Thinking Out Loud

March 3, 2016

When the Big Box Retailer is a Big Box Church

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:12 am
The Whosoever Will Rescue Mission, San Francisco, date unknown. Every community has a unique ministry history and individual challenges.

The Whosoever Will Rescue Mission, San Francisco, date unknown. Every community has a unique ministry history and individual challenges.

Over the past twenty years we’ve seen a phenomenon in retail where big box retailers, sometimes called “category killers” have set up shop in cities and towns and in the process destroyed the livelihood of locally-owned, community-focused, mom-and-pop businesses. In my town we had four stores that sold office supplies which, over a period of about four years, disappeared off the map after Staples arrived. Perhaps where you live you’ve seen independent bookstores close when Barnes & Noble arrived; this in the era before A-zon finished the job for most of them.

There’s a difference between a “chain” of stores, and big box retail. Chains are stores like what you had, only affiliated with an organization for national marketing. A privately owned store can join a chain.

In the analogy we’re heading to here, chains are like church denominations. And sometimes a denomination will work hard to have representation in a local area. Historically however, they start small and build organically.

A big box retailer has more than name recognition. Their motto is, ‘If you build it big they will come in big numbers.’ Having so much more money to throw around than a basic chain, they create large environments and offer discounts.

In the world of what we call “multi-site” churches, growth often happened out of necessity. The original church was simply unable to handle the crowds, and because people were driving great distances, rather than expand the existing physical location, they basically replicated what they were doing in a different location, including having the sermon projected on a big screen.

North Point Community Church fits that definition. Starting from their original location, they’ve slowly spread out to encompass an area that is mostly north, northeast and northwest of downtown Atlanta. While they have a number of affiliate churches, North Point itself has never parachuted into completely foreign territory. They’ve never announced that the next church will be in Tulsa, or Boulder, or Scranton. Their geographic reach is well-defined.

On the other hand, there are also megachurches that have other sites which are not as huge as the parent location. In Ontario, Canada, The Meeting House has about 20 satellites, but some of them started out and small, and I believe a couple are still in that <100 average attendance category.

And then there is East Side, in Anaheim, California which, for whatever reasons, has a single satellite location in Park Rapids, Minnesota. I don’t know the history, but one has to assume this began with a nucleus of people in that area who were drawn to a particular style of teaching; or that the church identified this community as having a need, and proceeded to do something missional and meet that need.

Which brings us to Hillsong. In an article entitled Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco, Nate Lee responds to a video posted by Ben Houston:

Hillsong SF is not something I am looking forward to. In fact, their video offends me. And it makes me extremely sad for this city and what it is becoming. And I am convinced, beyond any doubt, that Hillsong SF has absolutely nothing to do with God’s Kingdom here in San Francisco.

San Francisco is a city under siege. There is a war going on here that can’t be seen or understood through the eyes of a naïve, idealistic pastor. So when Ben Houston shows up in his overly-produced video saying, “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential,” it’s painfully clear that he has no idea of the context onto which his words fall. Guess who else saw “great potential” in this city? The real estate agents, developers, and city officials who have destroyed neighborhoods, broken up families, and displaced poor people of color for their own idealized, dystopian visions for San Francisco. What kind of “great potential” does Hillsong fulfill with its presence? And why would this random Australian dude ever think he’s qualified to evaluate this city’s potential? San Francisco is not a hopeful candidate auditioning for his religious services. We have bigger things to worry about.

I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of pastors coming to San Francisco, posting pictures of bridges and crooked streets and declaring how much they love this city without actually understanding any of it, without being hurt by it, without any scars to show or dirt on their shoes or callouses on their hands…

…Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive (e.g., “God has a great plan for this city!” “San Francisco is a city where we see great potential!” “In San Francisco, the best is yet to come!” – Ben Houston) is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methodsand us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.

And that’s just for starters.

There’s a lot more to this however than just the retail analogy I’ve presented above. It’s not just about fears of Hillsong experiencing transfer growth while existing ministries experience transfer loss. And let’s be honest, some people do change churches every few years.

In today's world, many choose a church because of its music, and the Hillsong name is immediately recognizable.

In today’s world, many choose a church because of its music, and the Hillsong name is immediately recognizable.

No, there’s more to this. It’s a matter of knowing your context. Knowing the rhythm, the cadence, the tenor of the ministries working in that community. Studying the spiritual history. Having someone with their feet on the ground for months, even years; having others who are invested in the community. Missionaries often spend a year acclimating to the culture before they ever begin a word of proclamation. You don’t just show up and expect to rock their world overnight. That is what I believe is at the heart of Nate’s concerns; it’s not just about someone building a big worship center or having brand recognition. It’s about the ‘people context’ of the city.

To return to a retail analogy — a different one — we once owned three Christian bookstores. While each carried our name, kept the same hours, stocked the same core titles, and was run by the same policies, the spiritual needs of those communities were vastly different, and the authors and ministries known to their customers were often quite unique. When asked if we were going to expand further, I said at the time, “You can’t just take a store like this one, seal it in a giant container, and drop it in to another community. The needs and interests are not the same.” It might work with a dairy store, or if you sell jeans and t-shirts, but it doesn’t work in Christian endeavor. You can’t just colonize another territory; you have to have done, and be prepared to do as much listening as you talking.

I would be ill-equipped to want to start a Christian store or a church in an area where I didn’t have some previous familiarity, or wasn’t living, or wasn’t working in partnership with some people already in ministry there; and this doubly so if that is an area where there is a history of intense spiritual warfare; and while each of those three criteria is important, I would say working in partnership would be the way to begin.

On the other hand, I would not want to be obstructionist, I would not want to stand in Hillsong’s way; but I think Nate’s concerns are very real, and because he’s there, he has the right to express those concerns or misgivings.

I just don’t think the elephant knows when it is the largest animal in the room and what responsibilities go with that privilege, any more than Staples realized they were going to put those four office supply stores in my town out of business. Or did they?

My Christian ethic compels me to wish Hillsong well, but it also compels me to equally wish all the existing churches and mission organizations in the San Francisco Bay area well also.

One more time, here’s a link to the article: Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco.

Thanks to David Fitch for pointing out this article to me.



February 11, 2015

Wednesday Link List

The classic photo archive, called this photo "Church of Meteorology." Here's why: "Going to church to pray for rain. Grassy Butte, North Dakota; July 1936."

The classic photo archive, called this photo “Church of Meteorology.” Here’s why: “Going to church to pray for rain. Grassy Butte, North Dakota; July 1936.”  Click the image to view at source.

Each week we begin with a blank slate, never knowing what direction the week’s links are going to take.

  • When Bible Superficials are not Superficial – How words and paragraphs are set out on the page can affect the meaning we take away from the passage, so Bible typography — especially punctuation, paragraphing and chapter divisions — actually matters.  48 minutes; some of it quite humorous; and most of it is translation-neutral.
  • Taking the Plus-One Approach – Kevin DeYoung: “Are you just starting out at a new church and don’t know how to get plugged in? Have you been at your church for years and still haven’t found your place? Are you feeling disconnected, unhappy, or bored with your local congregation? Let me suggest you enter the ‘Plus One’ program of church involvement…In addition to the Sunday morning worship service, pick one thing in the life of your congregation and be very committed to it.”
  • Praying Together as a Couple – Last week the Stand to Reason blog had an excerpt from Tim Keller’s book on prayer, in which Keller, in turn quotes his wife on the necessity of prayer: “Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.”
  • When God is Silent – Tony Woodlief at InTouch Ministries: “[O]ver the years I have buried a child, ruined a marriage, and disappointed so very many people. In the midst of this life’s wreckage, there have been many long, dark nights when I scarcely had breath for prayer, let alone presence of mind to formulate the right words. Some nights I have lain across my bed, or on the floor, and I have wept, and hoped that tears suffice where words won’t come.” Tony at his blog: “I’ve talked about saudade, a Portuguese word meaning the presence of absence, which is how you feel, every day for the rest of your life, when you have lost someone you love. Their absence is a weight, it is a presence… This weighty nothing is also what you feel when you cannot discern God’s response.”
  • Saturday Morning at the Inter-Faith Service – This may resonate with some of you: “I am weary from a full and demanding week, and…to say that Sunday’s sermon is “unfinished” would be the height of understatement… I usually feel a little out-of-place at these ecumenical services, standing amidst all of my more impressive-looking clergypersons with their beautiful robes and vestments. I can only imagine how it looks from the pew. Who’s that guy with the scruffy sports coat who forgot to shave?  What’s he doing up there? Who let him sit amongst the real pastors and priests?”
  • Women in the Bible: Entirely New Metrics – “There are 93 women who speak in the Bible, 49 of whom are named. These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively — roughly 1.1 percent of the total words in the holy book. These are the findings of the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, an Episcopal priest who three years ago embarked on an unprecedented project: to count all the words spoken by women in the Bible. With the help of three other women in her church community — as well as highlighters, sticky notes and spreadsheets — Freeman painstakingly dissected the Bible’s New Revised Standard Version.”
  • Religious Freedom in Canada – Television journalist Lorna Dueck devotes her half-hour program Context to the background story on the accreditation of the Law School at Trinity Western University by the various law societies in each of the Canadian provinces. At broadcast time, the legal battle was being fought on five separate fronts.
  • Is Christian Music Worth Listening To? – Is it worshiptainment? Jonny Diaz, a popular Christian recording artist, John Thompson, an executive with Capitol CMG Publishing, and Dr. T. David Gordon, a professor of religion joined host Julie Roys on the weekend for a sometimes heated discussion at Up For Debate, a program at Moody Radio. 48 minute audio. Which leads us to…
  • Where They Are Now – Jesus music and modern worship pioneer Kelly Willard talks about her battle with Bipolar Disorder and how it intersected life circumstances: “I KNOW that if I had not been on the correct medication(s) for my Bipolar Disorder, I would’ve ended up somewhere in a padded cell wearing a straight-jacket indefinitely. For you see, in 2004, my father died, my daughter committed suicide, my mother died, my 29 year marriage died (we divorced), and my stepmother took my inheritance from my father away from me.”
  • Finally, Just in Case You Need It – A directory of American churches — no doubt incomplete — where the lead or senior pastor is a woman. “I sense that some people would really prefer to have a woman in the senior pastoral role and the directory can help them find such a church.”

Short takes:

  • gets into an in-depth article on Christians and pornography, including a focus on the ministry
  • Ten reasons why Jesus probably would be an outcast in today’s church.
  • A mission agency focused on Bible translation is using new methods to get the job done more efficiently as donor dollars decline.
  • David Platt talks to PARSE about his new book, Church and Culture.
  • InterVarsity has won a pivotal sex discrimination court case over hiring practices, with ramifications for other churches and Christian charities.
  • Pentecostal prayer gangs in prison: An interview with the creator of the documentary I Give My Soul.
  • K-LOVE goes video: “K-LOVE, the national Christian music radio chain, is launching a multi-platform video channel through a partnership with TAPP TV. ‘We are thrilled about K-LOVE TV creating another avenue for fans to connect and go deeper with K-LOVE, their faith and the artists they love,’ said Mike Novak, K-LOVE President and CEO. The service costs $9.95 per month.”
  • The band I Am They — named after passages in the New Testament — formed somewhat by accident.
  • And speaking of bands, our video of the week is the song My God by new Canadian band Caves featuring Amanda Cook.
  • If you’re having trouble beating the February blahs, why not relax and enjoy some lighter side reading from author/speaker Phil Callaway. (Though my pick was the more serious items in the interviews section.)

Leonard Sweet tweeted this on Tuesday, calling it “a different kind of last supper.”  The artist is Johan Andersson. Click the image for more information.

A Different Kind of Last Supper

February 4, 2015

Wednesday Link List


I think this guy is late for the evening service. He may not have his Bible, but he remembered his cross.

I think this guy is late for the evening service. He may not have his Bible, but he remembered to take up his cross.

  • Living Ministry Life Backwards – From The Washington Post: “For most of his career, Joshua Harris was the kind of evangelical pastor who chuckled at the joke that ‘seminary’ should really be called ‘cemetery…’ That is, until Sunday [1/25], when the 40-year-old announced that he is leaving to go to seminary, saying he needs formal education and training and more exposure and connection to other parts of Christianity… Harris said he expects that studying at Regent College, a graduate school of theology, will broaden his perspective, including on accountability.” (Links to full sermon/announcement video.)
  • Getting Back on the Horse You Fell Off – After battling the Ebola virus in the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Rick Sacra is back in Liberia. “Thomas Curtis is senior pastor at the Sacra’s church, Holden Chapel, and a long-time friend and prayer partner. He said watching Sacra battle Ebola this last year helped to grow the congregation’s faith and united several area churches in prayer. He said members at Holden Chapel are excited that Sacra has returned to serve in Liberia. ‘It wouldn’t make sense to us if he didn’t because he’s not that kind of person…'”
  • Church Planting in Sin City – “The [San Francisco] Bay Area has never been perceived as religious: a 2012 Gallup poll found that fewer than a quarter of residents identify as “very religious” (defined as going to church weekly), as opposed to 40% of the nation as a whole. High salaries have drawn droves of well-educated millennials to the booming tech sector, which correlates with lower religious sentiment. So far afield from the Bible belt, the region is in fact seen as hospitable to all forms of old testament abominations: fornication, paganism – even sodomy. If you look around, however, you’ll notice a bumper crop of newer Christian ministries…
  • The Danger of ‘Winging It’ in the Pulpit – While the Perry Noble Christmas sermon on God’s “Big Ten” brought some major doctrinal concerns, perhaps a greater problem was the backstory on how the sermon happened at all: “Sometimes you are put on the spot and have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you. This was not one of those occasions. Perry Noble got caught up in excitement and interrupted a program to deliver a message that he was in no way prepared to give. Preaching is not just some form of spiritual motivational speaking, it’s declaring the word of God. Even the goofiest sermon is a sacred act of worship that is meant to call those who hear to a deeper relationship with God. It’s just irresponsible to take that lightly. There is a real danger that can come from misrepresenting God’s word. I have no doubt that had Perry Noble spent a few hours preparing this message (instead of 10 minutes) that a lot of the controversy surrounding it would be almost non-existent.”<
  • Gideons Face Roadblocks in Georgia – Did the framers of the constitution intend this? For most Christians, clearly not, but it doesn’t stop secularists from continuing to marginalize Christianity in public places. “Some board members are in favor of the proposal. However, school board attorney Tommy Coleman says it’s unconstitutional for them to allow the Bibles to be distributed on school grounds. Glenn Phelps, with the Gideons, presented board members with a map showing many other South Georgia counties that allow Gideon Bibles to be distributed. But Coleman held that if it was happening, those school boards were not obeying the law…He said he doesn’t believe there’s any practical way to legally distribute Bibles to students at school.”
  • Podcast of the Week – Steve Brown talks to CCM singer Jennifer Knapp about coming out (which he thinks might lose him a radio station or two).  “I had people writing…the worst is the anonymous stuff… I’ve had people disagree with me in public spaces and come to shows and say they’re disappointed in me, but those are pretty tame in comparison to the anonymous kind of stuff that you get… The thing I didn’t anticipate that absolutely happened was an overwhelming responsive of positivity.” 43-minute audio.
  • The Worship Article That’s Got Everyone Talking – Perhaps it’s just the fact that articles that begin with a number (6 Tips, 5 Principles, 7 Ways) always get traction; but it seemed that everywhere I turned last week, someone was including this in their own internet roundup. Check out 15 Worship Decisions We’ll Regret Later. (Sample #10 – Not providing a venue for creatives to express their art as worship.)
  • Micro-Church Planting – “There are 60-some beds at the Kings Motor Inn, but it doesn’t seem like our friends find much rest here. People bounce from room to room, cars come and go, kids play in the parking lot. Everyone looking to escape, to feel some peace, but nobody really finding it.” They call it Dope Church. Fife, Washington is on the I-5 corridor, which is also a corridor for drug and sex traffic. Some snapshots of ministry life at the motel.
  • Moody Press Offers To Trade Books – The conservative Evangelical publisher is inviting readers an opportunity to mail in their copy of 50 Shades of Grey and receive in exchange a copy of Pulling Back the Shades by Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery. The latter book helps undo the damage done by the former. (You can also read a sample chapter at the site.) Related article: How 50 Shades of Grey Harms Women & Jesus Saves Them.
  • The Angst Your Church Sound-Tech Faces – “The stage was set.  The equipment checked and double-checked.  The band was plugged in and ready.  Everything was as expected until they played the first song…They sounded horrible.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the musicians were horrible.  The house mix sounded atrocious…” I’ve probably never seen an article that so well exposes the heart of that guy at the back who is under-appreciated and dealing with his own self-doubts.

Short links and things that got cut from Parse!:

  • A different kind of Baptism invitation: Don’t come forward, go out the door.
  • Everywhere I went online this week, people were talking about the band I Am They. Check out the song From The Day. (Also posted here yesterday as it turns out!)
  • Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada continues to its battle to see the school represented by various law schools on a province-by-province basis including this recent victory in Nova Scotia.
  • The Hour of Power with Bobby Schuller TV show is getting a makeover with a new producer who has done similar work for Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer; as well as a host of denominations and organizations.
  • On the wearing of leggings as pants, there is no end of media coverage. Read the original story with the ABC News video clip. And coverage here. And here. And…
  • As we’ve said before, there are no cats in the Bible, but dogs do not fare well in its pages.
  • is this transcription correct? if so, it’s the only time that e. e. cummings used a capital letter… see what may have occasioned this exception.
  • I can see using this “service countdown” video at youth group, or even mid-week, but I’m not sure it would work in even an informal Sunday morning. Then again, churches are changing right.  Step away from the computer and enjoy 5 minutes of exercise.

November 19, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Rowan and Rowena - The Bishop Bears

Stay here to read classic Wednesday links, or visit PARSE to view nine selected stories with more preview info.

The above image from the Ship of Fools archives seemed appropriate given that women can now officially be bishops in the Church of England.


With all the many challenges that gay couples face, I honestly didn’t think of this one:

Name Problem


November 5, 2014

Wednesday Link List

You're not really showing up at the church potluck (or pot-blessed) supper unless you're showing up with a zippered casserole carrier inscribed with the verse, "Serve one another in love."

You’re not really showing up at the church potluck (or pot-blessed) supper unless you’re showing up with a zippered casserole carrier inscribed with the verse, “Serve one another in love.”

Places to go; people to meet!

We end today where we started last week; another movie parody poster from the Orange curriculum. Click the image for details.

Orange Curriculum Parody Poster 2

March 5, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Random screenshot from this week's Phil Vischer Podcast because, honestly, we didn't have a picture this week. Left to right: Phil, Christian Taylor and Skye Jethani

Random screenshot from this week’s Phil Vischer Podcast even though there’s no reference to it in the link list, because, honestly, we didn’t have a picture this week. Left to right: Phil, Christian Taylor and Skye Jethani (Click image to watch)

Each installment of the link list takes on a different flavor, and this one is no exception. No, that’s not right, it is an exception, that’s what makes it different. (Maybe I should have gone with the “no two snowflakes are the same” intro.) 

Clicking anything below will take to PARSE, who own the link list, then click the items there you wish to view.

Like I said, no time for picture shopping this week, so Mrs. W. suggested we mine the vault for classics:

Purpose Driven Parodies

January 29, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Bible is like a software license
A lot of people are critical of short-term missions, but right now, a plane ticket to somewhere warm would look really appealing. In the meantime, here are some links to keep you warm, clicking anything that follows will take you to PARSE at Christianity Today and then you can click through from there.

We leave you today with “the thrill that’ll gitcha when ya get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”  In this case, Pope Francis in the current issue; click the image to read the story.

Pope Francis Rolling Stone Cover

Paul Wilkinson is based in Canada — “You liked the first Polar Vortex so much we’re sending you another one” — and blogs at Thinking Out Loud and Christian Book Shop Talk

December 4, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Awkward Moments Children's Bible

This week, many links that will be of interest to pastors and church leaders, along with the usual dash of quirkiness. The list is posted each week at Out of Ur, a blog of Leadership Today, a division of Christianity Today. Click here to read.

Looking for more substance, why not click over to Christianity 201.

November 6, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Link List - Out of Ur

I’ve checked this week and nobody in the Pentecostal community is organizing a Strange Ice Conference. So far.

The last link listed here this week is to an interview that Chrsitianity Today did with me about a month ago that I didn’t think would ever appear. Speaking of which, you can catch this week’s list at Out of Ur; the individual links will take you there now as well.

Wednesday Link List Sign
Yes, blogrolls are now uncool, but if you scroll down the right margin at Thinking Out Loud, for a limited time, there’s a list of a small selection of the places Paul Wilkinson hunts each week for buried treasure.

April 16, 2013

Why That “Different Kind of Church” Looks Like All The Rest

Filed under: Church, technology — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:55 am

Church Stage Design Ideas dot com

David Murrow has been blogging up a storm lately. We just used one of his pieces here last week, and I can’t reblog everything he writes; but on the other hand, I cant ignore his more recent post, Why I Am Not Too Excited About Church Planting.  His basic thesis:

Everyone’s planting the same church. I’ve visited half a dozen young church plants over the past two years. And they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. See if this lineup sounds familiar:

  • Approximately 15 minutes of praise music, played by a rock band.
  • A projector, sound system and stage lighting
  • A separate nursery and children’s program concurrent with “big church”
  • A 25 to 40 minute sermon delivered by a young, informally dressed man
  • An offering, plus maybe a sacrament (communion, etc.)
  • A closing song or two, also led by the rock band.
  • Service length: between 70 and 90 minutes.

Well, he’s got that right. And don’t forget the 60-second video ‘title package’ which precedes the sermon…

So annually we have thousands of churches re-inventing the wheel. But years ago, the phrase “a different kind of church” was all the rage. How did all these different churches end up so much the same? 

He concludes this section by noting, “We haven’t had this much conformity in worship since the days of medieval Catholicism.”

It’s the new, high-tech liturgy. But all that tech for both the primary service and the alternative service for children involves gear and set-up. It is both capital intensive and labor intensive.  And it rises or falls on the ability of the pastor to resonate with everybody.  No pressure.  Murrow concludes:

If we’re planting 4,000 churches a year at $125,000 per congregation, that’s half a billion dollars per year going into church planting in America alone. Seventy percent of that money is going into churches that won’t exist in 24 months. Church plants will consume 40 million volunteer hours this year. Couldn’t these vast resources be more profitably employed for the Kingdom?

Yes, David, they could, and they should.

One thing that he notes here that I feel very strongly about is the existence of mortgage free church buildings that are hosting dwindling congregations. Michael Frost has been instrumental in spreading awareness of this situation, and his own church in Manly, Australia — a congregation known as Small Boat Big Sea — successfully integrated into a building that was underutilized.   Murrow writes:

Most church buildings are owned debt-free. Many of these churches sit empty 160 hours a week. And they’re half-empty on Sunday. Why don’t existing congregations allow new churches to meet in their paid-off buildings at alternate times? (We’re already seeing this as ethnic congregations are using existing churches for Sunday afternoon services.)

I encourage you to (a) take 3-4 minutes to re-read all this at David’s blog; (b) share this article with senior leadership at your church who don’t object to doing some critical thinking.  Here’s the link.

Image: Church Stage Design Ideas

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