2008 October

This is the last (for now) part in a series of posts. I’m taking the long way around describing what I find to be a more missiologically sound church.

Whenever we talk about our theology of church, we usually look back to the “first church” that we read about in the book of Acts. Some read what they’re doing into the account (from a modern church lens). Others follow the example of the early believers quite literally. Certainly we can all be thankful and learn from our spiritual heritage. But why stop at the Jerusalem church? As we think through what it means to be the church, why not consider the church that Jesus planted?

Maybe Jesus planted the church he intended. Maybe the twelve disciples (plus the 60 or so others) were a church:

  • The scriptures mainly feature the men in the group (they were the ones he first called), but we know there were others, including women and young people in the larger group. Maybe initially only the Twelve met the qualifications for church leadership.
  • Were a region-wide social network.
  • They stayed involved in their Jewish religion (insofar as they could).
  • Were accountable to one another and to their teacher.
  • Worshiped, prayed, and ate together.
  • Proceeded in the power and authority of Jesus.

My point here is not to advocate for a roaming gypsy commune-style church, or even to be critical of church as we know it. I just wonder why we don’t consider Jesus a church planter, when he clearly saw Himself as one. I wonder why we focus on church at the local (or multi-site) level when Jesus almost always talked about it in terms of the Kingdom.

This “Mom-and-Pop Church” series of posts is my attempt to cast a vision for an expression of church that is sustainable, relational, and biblical. I believe that despite the megachurch’s efficiency and momentum, the trend is fundamentally flawed and limited by its own culture and pragmatism. I continue to challenge leaders to think like missionaries in all that they do, in order that we might participate fully in the building of God’s Kingdom.

Starbucks realizes that coffee drinkers are looking for local, unique, responsible, and sustainable. Independent coffee houses can be all of these things. It’s a lot harder for the mega-corporation, though. They’re too concerned with things like quality control, efficiency, brand, and, of course, money. The things that make Starbucks Starbucks are causing it’s current identity crisis. Now, the global giant is trying to re-invent itself as the Mom-and-Pop cafe it’s overshadowed for the last sixteen years.

The megachurch is following the same path. For all its effort in creating an “experience,” it’s size, culture, pragmatism, and impersonal nature will leave thousands of megachurch Christians wanting for something local, unique, responsible, and sustainable.

Let me introduce you to the Mom-and-Pop Church (yes I’m just making this up as I write). This small(ish) operation looks like this:

-The Mom-and-Pop Church is a spiritual nuclear family. It is small, informal, and personal. The small size allows the group to be in touch with everything the church does. The informality keeps time together comfortable and prevents worship from becoming a performance. The personal nature of the group insures real accountability and ongoing involvement in the lives of other church members.

-The familial structure helps the church know how to behave when they’re together. Brothers and sisters. Moms and Dads. Even the logistics are affected- children sit at a “kiddie table” (just like at Thanksgiving with the relatives), some serve, some make decisions, some sit on the couch and watch football.

-Just like people are born into their families, Mom-and-Pop church members are called into their spiritual families. There’s no “shopping,” “hopping,” or “targeting.” People don’t leave their families when they disagree- they work it out because family is important. Children learn from elders. Responsibility is expected. Discipline is integral. Love is unconditional.

-Church members see themselves as church planters. As they share their faith by talking about it and living it out publicly, they don’t invite new believers to join their group. Instead, they disciple friends in the context of their spheres of influence with the goal of seeing a new Mom-and-Pop Church started (complete with its own leadership and familial structure). New churches don’t carry any brand identity and are therefore free to develop their own personalities based on gifting, affinity, and experience.

– Mom-and-Pop Churches hold tightly to the identity of the church, and loosely to its form. Church doesn’t need to meet congregationally (at a regular time, or all at once), teaching doesn’t have to be sermonic, and worship doesn’t have to include singing. Their identity is that of a local church which is part of the Universal Church. Their Kingdom mentality means that growth happens at the city level- not the local level.

-Kingdom focus also leads them to pray for other gatherings of the church. Churches keep up with one another through the same social network that planted them in the first place.

-Mom-and-Pop Churches don’t have (or need) buildings. Instead, they meet wherever they live- in homes, parks, cafes, restaurants, and schools. They have no overhead; no facilities, no sound system, no rent, no insurance. Their tithes and other giving goes to ministry, generosity, social action, and the food they eat together. Pastors aren’t salaried, but their part-time income may be offset by personal gifts.

-At least two elders. These are (relatively) older, spiritually mature men (if you must) who take responsibility for the total well being of the local church. This would include insuring that the group gets sound doctrinal teaching, and that it engages in regular worship, service, prayer, and fellowship. Elders guard the unity, identity, and sanctity of the local church. (By the way, “sound teaching” may include sermon podcasts, video, etc.)

-”Church” is what they are, not what they do. Belonging is not tied to activity. When you’re a member of the family and you don’t show up for dinner, family members are disappointed, but you’re still part of the family.

Tune in next time for the final part of the series.

Part 1 of this post set the scene with the story of the rise of Starbucks in relation to smaller coffee shops. Part 2 drew parallels between Starbucks and American megachurches. Welcome to part 3.

2397985862_c0729fd7d2-8102584The similarities between the coffee chain and the megachurch aren’t incidental. The seeker-sensitive movement is built on a corporate model. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling widgets, coffee, or Jesus, the principles are the same; you convince people to buy whatever it is you’re selling, and then you try to hang on to your clients by continuing to sell them more. But what happens when people realize that they can make even better coffee at home for a lot less than Starbucks? What happens when people realize that their small group (which is a ministry of a megachurch) is actually a church and that all the other stuff is unnecessary?

Starbucks is entry-level for coffee drinkers. Their coffee is a gateway drug. People start with a Mocha Frappuccino and the next thing you know they’re sipping on a doppio macchiato. Megachurches (and their well-intentioned knockoffs) are many people’s introduction to church. But every grand opening, product launch, and advertising campaign distance the institution from its converts. Both systems foster an addictive dependence, but their relentless pursuit of new converts can make the faithful feel taken for granted.

Starbucks may or may not realize this, but people don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. They go for the comforting sense of belonging. A customer may not speak to a soul during her visit, but something about that familiar space- people working away on laptops, reading the newspaper, sipping their coffee- makes one feel at home. I may not talk to anyone in the shop, but I could. People enjoy assuming that the other customers and I are the same. The same goes for the megachurch. The seeker sensitive movement understands that people like the feeling of belonging, especially if they don’t actually have to do anything to get that feeling.

starbucks-coffee-3299822The comfortable chairs and the little round tables make a promise that Starbucks can’t (and never intended to) keep. The appearance of community is not the same as actual community. The baristas may call out your name when your order is ready, but they don’t know you. The other people in the shop, they want you to leave so they can plug in their laptops and work in peace. There’s a sense of entitlement that comes with participating in a program that’s specifically aimed at you. The greeters at the door of the megachurch probably won’t remember your name either. Programs don’t build community, they build consumerism.

If Starbucks’ goal was to get more people to drink coffee- any coffee- instead of getting people to drink their coffee, how would they do things differently? If Christians believed that growing the Kingdom is more important than growing a church, would there be any megachurches or multi-site churches or video venues? Denominations?

Is there any biblical reason to grow a local church rather than start new ones? Is there any reason for new church plants to share the same name, leadership, brand, or identity (that is, apart from the name of Jesus and identity in Him) as another? Is there any biblical reason to limit church to a meeting time or place?

Starbucks is at a point of crisis. Growth is slowing, profits are down, and they’ve lost their identity. The same is coming for the American megachurch. In my next installment, I’ll introduce you to the Mom-and-Pop churches that will replace them.

In March of this year, Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, announced major changes for the Seattle-based corporation. From the second quarter of 2007 to the second quarter of 2008, Starbucks’ stock fell forty percent. The market was over-saturated. The brand name had become synonymous with globalization. In his annual address to shareholders, Schultz announced a sweeping overhaul of the company’s strategy, focus, and product line-up.

In a memo sent to Starbucks executives earlier this year, Schultz wrote:

“Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.”

Schultz realized that the efficiency, growth, and size of his company actually worked against it. It turned out that by selling music, eggs for breakfast, chocolate-covered graham crackers, and trail mix, Starbucks had lost touch with its most loyal and active customers. The CEO vowed to get the company back on track by returning its focus on the coffee, reintroducing manual espresso machines, and soliciting input from customers. Its plans are simple- make stores more like the Mom-and-Pop shops.

In 2004, the 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church began a research project to study the effectiveness of its ministries. The inquiry may have been motivated by a decline in the rate of numerical growth. Last year’s release of the results of the study cause quite a stir among evangelicals. Even Willow Creek’s pastor, Bill Hybels, expressed some surprise.

“Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”

Apparently, the results challenged some of Willow Creek’s assumptions about what made them successful. They had attributed much of their growth and success to the quality and variety of their many programs, but the study showed that church members were looking for something deeper and more personal. Hybels committed to radical changes and a return to what people really need- a more personal, more focused, and less programmed.

Growth. Programs. Streamlining. Pragmatism. Efficiency. Megachurches are like Starbucks. What Starbucks did for coffee, the megas did for Christianity; they made it accessible for seekers, comfortable- even trendy. Church Snobs, like Coffee snobs with Starbucks, criticize the movement as “watered-down” and impersonal. Nevertheless, giant churches grew (and continue to grow).  But to what end?

To be continued…

I’m often critical of the attractional, consumeristic, and pragmatic approach of the American megachurch. From a missiological perspective, I believe the movement does far more damage than good to the universal church. But anyone can criticize. Fellow missionary blogger Guy Muse recently reminded me of my commitment to balance criticism with positive alternative ideas. Lest I be lumped in with the wacko fundies who are also critical of, well, everything, I’d like to propose a way of understanding church that might be more sustainable (over the long run), indigenous (to local cultures and subcultures), and biblical (as in the Bible) than what I’m seeing out there today.

37557564insidemoosescoffeeshop_12672-3917777To illustrate, let’s start with the coffee shop. Coffee shops are social “third places” for people around the world. In Europe, the humble café has been the center of neighborhood activity for generations. Coffee remained a breakfast-and-truck-stop affair in the U.S. until the sixties, when beatniks and hipsters (inspired by Europeans) started drinking espresso and hanging out in coffee shops. This was the age of the Mom-and-Pop Coffee Shop.

For the most part, these cafes were independently owned and operated, maybe with a little part-time help from local college students. Coffee was a low-overhead business to run, but returns on a cup of coffee weren’t all that great, either. But it didn’t matter to shop owners- they weren’t in it for the money so much as for the community. Not unlike the pubs of Britain, the coffee shop became a scene; they were the hubs of a neighborhood’s social activity. Regular customers helped maintain the establishments- everything from the business of buying coffee to renovation to cleaning up at the end of the day. Coffee shops became home to fringe subcultures that read poetry and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes.  Shops were located in basements and back rooms of low-rent neighborhoods- hidden away where only insiders would find them.

starbucks1-7872960And then came Starbucks.

The brand started out as a coffee bean roaster in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. An edgy, alternative, hippie vibe made their first couple of stores an attractive place to sit down, read a book, and sip a specialty coffee drink. The stores did well, marked by their commitment to quality coffee, personalized service, and a comfortable environment. They set up bright, cheery shops with overstuffed sofas and quaint round tables in strip malls and shopping centers everywhere. So the formula was established, and Starbucks’ world domination began.

At first, Starbucks wasn’t taken seriously. Coffee aficionados scoffed at they way they watered down the coffee experience by pandering to the soccer moms with their frilly drink combinations. The Mom-and-Pop coffee shops were caught off guard by its blond wood furniture (theirs was an eclectic mix of garage-sale finds and donated odd and ends), have-it-your-way service (Mom-and-Pop baristas were often coffee snobs with no patience for the uninitiated), and corporate art (arguably more inviting than political propaganda and art-school paintings).

The familiar green mermaid signs sprang up everywhere. The masses were introduced to specialty coffee drinks through easy-to-understand-signage and limitless options for customization. People stopped going to the Mom-and-Pop shops. Americans happily paid four dollars a cup for coffee, foamy milk, and the Starbucks experience.

Small shops tried to compete. Some by imitation- they mimicked the quasi-Italian menu wording (“Venti?” What happened to “small,” “medium,” and “large”?), the pseudo-Scandinavian decor. Other shops went the other way, playing up their anti-corporate roots. These were the holdouts who rejected the fast-food take on coffee. To the tunes of local independent rock bands, they went light on the flavored syrup and raged against the Starbucks machine. One by one, Mom-and-Pops went out of business.

20061101_starbucks_900x600-3295952But something happened. Starbucks became a victim of its own success. Its monopoly on all things coffee inspired the corporate giant to expand and an unsustainable rate. Soon, there was a Starbucks on every corner, and people grew tired of paying too much for that predictable Starbucks experience they once found so desirable. People wanted local. They started caring about fair trade. They longed for a third space that belonged to their community and reflected its unique personality.

Starbucks tried to start talking that talk. Corporate leadership talked about fair trade, development of the local community, and environmental issues, but it somehow seemed hollow coming from the organization that had become the face of hostile globalization. Soon it became a moral issue- people felt it was wrong to support Starbucks. All of the new coffee lovers that Starbucks had converted or raised have started to look for something different. Of course millions of people still buy coffee (and music and coffee machines and travel mugs…) from Starbucks every day. But the trend is moving away from global, corporate, institutional, and safe.

To be continued…

Coming up next: Megachurches are Starbucks