Most of you know I spend a great deal of time reading about “mission,” what with being a Mission Pastor & all. On Mondays, I try to get your thoughts going about stuff I read. Today’s thoughts come from The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship & Community, by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen.
One question blew the whole thing up. I’ll get to that in a second.
See, the healthy little student ministry I’d stepped into was experiencing growth…however you want to define that term, we were growing. It wasn’t fancy, really. It’s just that the guy before me was doing things he saw in the Bible and it so happened they hired me to continue that legacy. Getting folks who loved teenagers to spend time developing deep relationships and building into their lives the very things that Jesus was building into their very own lives.
The same thing was happening in our healthy little church, too. To the point we’d gone to four services and were looking at a fifth on Saturday nights. We purchased a plot of land. We had lots of meetings about room design and philosophy of ministry in that design. Fundraising was happening. Earth was moving. Foundations were poured. It was all happening.
I started going to conferences. Took my staff. We wanted to make sure that we were doing all we could to prepare for the growth all the experts told us was going to happen. We interviewed key student ministry leaders who’d been through what we were going through to glean their wisdom from experiences.
Our philosophically designed student ministry room required a unique screen placement. We’d need an entirely new computer set-up. The sound guy tested all our levels to ensure crystal clear sound wherever someone would sit. We evaluated software to see which one would handle our teaching presentation in a most volunteer-friendly way. We tested out sight lines from various arrangements of chairs. We worked on video editing concepts that would match our “theme” for the year. Staff meetings on Friday were an hour of who was handling what element of worship, how much time I’d have for teaching & when I’d have my power point slides to the AV team, who was doing the intro video, who was going to ensure that someone would be there to run the sound board. On and on it went.
And students were coming.
We were the “it” group for a while after we moved into the building. Our numbers were bigger than some of those megachurches who put on those conferences we attended. Those same guys who we sought out were seeking us out.
Heady times. Until the question came at a business meeting when we opened it up for Q&A. To set the stage, we’d been presenting the stats regarding our giving and attendance and our plans and it was all roses.
The hand-held microphone made it’s way into one of our faithful volunteer’s hands and asked a simple, provocative question: “Have the elders & staff given any consideration as to how much of this growth is due to having a new building and all the new toys? And what about the rocket-launch growth of our community? Can you comment on how you’re differentiating between those and what the Holy Spirit might be doing?”
The guy hit on something that I’d kind of been feeling and wondering about but never put words to. See, you can attend all the conferences and meet with all the folks and you can get all the church-growth proven methods, set up shop in any community, apply them, and…
…just add water…
And, PRESTO, a 500-member church that is growing.
These techniques and methods are “proven” to get a church blowing and going. This is what Sparks, Soerens & Friesen touch on in their book about being present and in the flesh in your “personal parish” (neighborhood, office, hobby, etc.):
When your method takes the forefront, you become distracted from what the Spirit is doing in and through your particular place. All the ways God wants to communicate through your particular situation are subverted by narrowing logic of the technique. Slowly it ends up disconnecting you from the very means the Spirit uses to speak. Technique becomes like some sort of magic incantation that will produce results without the need for reliance on the Spirit in each context. Technique is superstition for the modern age.
It wasn’t long after we heard the question at the business meeting that we had a heart-to-heart staff meeting to get back to those things we were doing before the building and the conferences and the new tech toys and such. We wanted to figure out a way in our new reality to get back to what made us unique in our community. We asked hard questions. We did some soul-searching. We had to set our egos aside. We had to spend more time focusing on who God wanted us to be instead of being the “it” student ministry.
It wasn’t easy (although, to be fair, there were some cultural things happening at the time which allowed us to make some key changes that were actually on the forefront…namely going “unplugged” in the singing & a resurgence of liturgy practices). Let’s be honest here: The techniques worked. The methodology did what it was supposed to be doing. Kids were pleased. Parents were happy.
But we’d just added water.
The question at the business meeting changed our focus. We got back to the things our healthy little student ministry was doing before all the methods & techniques were applied.
We made disciples…the way we’d done it. Focusing on our personal parishes. Focusing on deepening relationships and life-on-life stuff. Yes it was messy. Our numbers dropped some. Turns out it was another area church’s time to be “it” and have the “it” student ministry. I don’t regret it. At all.
But the authors are correct, man.
Focusing on methods and technique will ultimately limit your church. It may get growth and such. But it will ultimately limit your vision.
Focusing on methods and technique will distract you from being “in” your place & context.
Focusing on methods and technique will ultimately cause a disconnect between who you are supposed to be and the people you’re trying to serve.
Focusing on methods and technique can get growth without the Spirit…you just add water and PRESTO.
So, for today’s little brain engagement patrons, what are you seeing that are techniques and methods that are causing these realities? Do you agree or disagree with the authors? Why or why not?