Have we, as American pastors, given up our calling as shepherds and unknowingly become fast food entrepreneurs who are building a religious business and not a church? Before I dive into this, let me first confess. I am the pastor of a church with several big buildings, one of them with a cafe and a bookstore that sells products. Our stage is backed by a huge high definition screen and surrounded by lights of every color.
In many ways, we are not unlike any other mega church in America because, we too, have used marketing techniques to attract a crowd on Sundays. But, the internal conversations among our leaders are shifting. We want to be what Eugene Peterson calls “a company of pastors” and not a company of shopkeepers. Church is not a product to be consumed like a gym membership, but rather a holy gathering of sinners who are becoming saints because of grace.
This is a blog, not a doctoral thesis, so I am not trying to give complete answers to the three questions below. Instead, I am hoping to start some conversations and maybe some helpful debate. I will ask some questions here and give some of my thoughts. I hope to create a symphony of discussion that may be helpful to leaders who are brave enough and secure enough in their calling to honestly evaluate the way we are leading our churches. Also, this is not a slam on the fast food industry, of which, I am a big fan. In fact, I might starve to death if my driver side window ever broke.
Read the three questions and consider my thoughts and then give me your thoughts.
Question #1 – Is it wrong to use marketing for our church?
I don’t think marketing is evil or carnal, as long as we are not solely leaning on worldly principles while forgetting the primary disciplines that truly build the church. Prayer is the engine of church growth, followed closely by our personal witness to others. Praying people who know they are called to a local fellowship will bring others with them to the gatherings. Slick, four-color door hangers are fine, but passionate people who love their neighbors are the real church builders.
At New Life we have banners on the outside of our church to tell people what times we meet and, from time to time, we use local media to promote events. However, we are also convinced, it’s the unseen work of the Holy Spirit birthed in prayer that really gathers the lost, the hurting and the disenfranchised.
Question #2 – What do we REALLY want?
I emphasized REALLY, because I know what most church leaders would tell me if asked this question. They would say they want to make disciples, reach the lost, and help the hurting. And they probably do. But what I hear leaders talk about most are attendance numbers and because our mouth always betrays our hearts, I suspect we have focused too much on how many are attending rather than how many are growing.
We stopped emphasizing overall weekend attendance numbers about 18 months ago. We do not talk about it in meetings or in the hallways, but we do know how many were baptized, how many went on missions trips, how many joined small groups and how many became a part of the Dream Team, which is our group of servant leaders who lead inside and outside the church.
The result has been a liberating release from the temptation to compare ourselves to other churches and a freedom from the impulse to perform solely for numbers sake.
Question #3 – Do we really know the stories of our people?
Instead of telling me attendance numbers, I would like to hear about stories. In the sea of faces, there is a surplus of stories waiting to be told. Tell me about current accounts of redemption, healing, restoration and rescue. How many that arrived is a lot less compelling to me than how many are thriving.
In a neighborhood restaurant, there are lingering unhurried conversations about stories. In a fast food restaurant, there is a hurry to get to the next customer with short blurbs of discussions about a numbered meal on a well organized wall menu. Everything in a fast food restaurant is about efficiency and excellence. Time is the master and we are the slaves.
Church for the past 2000 years has been centered around the story of our Christ, pausing to remember him in the Sacraments and interludes to celebrate the stories of a persecuted but joyful people. It has always been about the gathering of the called out ones, not the gathering of potential customers who we hope will have a great consumer experience.
I do believe in excellence and efficiency, but not at the expense of relationships and stories. We can do both – tell stories and build relationships in a environment that is warm and inviting.