2008 September

In the comment thread of Ed Stetzer’s recent post introducing a series on megachurches, I wrote:

“I would argue that megachurches are intrinsically unhealthy because of the exorbitant building costs, reliance on attractional church programs, and the fact that your pastor doesn’t know your name.”

A couple of Ed’s readers responded to my comment with,

“I guess I’m not into questioning the idea of megachurches till one get’s larger than the church in first century Jerusalem. I don’t think James knew the thousands of parishioners in that church by name.”


“Didn’t the church begin as a mega-church? ie Jerusalem and 3000 were saved in one day.”

It never really occurred to me that there were Christians who believed that the first century church looked even remotely like church as it’s known in America today. I can’t imagine that early believers organized themselves congregationally, or that what they did/could (in any way, shape, or form) be compared to a modern megachurch.

This is a classic example of bringing American Christian presuppositions to the scriptures. The commenters on Ed’s blog didn’t say this, but let’s apply the thinking; the elders (“pillars,” Galatians 2:9) were staff members, the church met all together in one place, the pastor preached a sermon.

Scripture doesn’t paint this picture of the early church. According to the book of Acts (2:42-47), the first Christians were Jews. They participated in the Temple, they observed Jewish traditions. Their Christianity was expressed through learning, sharing, eating, praying/fasting, praising God and meeting needs. The Lord added thousands to their number. Maybe it’s my postmodern distrust in all things institutional. Maybe it’s my time on the mission field, away from established traditional churches. Whatever the reason, I don’t see this as a megachurch.

Why would we assume that “praising God” means that the believers met in one place for a time of guided “praise and worship?” Why would we think that early church leaders were pastors in any sense of the word as it’s used today (seminary-trained, full-time, executive preachers)? What would lead us to assume that the “Jerusalem Church” was a local church and not a unified citywide  movement? Why would we think that a felowshipping network of believers could be safely “translated” into something compartmentalized, attractional, branded, and programmatic? Can we not see that applying corporate and commercial principals to church actually change what it means to be the church?

Our inability to conceptualize church outside the formal, building-and-staff centered model may be one reason for the relative ineffectiveness of American missionaries planting churches on the mission field. In the short run, we can reproduce First Baptist Church by re-wiring people to think in modern, rational, and propositional term. We can build (rent/borrow/receive as gifts) buildings, set up rows of chairs all facing the pulpit, and teach people to sing in order to worship, but the popular American model for church simply isn’t sustainable, even in America.

So what might a more biblical and missional church look like? Stay tuned for my next post: Mom-and-Pop Church.

The more I interact with pastors, the more I’m convinced that they need to be applying missionary thinking to their lives and ministries. The problem is that there are few missionaries or missiologists speaking into the American church, and even fewer American pastors who are listening. After all, what could a missionary have to teach a pastor?

I believe that American pastors need to consider 4 missiological concepts: indigenaity, sustainability, communication, and obedience.

  • Indigenaity is a botanical term that means a plant is native to its soil. Sure you can reproduce Daniel Montgomery‘s (Louisville, KY) Sojourn Community Church in, say, Southern California, but you shouldn’t. Missionaries around the world recognize that in order a church must be “native” to the community in which it’s planted. Cultures are curiously layered habitats. When your church prescribes the cultural application of the Word of God for people, you kill their ownership in that church.
  • Sustainability refers to a church’s ability to thrive through the passage of time and trials. Your church doesn’t only need to be relevant to today, it needs to be prepared to make itself relevant to coming generations.
    • Sustainable is always small, cheap (little or no money involved), decentralized, and amateur.
    • If your church is built around you (meaning either that you do everything or that you’re the reason people come and participate), it is not sustainable. A quick look at all the ailing copycat churches will give you an idea of what your church will look like when you’re gone.
    • A big splash today usually works against your church’s sustainablilty. If people come for the show, the coffee, or the quality child care, they’ll only stay until someone comes along with something bigger and better.
  • Communication isn’t universal. Neither is it simple. All sorts of things, verbal and non-verbal, factor into the transmission and reception of a message. You have to realize that how you communicate the gospel affects what gospel you communicate. A legalistic means of evangelism will result in a legalistic view of salvation. An impersonal, one-size-fits-all presentation will get you a generic and impersonal church. Missionaries have to learn not just a language, but the appropriate local use of that language. So do you.
  • Obedience is something I think all pastors take seriously. Nevertheless, being obedient means we cannot afford to assume. As soon as our fidelity to a system, program, pattern, or method becomes greater to our utter step-by-step dependance upon God’s Holy Spirit, we lose our way. Yet we talk all day long about models and styles of church, and rarely about how we were led to do what we do. Let’s stop having conferences and writing books about how and start talking about why.

In short, while you were becoming a Christian, you were also being removed from  your own culture. The common process of discipleship into a modernistic religious framework (which American Chriatianity is) necessarily hinders your ability to relate and communicate with your home culture. Pastors! You’re not a minister to your own culture, you’re a missionary to a foreign culture!

Your church cannot be missional and have video venues.

There, I’ve said it. I know it’s contrary to what Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler and others are saying and doing. The multi-site trend continues to grow among churches in the United States. It’s been discussed and debated at length in the blogosphere. Perhaps the best discussion took place back in 2006 on Steve McCoy’s blog, Reformissionary. In the comment stream of the post, Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, shares his struggle with his church’s decision to open multiple sites.  is a fan. Craig Groeschel has raised multi-site church to an art.  Popular leaders such as Mark Batterson and Ed Young are growing their churches by leaps and bounds by opening up “alternate sites” across the country and around the world. According to Third Quarter Church Consulting, there are over 2,000 multi-site churches meeting across the country.

6a00d8341cd56753ef00e5529aa6018834-320pi-9372032Most multi-site churches are made up of distinct locations that share one pastor, and/or leadership team. In the early days of multi-site, the preacher would preach a sermon at one location, and then drive (or even fly) to a second location to present an encore presentation of the sermon. With the rise of video recording technology, many satellite campuses would watch a pre-recorded version of a sermon. Nowadays, preachers are streamed live onto screens across the country. The idea behind the multi-site church is this: a church starts out small, and grows. They fill up their meeting space, so they start to hold multiple services over the course of the week. Maybe they relocate or build a new building. People are driving in from miles away to attend. The next logical step is to open up another location.

Multi-site church is a logical and efficient solution to a problem brought on by bad missiology.

1. It perpetuates the celebrity pastor mentality. Your oratory skills may be out-of-this-world (they’re probably not),  but do you really want your church to be built around you? Many multi-site churches start with “hey, the pastor can only do so much.” Why not disciple young leaders to preach and teach? Why not dispel the myth of the rockstar preacher by intentionally limiting your influence to the behind-the-scenes equipping of leaders?

2.  It promotes Christian consumerism. Rather than put in the work that it requires to be the local church, many resort to opening a Fellowshipchurch.com franchise. It may be what people want, but wise church leaders will prefer to give them what they need. They need a pastor who knows their name, lives in their community, and can be available for them personally.

3. Realistically, your church has become two when you decided to hold multiple services (especially when these services are designed to appeal to different demographics). What reason (other than the pastor’s ego) is there to insist that these are “one” church? “One church in many locations” is only the illusion of unity. Why insist that every new spin-off church be part of the same brand?

4.  Multi-site church breaks the missiological principle of indigenaity. Rather than allowing each new fellowship to reflect the culture in which it is planted, multi-site locations instead export with them the culture of the “mother” church. I know that some churches try to help this by having a local worship team or support staff, but rarely are satellite locations allowed to stray too far from the formula.

For the record: I’m not against sermon podcasts or broadcasts. God used these sorts of resources maintained my team spiritually on the mission field. I’m also not trying to criticize anyone in particular. If a church is led to multi-site, I want them to be successful and to prosper. This is not intended to tear down anyone. I really am a big fan of many multi-site pastors, and hope I don’t offend any of my multi-site friends with this post. Nevertheless, as a missiologist, missionary, and missional believer, I felt the need to say something.

By the way, Bob Hyatt wrote a great article on multi-site church at Out of Ur.

Be sure to watch for my next post, “Your Sound System Is Where You Went Wrong.”

For six years my job was to connect with a culture that was not my own in order to influence it. My desire was walk people from wherever they may have been spiritually toward a relationship with the Most High God through Jesus.

In the process, I learned a thing or two about the art of culture study. In foreign (to us) cultures, it’s easy to see the need for contextualization; without it, communication is difficult and influence is unlikely.

Globalization insures that cultural influence runs in every direction. The United States is maybe a few years from sharing Europe’s postmodern, post-Christian worldview. In many places (and not always where you might expect!), postmodernism is a worldview reality. Culturally speaking, my time in Europe has allowed me to see the future.

As I’ve reentered what used to be my home culture, I’ve seen things from a different perspective. I’m now the outsider that I didn’t understand before I left. Now, all of those things that were once familiar seem so strange. As I actively seek to connect with fellow practitioners of the Christian faith, I’m shocked at how few Christian leaders understand, their cultural contexts. Fewer still could be called cultural influencers.

I’ve been blogging here at Missions Misunderstood for a while now. In that time, I’ve (however inarticulately) questioned, challenged, and dismissed many popular notions about missions. I’ve also tried to suggest new approaches, a more biblical missiology, and a new vocabulary for discussing missiological ideas. I appreciate those of you who have followed me on this journey.

My goals have not changed, but my location has. We believe God has brought us back to the U.S. for a reason. In order for me to be good a steward of my experience in Europe, I feel the need to speak into the contextualization efforts (or gross lack thereof) of the American church.

picture-1-thumbnail-4927081 I have seen the future, and American Christian leaders are not prepared for it. You can read my efforts to help in that regard at Contexting, my new blog. I may still post here on matters specifically concerning missions, but Contexting will focus on a broader range of topics; from social movements to global politics to cultural influencers.

If you feel the need to move toward a more incarnational approach to ministry, follow my blog for a little while. Invite some of the leaders in your community of faith to join you in reading Contexting. I believe that it will move you toward a better understanding of how to have a more redemptive relationship with the world around you.