In case you missed it, Dan Kimball wrote a post at Out of Ur, and like many others, I responded. Then Dan responded to my response. Other great points in this discussion are made by Julie Clawson, David Fitch, and Erika Haub, including front-line reports from missional churches. (I found myself defending missional theory.) Once you read his followup comments, you realize that Dan’s original post was edited in a way that shifted its emphasis somewhat. I said right off that he had a point, and with the updates in mind one begins to to understand better — he isn’t as polarized on this issue as the original post makes him sound, and his questions are genuine. In fact, Dan is involved in starting a new missional network. Even so, Dan’s questions raised some further issues and highlighted some differences of opinion which nevertheless remain.
So how do you tell who’s “right” when everyone has a valid point to make?
But my point in the Out of Ur blog was not about small vs. big. My point was asking if new disciples being made in missional churches?
I don’t think asking about numbers is a bad thing. I know we have abused numbers. But when you go to a doctor for a physical exam it is filled with numbers. But it is not just one thing. You don’t just get your weight and that says if you are healthy or not. There are skinny people who have high cholesterol and are very unhealthy. You have to look at blood pressure, heart, all types of things they check on you. So in a church, just being small or large doesn’t make one healthy. You need to look at if the fruits of the Spirit are being seen in the lives of the people. If they have servant hearts. If they are involved in the community as salt and light. If they are using their gifts in the body. If they are growing in their knowledge and worship of God through the Scriptures…. all types of things. But one thing that I believe is a reasonable question to ask, would be asking if we are seeing new disciples being made and growth from new Christians. That is all I was trying to ask about with missional churches.
And he’s right. One is a number. Does your missional expression have one “convert” or one person whose life you have genuinely touched? That’s a number…. unpack it, and explain it. Does your megachurch have 1,000 “converts” or new adherents? That’s a number…. unpack it, and explain it. Like the widow’s mite (Erika’s analogy), sometimes one is more than 1,000. But we don’t know until the number has been explained and set in context. The real question is about health. Dan is not a numbers-obsessed guy, but perhaps we’ve become too numbers-sensitive… it’s not an invalid question — unless it’s the only question.
On the subject of numbers, note that I’m suggesting we ask not only about converts (engaged followers, not simple decisions), but about lives we’re touching. Jesus said, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” Nothing there about repentance and conversion. If anything, Jesus healed people promiscuously. Our attitude ought to be the same — if we are expressing the Kingdom of God to others, we’re in good stead. Make that a number, if you will.
Here’s a numbers game: what percentage of people in your church are directly, personally, engaged with those in the world around them? I know that in a large church it was easier to say, “The church is doing it, and I’m a part of that” whereas in a small group context, “we” means something a whole lot more personal.
I like what Julie Clawson says when she calls herself a “failed church planter” since they “failed to make the numbers” (my phrase) because it wasn’t financially viable to pay a salary…. so the effort was in that sense a “failure.” But there’s always more to the story.
No — not one person I know of “converted” because of the church, but a lot of people made decisions to follow Christ because of it. Decisions to not walk away from the faith, decisions to return to the faith, decisions to not just go through the churchy motions any longer, decisions to devote their lives to service. That failed missional church made some serious impact for the Kingdom.
I love what she implies, that some of these smaller or alternative expressions of faith are actually saving some people’s faith from shipwreck. And that ain’t nothin’.
David Fitch asks great questions as well, but turns them on the attractional church:
- How do the structures of your attractional church shape (train) your people into Christian discipleship and mission?
- Would you cast a similar eye of suspicion towards the results of (overseas) missionaries working amidst “unreached peoples’ groups?
- Would you take the following survey of your church and tell us the results?
a.) How many of your church members have come from other churches?
b.) How many of your church member conversions have had significant prior exposure to the Christian faith in their lives, via their parents, or upbringing?
c.) If you are a young church, how many of your people have come from evangelical church upbringings and have been dissatisfied, they come seeking a more relevant cultural expression of the gospel they grew up with?
He’s right — if Western culture is truly a post-Christian mission field (and I believe it is), then we should be using the criteria of missiology rather than church-growth ecclesiology. The questions he asks could also be posed to missional churches, asking how their structure shapes people and what prior Christian experience the members of their group have had, if any. In this sense, he’s trying to get at some of the same things that Dan Kimball is: evaluating the health of the church and understanding its makeup and who it reaches.
Last year when I addressed Measuring Converts in Simple / House / Missional Churches, I essentially boiled the argument down to one of “yield,” suggesting that these small missional expressions of church would tend, over time, to produce a higher yield of converts, or followers based on the growth rate from the original group. And Dan notes that he understands it takes time… but it is reasonable to expect that even if the method is not yet conclusively proven over time, there will be some form of “firstfruits” to talk about. Julie mentions some, and Erika mentions some more… which is what I love about Erika’s must-read post where she talks about “the church that came to me.” And that about sums up the difference, doesn’t it? “Come to us” vs. “Go to them.”
Not that the attractional church doesn’t do any “going” — they call it “outreach.” Interesting word… I think it implies pulling people in. Of course, the missional church attempts to turn it around by just getting and staying in proximity. Instead of “outreach” it’s called “life.” In fact, I might suggest that attractional church is about living your life and sharing your faith where missional church is about living your faith and sharing your life.
David’s right about another thing — attractional churches do well in Christendom, whereas we contend that missional churches will do better in post-Christendom. Dan says his attractional church, and others, are working to reach people. I’m not surprised. I say we live in a post-Christendom context, but here’s a point that doesn’t get mentioned: Christendom, like modernity itself, isn’t gone. It’s still alive and well in its own context, and in those contexts it doesn’t appear that it’s going anywhere anytime soon. That’s why attractional churches still work… just not in every context or with every people group. There are some people groups who are repelled by it. Perhaps attractional church is for reaching those who are open to church or to Christianity, while missional church is for reaching those who are not. After all, you have to be in some sense “open” just to show up in the first place. Missional, on the other hand, seeks you out. At the risk of backlash, this would suggest that attractional church gathers the “low-hanging fruit,” while Missional church looks to gather that which takes more time and effort. No points to either side for nobility in these endeavours… you can support both approaches with examples from the Gospels.
But the point is this: while we have multiple cultures waxing and waning, we need both styles of church. And both styles of church need to be asking questions about effectiveness. Such questions should not be allowed to threaten the very model itself, as both have been proven theoretically and experientially in their own contexts.
Love to hear further thoughts on this.