First it was Mark Driscoll saying, “And all the nonsense of emerging, and Emergent, and new monastic communities, and, you know, all of these various kinds of ridiculous conversations — I’ll tell you as one on the inside, they don’t have converts. The silly little myth, the naked emperor is this: they will tell you it’s all about being in culture to reach lost people, and they’re not.” Then recently I found a post asking if it was End of the House Church? This from another insider, who notes, “I am beginning to wonder if the ‘reemergence’ of the House Church Movement that has happened in the last three or four years has stopped before it really got going? The reason I wonder this is because in the four years of being in organic Church nothing much seems to be different in regards to numbers and the vibe I am getting around the place from way back in 2004.”
I just want to back up the truck a minute. It seems to me that there’s a potential problem with using metrics from a system you’re trying to change to measure the system you’re trying to create. Fred Taylor said, “Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it produces.” If you’re looking for a specific kind of output in a specific framework, you will design a system to produce just that. And it’ll work. If you discover other problems in the system, you might make tweaks here and there, but if the problems are fundamental, it will mean fundamental change… and it will mean a fundamental change to the metrics you use. Make the specifics differ or broaden the goal, whatever… but somethings has to change in what we consider the most appropriate output if we’re going to properly design a system to produce it. Changes to the metrics may not be as earth-shatteringly different as changes contemplated to the system… but they should be understandable as such.
So I’ve provided two examples, a criticism and a concern, about the lack of “converts” within certain types of churches. Let’s imagine a missional community that wants to see friends and neighbours come to faith, but don’t want to be about the pew-packing crowd attempting to attract more people to the worship center. Let’s suppose they’re just “living their faith and sharing their lives” among the people with whom they have contact, gathering together around word and sacrament to encourage one another. In our hypothetical group, let’s say we’ve got 5 families. Due to the size of the group, everyone pitches in where they can, but they minimize the requirements so that their energies can be left elsewhere.
For contrast, we might also imagine a 400-member congregation of, say, 150 families. They’re doing the outreach thing, drawing their community into their building to hear the gospel, join their Alpha groups, and come to faith. They want the same things as the smaller group, they’re just going about it differently. Of course, if we apply the “80/20 rule”, they’ve got 30 families doing most of the work. Call it 50 families, so the bulk of their effort can be assumed to come from a group ten times that of the smaller one.
Now this is all hypothetical, but imagine the converts. Maybe the 400-member church will produce as many as ten converts in a year, a 2.5% growth rate per year. 10 converts, call it new 4 families per year — almost as many as the small group starts with! 10 years, 40 families; they’re now 500-strong. Let’s give them a 50-member bonus for momentum, as people from other churches have joined. In ten years, they’ve grown from 400 to 550 people, and 100 of those are new converts. Cool.
Meanwhile, across town, our little group of 5 families have been doing life together, are knit into their community, and have made one convert in the past ten years. Over the next year, that convert’s family will come along as well, and they’ll be 6 families. That’s a 20% growth rate… but only 2% per year. I suppose the first few years were fun, then middle 5 were questioned, and the last one or two were quite discouraging at the lack of “progress.” Except they found their own lives very enriched, and that kept them going. It took ten years to discover that they actually are growing numerically with converts and not transfer growth… but at a rate slightly lower than their old system. Still, let’s say their way of doing things looks attractive to some, and give them a bonus of two more families who left traditional churches to give this a try. Now there are 8 families, and events are getting a bit more crowded. But if it weren’t for that convert toward the end of the first ten years, this idea might better have been scrapped.
Shall we project another ten years?
The attractional church grows to 750 — 160 converts, call it 100 new families in 20 years. The missional community grows by another two converts, whose families are coming along with them, though not all have yet made faith decisions. We give them two more transfer families, and they hit the 12-family mark. Rather than begin to put more effort into organizing extra logistics, they become two related missional communities. This looks like a bad long-term strategy… will every convert take a decade?
Ten years later, let’s say the attractional church convert tally is 150 families. Total membership, 350 families; their 800-seat facility is bursting at the seams, with at least 80 in the overflow seating. The missional community is sitting down there at a convert tally of 5 families, in two groups. Total membership, 14 families.
But wait. 5 families, 30 years, 5 families converted in a community that now numbers 14 families. In our traditional church structure, we’ve got 150 families converted from a start of 150 families into a community that numbers about 350 families. Basically, we’ve got the same result: they’ve both doubled.
Run it another 10 years so we can basically call it a full generation, and we find our traditional church sitting at 240 families converted into a church of around 500 families. The 1500-seat auditorium has room for another 200 on a good day, but they fill up for special events. Not bad — they only started with 150 families, so that’s a multiplication ratio of 1.5:1. It works… a little bit of progress every year, steady growth, and there’s something to show for it in 40 years. Sooner, even.
On the other hand, our missional community now has 10 families converted into a network of 4 missional communities comprising some 23 families in total. It feels really slow, but the 40-year conversion ratio is 2:1.
I don’t want to go all Willow Creek on you, but dare we compare the quality of spiritual life in each one, the pace of life of the adherents, the understanding of the simple gospel, the connectedness to the community around them outside the church (the “other”), and the direction of the financial resources over 40 years? Perhaps I’ve said enough about that already — or too much.
Now I grant you, this is a very hypothetical suggestion that glosses over a number of very complex factors. I would hardly argue from what I’ve laid out here that one method is sure-fire superior to the other. But I will note that over the long haul, the method that looks the least effective begins to pick up steam. It could come down to simple addition versus multiplication, but it’s not likely that simple. Those in the smaller communities tend to be a little more engaged.
I will suggest this, though. It’s much too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy of creating small missional communities… and when it comes time to evaluate, there are some very significant factors beyond how many linear feet of pew-space get warmed each week. I find it hard to imagine that our hypothetical little community of 85-or-so would be sitting round telling themselves that they should pull together again and become a more traditional church. After all, every one of them have been told by someone they know that what they’re doing is intriguing, and when their “church” gets into a regular format with regular services and a Sunday School, they would love to check it out. They could double in the first couple of months, hire a pastor…. but I don’t think that conversation is taking place so much.
In our conversations at Seabeck this past October, one concept that rang loud and clear was sustainability. In our traditional church example, a nucleus of people provided significant energy and resources through two building projects and many week-in, week-out commitments to programs through seasons of regular effort and super-extra effort that becomes tiring. Our little missional community would probably be looking at their kids taking up increasing roles in their gatherings, and saying to themselves, “Now this is sustainable.” A ten-year program is not a recipe for sustainability. Run it for 40 years and see your kids stepping into it naturally, and then you’ve got something.
Of course, I’m speaking in a lot of hypotheticals here… but I’m giving away some of the thought behind home churches, simple churches, missional communities. And I hope of made the point that the metrics of converts-per-year don’t equate, and don’t tell the whole story. Not even the half of it. You can’t draw those kinds of short-term conclusions in the early phases of a long-term strategy.
What do you think?