We’ve had an interesting conversation here this week about church planting. A few other blogs have picked up the conversation and continued it. I felt I had a couple more things to say, both as clarification and expansion.
I am very much in favor of planting churches. It’s part of the life of the Church as a whole to plant churches.
What bugs me is the way we often do it here in the United States. Overseas, it’s less of a problem because, historically, there have been fewer churches. When I’ve talked to missionaries who plant churches overseas, their language, vision, and goals are just…well, different. Over here, though, too many times the talk sounds like advertising and marketing. It’s got a sheen of calculatedness that seems distant and makes the whole enterprise sound like a business deal. And then the final product, the actual church itself ends up being cool, calculated, and often run like a business, with all the trappings of that kill-or-be-killed world. That’s no way to start new churches.
Has my brush been too wide? Sure. Talking about big problems means using generalizations. They can’t be avoided. Some church planters avoid the pitfalls I speak of and some don’t. My personal experiences with this have shown far more planters to be falling into the pit. Your mileage may vary.
Now, onto the expansion.
Looking over the comments so far on that church planting post, a few themes emerge, one of which is the qualities of a good church. Some people have mentioned a strong emphasis on the Gospel, meeting the cultural needs of the attendees (cultural relevance), and so on. Having a nice coffee bar wins a few points too.
But at the risk of alienating a few folks who will not see their favorite emphasis mentioned in what follows, I want to share what I think makes all the difference. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating.
I’ve been a Christian for more than 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go. I’ve been in churches with superb preaching, soul-stirring teaching, cultural awareness to the nth degree, globe-spanning mission programs, and on and on. But here are a few questions I think create the dividing line:
When I am in the hospital, who from that church will come visit me?
When someone in my family dies, who from that church will attend the funeral?
When I celebrate a great victory, who from that church will call to congratulate me?
When I get in trouble or need someone’s expertise, who in that church will come help me?
When I am dying, who from that church will step forward to help my surviving family members?
Think about those questions for a moment.
If the answer to those questions is no one, then you’re better off hanging out at your local bar. At least people there will show some interest in you. Lost people are, sadly, sometimes more genuinely helpful and loving than people who claim to know the God of the universe.
If the answer to those questions is a church elder or deacon, then you’ve made it to the lowest common denominator of church life. Nothing thrilling here, but it’s better than no one.
If the answer to those questions is the church pastor, then you’ve actually done slightly better. See, too many churches today have celebrity pastors who don’t really mingle with the nameless, faceless people. Your average megachurch operates this way. It’s a lot like a business where the people who insert Flange A into Slot B out on the production floor never see the CEO.
If the answer to those questions is friends from church, then you’re doing even better. Some people, though, never make enough friends from church to get to this stage. Some try to make friends, and some don’t. Some are unsuccessful, even when they try. So having church friends is a good thing. It at least shows that the church is friendly.
If the answer to those questions includes all of the previous folks, plus people you don’t know all that well or don’t normally associate with in the church, you’ve hit the motherload. When you’re recovering in the hospital and the elders, pastor, friends, and that old lady who sits three pews behind you who you think might be named Eunice come to visit, you’re blessed with a good church.
You see, it’s so much about loving other people. Jesus summed it up: Love God; love people. And one way that you can show you love God is by loving people.
I don’t care how well the pastor preaches. I don’t care that the church’s doctrine is perfect. I don’t care that the church has the best fair-trade coffee bar in ten counties. I don’t care that the music rocks (or doesn’t rock, depending on your preference). I don’t care about much of what accounts for a passing grade doled out by people shopping for churches.
Do the people love each other? And most of all, do they love you?
If that’s missing, you can pack that church with every whiz-bang, trendy (or untrendy, depending on your preference), doctrinal, self-aware, truth-filled reality and it will still be a poor representation of what heaven will be like. And being a slice of heaven on earth is what the Church is supposed to be.
That begins with love. And if we don’t have love, it’s all clanging gongs and crashing cymbals. In other words, noise.
And folks, too many churches planted in the United States today are nothing but noise.