*This is the second in a series of entries inspired by books I’ve read on the subject of the “missional church.” Please read the ground rules before beginning. Also, try to read entries in chronological order as they tend to build on the previous entry, okay?

It was the dream of any pastor in student ministries.

About 175 high school students every week in our Sunday School class (even more in our middle school class). We had shiny & new dedicated space for them all even if we only had 150 chairs from the old building’s main auditorium. We had a state-of-the-art sound system a guy with connections had gotten us a sweet deal on. We had a pretty good video set up and computer software for our teaching (even if the sight lines weren’t well thought through when we designed the room) time. We had a talented & fun & creative staff–both paid and volunteer–who were joyfully using their gifts and talents. A coffee shop went out of business and gave us their professional quality coffee making machine–and one of those happy staffers was a former barista and could make the thing hum. We had deacons and elders who made sure we had every tool for ministry at our disposal…and elders who went on the mission trips that our mission board made sure we went on even if the unplanned overselling of the trip to students would mean income wouldn’t reach outgo. We had a lot of community support and goodwill.

So…

…why would I find myself standing in front this talented & fun & creative staffers…

…telling them that something wasn’t right?

Past that, I told them to erase every single thing I’d painstakingly written on the whiteboard that detailed every aspect of our ministry. Start over. Design a ministry that would seriously disciple students. Add to that the reality that I’d stay out of staff meetings for the next month and only constructively critique their plan after they’d presented it to me. Carte blanche. Start over. Let’s do it right this time.

(as an aside, their plan was excellent–just as I’d suspected it would be–but some significant changes in our congregation took place the fall before we were going to implement it. That plan is still in a drawer somewhere. That’s a shame.)

Five years later, I was having another meeting with a fun and creative and innovative staffer asking similar questions. We’d had a summer’s worth of discussion about the forms of church and how we could teach to our students about the reality that church was more than buildings, budgets and baptisms. Our solution was to teach a semester on what it meant to follow Christ that would lead to an intense two-week application series using social media and thoughtful interaction.

The first week, we posited an absurd scenario to our teens in which the building had been taken over by bankers and no one could use it, the pastoral staff had all been called away to foreign missions immediately and had already left, and the financial assets of the church were all frozen while an investigation took place. We then asked the students what they’d do.

They were quick to name one of the teens they viewed as the most spiritually mature as pastor for their group. They even tabbed the best musician as their worship leader. One of the students who opened her spacious home often for events was asked if Sunday services could be held there, to which she quickly said, “Of course!” It was assumed their small group leaders could stay the same as they were volunteers who hosted in their homes. They’d also continue the Tuesday night program for the middle school group in which they were serving as leaders, but they’d have to find a place and a leader for that.

I smiled as they got excited, because they proved my point: Church, in their way of thinking, was a specific FORM. They assumed they needed to replace the building, programs and people and continue as is. And we wanted to help them focus on the reality that Kingdom living could (should?) be done as walking with Christ even if none of those things even existed. Well, the PEOPLE would exist, but maybe not with the hierarchical structures they’d come to know.

And here’s the quote that started it all, from The Shaping of Things To Come, by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost:

Having a building, some shared money, and some paid staff doesn’t preclude you from being an effective church, but if your church would be lost without them, there is a core problem. Where the church is thriving in Asia, Africa, and Latin and South America, many churches are meeting in homes, under trees, beside rivers, in cafes, and in public meeting halls. It’s in the West, where the institutionalized church is slowly dying, that there seems to be such a reliance on church buildings.

Now, we’d built/designed our 60,000 square foot building to be a “functional tool for ministry.”
Our budget was certainly very healthy. The deacons and elders made sure of it.
Our staff was full-time and part-time…with an extremely healthy slew of gifted volunteers, too.

But we were spending an awful lot of time and resources on maintaining our “functional tool.”
We were also spending a great deal of money on well-meaning/well-intentioned programs, bringing bands in, opening coffee shops, and getting buses and vans, etc.
We were spending a lot of time figuring out who to hire next for things that were falling through the cracks.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s not to say that some good things weren’t going on. We had some highly effective mission trips. Small groups were staggeringly effective. Service projects were great. Stuff like that. Certain teens were growing by leaps and bounds and we were seeing the light bulb go off for a few students who’d been struggling.

I’m simply saying our blessings had a dark side. Enough of our attention was diverted away from things that matter to the building, bucks and pros we’d need to keep up. I’d by lying if I didn’t check the weekly staff report sheet to see if we were “growing” or not. Being a baseball nut, I’d spend a few minutes each week comparing week-to-week trends, averages against last year/last quarter, checking main service attendance, checking children’s ministry to see what to expect next year. The budget numbers were always somehow important…we were looking to add another hire or two in the next budget, right? Or we’d need to add some new lighting, or speakers, or video projector, right?

We were hooked on the form.

Which is why I stood before my staff on two separate occasions five years apart and wanted them to start over. Or at least to regain focus on the right things: Discipleship. Kingdom living.

So, we decided to get our students focused “missionally.”

We’d want them to start loving their neighbors as themselves. Bold enough?
We’d want them to use their spiritual gift and talents and passions to help the Body mature. Bold enough?
We’d want them to start living in deep, authentic communities. Bold enough?
We’d want them to actively seek & pursue those with needs wherever they were living. Bold enough?
We’d want them to have to depend on the Holy Spirit to walk worthy. Bold enough?
We’d want them to seek first His Kingdom and His glory. Bold enough?
I could go on.

In short, we wanted them to do and say the things Jesus did and said.

And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if they were in a Christian bubble.
And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if they didn’t have opportunities to serve.
And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if they didn’t have freedom to talk about their own dark sides or celebrate their pure life-moments.
And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if we didn’t teach how to redeem their time & place for His glory.
And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if they were always in rows and lines listening to 45 minute lectures on the Bible sandwiched between sets of songs with a smattering of prayer thrown in.
And we weren’t convinced we could get that done if they were stuck in the good suburban ruts and thinking that rewards successful, safe, mediocre living.
I could go on.

But the bottom line is that we were going to have to shift our focus. We were going to have to make some changes. We were going to have to model those things as staffers. We were going to have to stop being safe. We were going to have to serve the oppressed wherever they were (and we all know the problem with choosing to serve is that you’ll get treated like a servant). We were going to have to be deeply authentic ourselves (um, uh-oh). We were going to have to start seeing every moment as sacred. We were going to have to live incarnationally and dive into their lives and let them deep into our lives. We were going to have to change the way we did business. We were going to have to trade the “collapsed view of heaven” which was “the price we paid for our comfort.” (It’s a quote I love from author Douglas Coupland)

It could get messy.
It would get messy.
It should get messy.

But is could be so beautiful.
But it would be so beautiful.
But it should be so beautiful.

And that’s where I’ll head tomorrow. Enough of the shortcomings and drawbacks of the attractional model. I’ll spend the next 6 to 8 essays on the positive aspects of taking the strengths of that model and implementing them missionally.

But for today, a few questions:

First, what are the plusses and minuses of all things about a building for a church?
Second, what programs have you seen that are done well and highly effective for a church? Which ones needed some tweaking?
Third, what do you think are the strengths of the large Sunday morning gathering for churches? What are the drawbacks?

That should get your brains engaged…enjoy!