The Ingredient Needed for a Genuine Church


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.

Clarification, first.

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.

Why I Don’t Understand Church Planting…


What if this were the starting point?I once visited a city in Illinois that had an intersection of two large roads that formed four corners and had a megachurch hunkered down on each corner. Four cathedral-sized church buildings. Four different denominations. Four XXXL parking lots.

I didn’t understand then, and I still don’t.

What constitutes church planting in the United States baffles me. The four churches at that intersection were built at different times, so at some point some group of church planters said, “Despite the fact that there is already a gigantic church right across the street, we’re going to plant a better one.”

When I read the Scriptures, it seems that churches were planted where no church previously existed anywhere nearby. Perhaps having only one “brand” of church back in those early boom days of the Faith made all the difference, but the fact that we have about 10,000 brands of Christianity within the collective Church shouldn’t be a factor. If I plant a church right across the street from another church because I believe that my brand is better, then I’m not sure that should be labeled church planting. It’s more like the competition between McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s. Same burger; slightly different flavor.

You’d be hard pressed to build a church in America that wasn’t already in another church’s backyard, but it can still be done. I’ve got to believe a lot of inner cities are lacking in good churches. Same for some of the most rural/backwater areas of the U.S. Problem is, most bright, shiny church planters don’t want to plant churches in those places. I guess that’s because they lack the Starbucks needed to get a church planted. I mean, how is one supposed to do demographic studies and plot marketing campaigns when one lacks access to a decent latté and a (free) Wi-Fi signal?

I can see how a church plant in a remote area that may only draw twenty families or so can help the Body of Christ grow, even if that growth is not explosive. There wasn’t a church at all in an area and now there is—seems like a positive step forward. That’s the way they’re doing it in overseas nations where revival burns hot. You don’t see rival churches springing up to split communities into factions. The community IS the church, and vice versa.

But here, it seems to me what some church planters do is more akin to fostering envy. Their new church is hotter. Their new church is cooler. Their new church meets a felt need not addressed by the church across the street. So people in that community shuffle from church to church. Or the new church plant sucks completely dry some older church that wasn’t quite as hip. And the church planter gets a pat on the back for doing a fine job moving people from Them to Us.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who are genuine born-again Christians in this country continues to drop. Meanwhile, the number of people attending church on the weekends falls off a cliff. More new churches than ever, and yet worse results.

What really troubles me is that you don’t need the Holy Spirit at all to start what passes for the average church plant here in the U.S. You just need a clever marketing campaign. In fact, if one of the challenges on the TV show The Apprentice were to start a church that had a hundred regular attendees within six months , I suspect the contestants would have no problem doing so, even if not a single one of those contestants was born again.

How sad is that?

You want a real test of God’s power? John the Baptist, by the Holy Spirit empowering his ministry, helped restore a dead nation to life. This is one reason why Jesus said there was no prophet greater than John.

In that same way, where are those people who call themselves church restorers? Any hip market researcher can start what passes for a church, but how many of them, without the power of God, can walk into a dead church and breathe new life into it? Honestly, if this country has 300,000+ churches and no genuine revival in the vast, vast majority of them, how many church plants are going to change that reality?

What if we put more emphasis on church restoration than church planting? What if we commissioned people to go out and breathe new life into cold, dead churches?

That requires more than just a $10,000 marketing budget, folks. That requires the power of God to raise the dead.

Obviously, being a church restorer is ridiculously hard work. It may mean walking into Mt. Forlorn United Methodist Church in downtown East Nowhere, with its pockets of  gray-haired seniors and smattering of families with small children, and asking the pastor, “What can I do to help make this a vibrant, effective meeting of the Saints of God?”  It may mean laboring in forgotten fields, fields that don’t generate the buzz that leads to getting your face and mine splashed across the front of Christianity Today. It may never pay anything, never lead to a pastorate, never amount to anything that profits the flesh. But it may be exactly what God desires of a person destined to make an enormous difference within the church landscape in America—and ultimately, for His Kingdom.

I’ve had church planters attempt to explain all this to me—the need to plant a church right next to an existing one, the need to plant it in a highly visible suburban area with high traffic—yet their responses always seem to be missing something.

I’m not writing this to break the backs of church planters. I understand their zeal. It’s just that I have these questions and no one seems to have a answer for them that makes any sense.