Themes of Healthy Community: Part 5

Community Built on Multiplying and Sending

What’s the difference between addition and multiplication in churches? It’s the difference between being a leader, and being a leader of leaders. The great challenge is not for a leader to draw followers. The challenge is to empower and equip leaders who can disciple others. First, the pastor must commit personally to discipleship. Then he can learn how to disciple others. The final step is to equip those disciples to disciple others. At that point, you are equipping disciple-making leaders, and multiplication becomes possible.

We baby boomers like to build big churches. Look at the phenomenon of mega-churches. 25 years ago, there were 400 mega-churches in the United States. Now, there are 7,000. Many believe this trend will continue for at least another couple of decades, but I have my doubts.

Bill Easum says that the facilities we build today will become an albatross around our necks in 10 or 20 years. A Lutheran mega-church, Church of Joy in Phoenix, was averaging 6,000 in worship 10 years ago. They had an incredible campus with a school, a gymnasium, education buildings and a huge worship center. The campus is bigger than some colleges I’ve seen.

After suffering a heart attack, senior pastor Walt Kallestad took a sabbatical in England. There he met Mike Breen. Kallestad was so taken by the discipleship and mission at the heart of Mike’s church, he decided to make the shift to discipleship at Church of Joy. He convinced Mike and Sally Breen to move to Phoenix and began work to transform the culture.

Within a couple of years, worship attendance at Church of Joy had fallen by half. How would you like to pay the bills when your attendance has dropped 50 percent? When you have massive investments in facilities and things go south,  it’s just about impossible to cover the mortgage, insurance, utilities and maintenance without savaging the program budget.

Once a church has cut the program budget, the next thing to get trimmed is the pastor’s salary. Unfortunately, when it comes down to paying the pastor or paying for the building, it seems like the building wins every time.

Our country is littered with empty church buildings. Thousands of churches close every year. The buildings are torn down, repurposed for something else, or gain new life when a church plant rents the building for a fraction of what it would cost to own it. Yet we continue to build bigger and bigger churches with little thought about sustainability.

TAKE A MOMENT   How effectively is your church attracting singles and young marrieds? Is your youth group continuing to show the same strength it had a decade ago? Will your ministry sustain itself into a new generation? Are you considering these questions as you consider adding to your facilities?

One of the challenges is that post-moderns don’t trust institutions. They seek authentic community and relationship. Will the mega-churches reach the post-moderns and sustain themselves through a new generation? Some will, but many won’t. Alternatives are appearing. House churches are striving to recreate the extended families of the first-century church. Church planting networks are multiplying campuses across cities.

These models are much more consistent with the early church, a movement that lived its first 300 years underground without ever building a cathedral. Some of the best theological thinkers I know say the church first got off track when Constantine made Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. With legitimacy came power, prestige and money. The church accumulated riches and properties unmatched in the world at the time, building cathedrals and monuments to religion. (I say monuments to religion, because I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.) Discipleship took a backseat.

Jesus charged us with making disciples, not starting churches. We build churches and hope for discipleship. Where I see this discipleship movement taking root, health is reemerging in church communities. While most mega-churches have rooted themselves in the suburbs, churches planted in discipleship and mission are reclaiming the inner cities.

At City Church Eastside, our vision is a network of campuses, like a string of pearls around the Beltline that circles our inner city. We are renting space, and as God blesses our ministry and we reach 200 in worship, we plan to replicate. We are planning our second campus a couple of miles away. The pastor to lead this plant has done campus ministry in the area for a decade, developing deep roots in the community.

Before I left the Lutheran church, the leaders at the cathedral I attended were talking about an expansion that would cost a minimum of $5 million. That same money could plant a dozen churches around the city that would have a primary focus on discipleship and mission. Sadly, none of the leaders were very interested in talking about discipleship.

A friend of mine interviewed for the senior pastor position there a few years ago. He turned down the offer and instead took a call to a mission church with less than 200 people. He told me, “I’d rather have a hundred people absolutely on fire for Christ than a thousand lukewarm Christians sitting in the pews. I didn’t take that call because I thought they were more interested in preserving the museum than bringing people to Christ.”

Church planting networks with discipleship at their core are sprouting up across this country, and similar movements are taking root in Europe. In many ways, we are learning from the developing world, where the most powerful movements of God are happening today. The Holy Spirit is flowing in powerful ways as these missional movements grow out of discipleship communities.

When we build sparkling cathedrals, in many ways, it’s about those already in the building, not those starving under a highway overpass a few miles away. Maybe that’s why it seems like these churches full of elder brothers, looking down their noses at the poor, the unchurched, the downtrodden. “If they just took responsibility for their lives, they could be like us ....” Sadly, that attitude shows an underlying feeling that I am good enough. If I’m good enough, then why do I need God?

TAKE A MOMENT   Is building a building the best way we can invest our resources in serving Jesus? What alternative uses of the money might better honor Jesus’ call to us to be disciples, make disciples and feed the sheep?

Jesus never asked us to build monuments to his glory. His was a movement of relationships. Relationship with the Father, through the Son, but lived out among the people. His focus was on serving, not being served. We build million-dollar buildings to serve us and the needs of the church. Over time, we find ourselves serving the building, trapped by mortgages and maintenance, a design that no longer makes sense. Our focus moves from the mission of Jesus--making disciples and serving the poor--to the maintenance of an institution and its buildings.

I would rather give the rest of my life to a church-planting movement that is focused on discipleship and mission. I gave up finding such a place in the Lutheran tribe. I now find myself worshiping at a three-year-old church plant in a rented loft space five minutes from my house in downtown Atlanta. And, my gifts are being used in ways I never imagined in the Cathedral. May you find such a place.

See the rest of the Themes of Healthy Community here:

Community built on trust, not fear

Community built on discipleship and mission

Community of transformed hearts and souls, growing mature in Christ

Community built on shared leadership

Community built on multiplication and sending

Conclusion: Circling the Drain, is your Church among the Walking Dead