate our supper with a handful of students at Tyndale College and Seminary students. Highlight of my week. I’d pay the student tuition fees just for moments like that.

There is something about Christian community that is simply unmatched by any other type of real world social experiences. Though we clearly were coming from a variety of doctrinal and denominational perspectives, the mood celebratory and not condemnatory.

I was able to fill in a few historical information points, but I was also the learner; impressed with their attitude and desire to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in wherever their lives take them.

It was reminiscent of another type of meal around a table; the fellowship we enjoy when serving as volunteers at a Christian summer camp. The evening conversations while playing table games also rank among my life highlights.

Maybe I’m just a social person. Or maybe it’s having greater proximity to the energy and optimism of youth. (My daytime ministry demographic tends to skew older, though there are refreshing exceptions some days.)

And then, as we’re leaving, my son’s comment, “Dad, I think you fit in here more than I do.” Yes, the echoes from my own mind of the life that might have been, had I pursued formal theological education.

For a moment anyway, a chance to be all there. To forget that I was just a guest taking advantage of my son’s meal credits in the cafeteria and pretend that I was a student or — let’s stretch things a bit — maybe an adjunct professor.


photo: Abilene Christian University

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