Year's ago, one of the biggest trends floating around in the Christian world was the "church growth" trend. Books like "The Purpose Driven Church" and churches like Saddleback and Willowcreek were at the forefront of this movement. The message was simple: the church is meant to grow and here are some of the fastest growing churches in the US. Let's copy them!
Now let me be upfront here. This is not a Saddleback-bashing blog. If that's the sort of conversation you enjoy, then I'm sorry to disappoint (not really) - its just not my vibe. I admire a lot of what Saddleback and Willowcreek did and I have lots of respect for the creativity, innovation and energy it took for them to develop models that created measurable results. But here's the problem - Adventism can't copy these models. (Oh no. I smell another disclaimer coming.)
Why? Is it because we are better than them? Is it because we are the "remnant" and are not supposed to go to anyone who isn't one of us to learn something? Is it because were only meant to do whatever we can find in our own writings and label everything outside of them as "Babylon?"
Those are the ideas I have often heard from those who complain about incorporating church growth models into Adventism. And to be honest, those ideas make me sick. They reek of the same ideology that drives nationalism and cultural-elitism. I don't gel with those angles at all. But I must still admit, Adventism can't copy the church growth models.
There are two primary reasons why. They are really simple reasons, but also really profound. I will do a simple outline below and invite discussion on anyone who may want to dig a bit deeper.
- Theologically, we just don't match the models. Now Adventists aren't the only ones. In fact, much of the evangelical world found tensions between these models and their theology. In fact, Willocreek's leadership eventually came to admit that they got it wrong (click here for that article). It's not that they were entirely wrong - a lot of what they advocated for was good and important. But overall, the models created a culture that just didn't match Christian theology. Among the issues was the tendency to water down certain aspects of the Bible in order to not offend anyone, to morph the church into a spectator event driven by entertainment and feel-good programs and to focus on numerical growth instead of discipleship. The water down part was in direct contradiction to the theology of "Jesus-only". This approach must first assume that some parts of the Bible are about Jesus and they are safe to talk about and other parts of the Bible are about others stuff that might scare seekers away. In certain Youth Ministry circles a color code system was designed to let youth know if an event was safe to invite their friends to. If it was a "Red" code event, then it was safe. If it was a "blue" code event, then it was not (or something like that). The problem with this approach is that, while it makes perfect "corporate" sense, it contradicts the truth that every bit of scripture is about Jesus. And if its all about Jesus, then there is no such thing as a "non-Jesus" topic that might "scare" seekers away. Revelation 13 is just as much about Jesus as Matthew 5. The prophecies of Daniel, the sanctuary narrative and the law is just as much about Jesus as are the parables he told, the crucifixion and the day of Pentecost. The real problem is that we have forgotten how to lift Jesus up in everything we say, and as a result, those who are eager to lift him up erroneously assume that the way to do so is to avoid the topics in scripture they feel don't lift him up. But rather than color code and water down, what we need to do is rediscover the centrality of Jesus so that we can lift him up without having to deny any part of the narrative of scripture. Likewise, the "spectator" and "entertainment" driven programming contradicts scriptures view of church as an "ecclessia" (group of people) rather than a place or event. It subverts the teaching on the gifts of the Spirit and the priesthood of all believers because most people just come to enjoy the show and have little opportunity to use their gifts in service. This is the reason that megachurch pastor Francis Chan walked away from his 5,000 attendant church to pursue a smaller, less consumerist approach (click here to watch video). And finally, koinonia (community, family) is lost in many of these larger churches as members and visitors become just another number in the attendance log.
- Practically, Adventism doesn't match the models either. Adventism is not like other denominations. It's not that we are better. But we are most definitely different (If you don't believe me, read my eBook here). And the thing that makes us different is so beautiful, radical and fundamental to understanding the heart of God that it has driven us, from our onset, to be a worldwide movement with a message for the whole world. Because of this, the Adventist institution has organized itself in the best possible way to tell this story of God's heart to the entire globe. And what this means is that the local Adventist church doesn't keep all of the funds like a lot of evangelical churches do. The implications of this are key. In a typical evangelical church the style of governance tends to be local. What this means is that all of the tithe stays with that local church. If they manage their system right, they can end up hiring multiple pastors, graphic designers, worship leaders, children's workers and web developers. All of these people, paid to do their job full time, keep the local church functioning at tip top shape. Adventism on the other hand, does not have a local style of church governance - it has a global one. So our tithe doesn't just stay in our local church. It goes to a central location and is then distributed all over the world in order to help get our message everywhere. What this means is that you can't just take a system of church growth designed by and for a locally governed church and apply it to a globally governed church. It just doesn't work. We don't have the money at the local level to employ the kind of staff it would take to manage this kind of church growth strategy. Churches who try often end up burning out the same handful of volunteers who don't have the time or energy to function at the same capacity as a megachurch staff.
So then, what are we supposed to do? Do we just keep on trotting along while other churches thrive all around us? Do we blame our global model for all our problems and do away with it? Do we sit back and pretend there isn't much of an issue? Or is there another way?
I would like to propose that there is another way. Adventism needs to develop a method of church growth that is by Adventists and for Adventists. A model that is in harmony with our global governance style and our theology of God's heart. This method needs to function exceptionally well without depending on tons of finances or paid staff. And most of all, it needs to be sustainable within a volunteer culture. What this means is that Adventism will never be able to have a "megachurch" but we can have something infinitely better - a movement of people, passionate about God's heart who do church anywhere and everywhere, in small pockets in every community, and wherever they go, they transform lives. In the end, I predict its not a "church-growth" model we will end up with but a guerrilla style movement of every-day people simply passionate about building the kingdom of God.
Next week, I'll share some practical steps that I am implementing in my local Adventist churches. For now, I would love your answers to the questions below!
- Do you agree or disagree with the observations in this post?
- How do you define a successful Adventist church?