On The Fence

I first noticed a little trend about five years ago.

Let me back up. Those of us in ministry keep track of numbers. You know. How many students attended this thing or that class or whatever. Sometimes they’re kept for practicality sake…like how many vans you need to get everybody a seat belt or how many tickets to buy for an event. Sometimes they’re kept for analysis, like looking for trends. These are helpful if you know that you’re graduating a group of 12 girls and the class behind them has 2. Or if a class should still be offered if attendance has dropped 40% since you first offered it. Stuff like that. So, yeah. Ministry has a bottom line aspect to it and some put more emphasis on them than others, but I don’t think I’m telling you anything you didn’t know.

Anyway, back to the trend a few years ago.

We were having an abnormal trend in that our weekly Wednesday night small group ministry was larger than our Sunday School attendance. All the books say that if you can get 50% of your Sunday School attendance involved in a small group then that’s outstanding. Another little blip was that we were having extremely high mission trip participation, while our ability to “keep” those kids around our church was lower than a normal rate of retention. So, I started asking around. Just asking teens what they liked.

I discovered something unique to me at the time. Students were saying things like, “Everybody knows if you want to study the Bible then you go to a good Bible church, so I come to the Wednesday night small group.”

Or, “Our church doesn’t have mission trips like this one.”

As the conversation progressed you’d eventually get to something like this, “See, I go to Huge Suburban Megachurch for their worship, First Whatever for their great fun events, Mainline Denominational Church for their worship service, and I come to your church for mid-week Bible study. Sometimes, I find a church that has missions or social programs that fit my schedule. Every now and then I check out Campus Outreach Ministry, too, if I want to take a friend who is looking into Christianity.”

It was my first experience with designer church-going. You get it, right? Take the strengths of each church or outreach to fit whatever your perceived need is in your spiritual life.

My first emotional reaction was negative. I mean, this was different than choosing a church family because they had a strong children’s ministry, or offered your family a chance to worship together, or had a small group ministry for your age/situation, or had social programs for causes/organizations you believed in, and whatever other reasons are out there folks choose a church to be a part of. Stuff like that has been going on for ages. But, this was actually attending, and considering yourself belonging to, 3 or 4 different churches. This just went against my grain.

But the more I thought about it, the more positives I noticed. People were having meaningful worship experiences than their tiny church could provide. The tiny church provided those close-knit connections people desired. Teens were going on mission trips they never would’ve experienced otherwise. People were able to use their gifts and talents in community outreach to the homeless or whatever else got them excited and individuals were helped. People were involved in small groups and being discipled where they never had that option before. People were learning about other denominations and moving past stereotypes. And, yes, I know that this could only happen in a community like ours where we have so many churches with so many options. But, there were positives, to be sure.

And I don’t know if it’s because I first noticed this trend in my students, but now I see the same trend increasing among adults. They’re doing the same thing for the same reasons and I’m seeing the same positives.

It still goes against my ministry grain a little bit. Maybe it’s because I work for a church and REALLY REALLY REALLY believe that a church’s doctrinal statement matters a TON…if largely because it leads to greater unity in the Body. And I wonder if I have a stronger need for belonging somewhere and being committed to one particular local church, using your gifts and talents to help THAT group mature in their faith, than others have. I mean, I’m incredibly loyal by nature. Others aren’t.

But I do see that no local church is perfect. All have strengths and weaknesses in areas where folks have varying interests. And who is to say that the local congregations can’t effectively, to use a business term, “spider-web” and integrate those various strengths and weaknesses. That might help unity, too. Yep. I’ve seen people grow & mature through piecemealing as well and they might not’ve done so in a more traditional setting.

So, while I admit I’m thinking this through and don’t have any firm conclusions, I also admit I lean towards a more traditional “one local church” approach at this point.

But I’d really like to hear what the patronage thinks on this…