We’ve got to start thinking in new terms. Do we want new worship leaders, preachers, youth specialists and writers? Then let’s keep doing what we’re doing. We’re good at creating all-stars for the current way of doing church. But what is it that we really want? We need to find new ways to experience walking with God.”–Paul Sparks in his session “The Medium is the Message”

(Note: The next three days worth of entries are taken directly from the address Tim Soerens gave during the Inhabit Conference I attended last weekend. The three main points in his address during the Leadership in New Parish Symposium on Saturday afternoon are what I’ll be thinking through)

It’s a discussion that I’ve been having with several folks who were involved in my church during the time of explosive growth. We were having those problems all churches love to have. You know what I’m talking about: Not enough parking so we had to run shuttles from a remote lot. Expanding to three and then to four services. Septic problems because the old building wasn’t designed for 1,000 people each week. Not enough room for Sunday School classes. The youth moving to a stand-alone program on Sunday evenings and shifting our middle school program to Tuesday nights because the children’s ministry filled the building on Wednesdays.

They were fun times, man.

The obvious solution: A new building. In our case, 60,000 square feet of ministry tool with wide hallways and ample classroom space and an auditorium to seat 850. There were plans to develop the acreage to include a dedicated worship space, expand the current building to 70,000 square feet dedicated to classroom spaces, and add an outdoor family life area to make a nice park complete with amphitheater and gazebos and walking paths.

It was fun to dream. It is fun to dream.

And people did come. From all over the place. We had programs galore in all age ranges and life-stations. We kept four services but were giving considerable thought to a fifth on Saturday evenings. We became, by the strictest definition, a megachurch. Now, keep in mind that in our area, a megachurch can range over 24,000, but by definition there are over 70 megachurches in DFW.

All offering the best in women’s ministries, men’s ministries, children & youth, senior citizens, sports leagues (even one for kids where they all play by character-building guidelines), incredibly talented worship leaders and Sunday services where 10,000 could take communion at once and every single bell & whistle you can imagine.

But, like all well-intentioned goals there were some unintended consequences. For example, I had students that came to our small groups that met in homes on Wednesday nights, attended worship service (they didn’t like our music) at another place on Saturday, went to the “outreach” events at another, and youth group at still another. Adults came to our church because of a particular video series but attended faithfully in another congregation. People were driving 40 minutes to hear a particular pastor preach.

It was frustrating on several levels…but the bottom line was that I was seeing the entire approach to the spiritual life become driven by the wants & desires of the individual (or individual families). You could lose a series of families if your pastor left, or the worship style changed, or if another church added a sports league for your kids. You could commute in for your hour on Sunday and never be a part of any community at all. We saw it get personal, too. I mean, at first our student ministry staff meetings were a lot about praying for students and parents and such, then they evolved into who was doing worship and who would get the video done by Sunday and how creative we could be with room design.

In short, we built it, they came.

And I’m not sure we were any better at discipling people. In fact, we may have lost a step or two in the transaction because we were attracting people who were attracted to cool programs and not necessarily those who were serious about growing in Christ. And, like my friend Charlie said, “The method you use to attract people will be the method you have to use to keep people.” We became about having to be better and excellent at what we were doing: running programs. We were, too.

So, cut to these conversations I’ve been having with friends/colleagues who were all involved in our church at that time. I posted the reality that there wasn’t much serious discussion (if any, although a few said there were some, but I wasn’t privy to them) about doing the exact opposite. Maybe selling the building we owned or using it for training purposes and focusing on small group or even neighborhood-type ministry (much like the Parish Collective is doing now).

When I mentioned that, one of the best responses I got was, “Brent, no one was really having those kinds of conversations back then. There wasn’t all the data we have today about the failures of the megachurch model regarding discipleship or the amount of publishing that’s out there highlighting the shortcomings. You were all having honest discussions in the times you lived them out.” Fair enough.

But now, see, I’m on a journey of deconstruction of all this. I’m not on the sidelines of this. I’ve lived it first-hand. I’ve seen the upsides (and there are some, to be sure) and I’ve experienced the realities of this model.

I have serious stripes in evangelical circles, man. I was plugged in to a solid Bible church growing up in Alabama and, for whatever reason, those in leadership were proactive in spending time with me…and lovingly walked alongside me to help me make further decisions to grow spiritually during my undergrad years. I worked professionally for Youth for Christ for years. I got a degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. I worked for a growing church in the Dallas area for 15 years…in a specialty where the average tenure is somewhere between 18 months to 3 years.

So, when Tim spoke, he was sharing with the attendees the warning signs he is seeing. I lived them.

The first warning was regarding consumerism and the dangers of where that would lead to not only churches, but to individuals in those systems.

And today, here at The Diner, I’d love to hear your thoughts on:
1) The positive experiences you’ve had if you’ve been in or are currently involved in a larger church with many programs.
2) Some ways you’ve seen the consumer mentality played out where you live.
3) Some ways you see the church at-large can be more effective at truly discipling people. What that would look like, what the needs are, etc.

So, have at it, patrons!