Thinking Out Loud

December 21, 2013

Tweetering on the Edge: Karl Vaters

Karl VatersThose of you who follow my other blog, Christianity 201, know that I have a high respect for people who keep a tight spiritual focus on their social media. If you’re a pastor who also enjoys NASCAR, in my view that’s two blogs, not one; and possibly two Twitter feeds as well.

I only follow about 100 people on Twitter, but through hearing about a small church conference several weeks ago, Karl Vaters ( @KarlVaters ) came to be one of them. He also blogs at NewSmallChurch.com. Despite the preponderance of mega-sized places of worship, churches with less than 100 adults present on Sunday morning is the reality at about a quarter of all U.S. churches and nearly half of all Canadian churches. As Karl states in one article, the contrast can be confusing:

…[I]n any city where there is a church of 10,000, there aren’t just 100 Small Churches with 10,000 people attending – there are probably 1,000 Small Churches with 100,000 people attending. That’s reality. Small Churches outnumber megachurches by 1,000 to 1. And Small Church members outnumber megachurch members by 10 to 1.

Although I think his target audience is pastors and church leaders, he posts some great links that I think many of you might enjoy…

Well…that’s enough to get you started. Or simply subscribe to Karl’s blog or Twitter.

Tweetering on the Edge is a new monthly feature at Thinking Out Loud

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March 21, 2013

The Other Side of the Megachurch Equation

Megachurch motivational

While we love to celebrate all the good things that are taking place in some of the larger churches here in North America, on Tuesday night I had a brief conversation with a pastor whose church represents the other half of the megachurch equation.

His church is located in a rural area that has not seen any growth in many decades. Urban sprawl from nearby towns is still decades away, if it happens at all. Many in the surrounding farms have retired; they winter in Florida; health keeps them from going to church; and many have lost interest in organized religion or religion in general.

If any young families have located to the area, they are more likely to drive to a nearby church which, although nowhere near the definition of megachurch, picks up young families like your vacuum picks up dust and dirt.

This pastor’s church however stands in contrast. The last time I visited — about six years ago — there was no sound system.  I don’t think they had a photocopier in the office, either. Nearly two centuries of tradition doesn’t draw a crowd. He remarked that the congregation is aging, as is he. Ceding the church to a next generation pastor and next generation people really only works in urban centers. The Michael Frost stories can only be replicated in so many locations; I’m guessing about one in a hundred has the right combination of facility, leadership and potential parishioners; just as lightning only strikes in certain random places.

The difference here is that the pastor was real not abstract; he was standing directly next to me, and I know a handful of families — albeit all older families — who attend this church. I can imagine how it feels to think that sometime in the not so distant future this church, which once played host to decades of different types of ministry to children, teens, young adults and mature adults, will be converted to a community center, or a bingo hall, or an antiques shop, or someone’s house or be razed altogether. Or maybe I can’t imagine how it feels to know that a place where generations met with God faces being decommissioned.

Megachurch

Other than the Roman Catholic Church and certain Episcopalians, the parish system — whereby you attend the church in your immediate community —  is dead. In a link story yesterday, we reported that at least 600,000 Americans do a ninety minute church commute. That’s an hour and a half  in metric time. People who chauffeur their kids to soccer and skating and cello lessons have no qualms about driving a longer distance to get their kids into a good midweek program at a church with a solid Christian Education department.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. There is also the general decline in church attendance. The entry of North America into a post-Christian era. The effect of shift work on church attendance. The effects of health on older members. The growth of the megachurches is not entirely always transfer growth, but it is a transfer of potential members to the house of worship where critical mass has been attained, where a crowd draws a crowd.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Mega-Church Bus from Sacred Sandwich

July 8, 2011

It’s Hip to Be Un-Hip

Remember that episode of Seinfeld where his girlfriend keeps manipulating the position of friends on her speed-dial so that it resembles at Top Ten chart?  Well, Rachel Held Evans has moved really high up on my blog speed-dial.  You really need to be bookmarking her blog.  I hesitated to reprint this in full until I saw Pilgrim Scribblings get away with it, so I figured forgiveness is easier to ask for than permission.  She called it, Blessed Are The Un-Cool.

People sometimes assume that because I’m a progressive 30-year-old who enjoys Mumford and Sons and has no children, I must want a super-hip church—you know, the kind that’s called “Thrive” or “Be” and which boasts “an awesome worship experience,” a  fair-trade coffee bar, its own iPhone app, and a pastor who looks like a Jonas Brother. 

While none of these features are inherently wrong, (and can of course be used by good people to do good things), these days I find myself longing for a church with a cool factor of about 0.  

That’s right.

I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and…brace yourself…painfully amateur “special music” now and then.

Why?

Well, for one thing, when the gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks. 

But more importantly, I want to be part of an un-cool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus, and like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool. They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people, and crazy people.  

Cool congregations can get so wrapped up in the “performance” of church that they forget to actually be the church, a phenomenon painfully illustrated by the story of the child with cerebral palsy who was escorted from the Easter service at Elevation Church for being a “distraction.” 

Really?

It seems to me that this congregation was distracted long before this little boy showed up! In their self-proclaimed quest for “an explosive, phenomenal movement of God—something you have to see to believe,” they missed Jesus when he was right under their nose. 

 Was the paralytic man lowered from the rooftop in the middle of a sermon a distraction? 

Was the Canaanite woman who harassed Jesus and his disciples about healing her daughter a distraction? 

Were the blind men from Jericho who annoyed the crowd with their relentless cries a distraction? 

Jesus didn’t think so. In fact, he seemed to think that they were the point. 

Jesus taught us that when we throw a banquet or a party, our invitation list should include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” So why do our church marketing teams target the young, the hip, the healthy, and the resourced? 

In Bossypants (a book you should really go out and buy this very instant), Tina Fey describes working for the YMCA in Chicago soon after graduating from college. This particular YMCA included, “a great mix of high-end yuppie fitness facility, a wonderful community resource for families, and an old-school residence for disenfranchised men,” so Fey shares a host of funny stories about working the front desk. One such story involves one of the residents forgetting to take his meds, bumping into a young mom on her way to a workout session, and saying something wildly inappropriate (and very funny—you should definitely go out and get this book). Fey writes, “The young mother was beside herself. That’s the kind of trouble you get when diverse groups of people actually cross paths with one another. That’s why many of the worst things in the world happen in and around Starbucks bathrooms.”

Church can be a lot like the Y…or a Starbucks bathroom. 

We have one place for the un-cool people (our ministries) and another place for the cool people (our church services). When we actually bump into one another, things can get awkward, so we try to avoid it.  

It’s easy to pick on Elevation Church in this case, but the truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Aspergers sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping that our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests.  For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear.

Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, others on the outside. 

But we’re all broken. 

We’re all un-cool. 

We’re all in need of a Savior. 

So let’s cut the crap, pull the plug, and have us some distracting church services… the kind where Jesus would fit right in.

~Rachel Held Evans

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