lakewood-megachurch.jpg Just when you think the conversation might go away quietly, Bill Kinnon sticks his nose into it. But then again, he can have that way of hitting it spot-on in his commentary. Like this time. So in this running dialogue, I was going to title my post Maynard on Kinnon on Keller on Fitch on Kimball — because that’s the rough outline of the conversational thread — but then just the title of the post would be too hard to follow. As it happens, Tim Keller has responded to David Fitch’s response to what it sounded like Dan Kimball was saying on the Out of Ur blog. Keller outlines some of his experience in small and large churches, then summarizes,

The two constants to effectiveness are: a) getting the gospel right (not moralistic or antinomian, not individualistic or collectivistic) and b) contextualizing the whole church to the culture around (not over-adapted or under-adapted.) To think that the key is in the methodology (organic/incarnational vs organizational/attractional) is a mistake that comes, I think, from a lack of experience. There are great and terrible examples of all these methods and models. All kinds are thriving and all kinds are failing.

In his followup post, David Fitch engages by saying that Keller

raises the issues of the Models of the Church. He says all of the various historical models of the church have different strengths, weaknesses, gift mixes, and are appropriate for certain times and contexts. We need them all. I agree! What I want to argue is post Christendom requires of us an Anabaptist missional ecclesiology. Indeed what I want to argue is that the attractional and consumerist driven ecclesiologies have not got the contextualization right, what Keller refers to as “not over-adapted or under-adapted.”

“This is,” says Fitch, “a question about the right way of church in post-Christendom.” His second of three points in his post is that the “talking past each other (Attractionals talking past Missionals) has to do with the assumptions that underlie Reformed versus Anabaptist (as well as Pragmatist) missional theorists and practitioners.” (He promises to unpack this in a future post.) Thirdly, he says that “In the end the attractional apologists must still answer the consumerist question.” The answer needs to be more substantive than what we’ve seen thus far, and in this regard he calls Bill’s post the highlight of the discussion.

And that brings us to where we started this post. Bill Kinnon takes on the megachurch and its attractional ways, offering a response to Tim Keller that basically points out that the attractional megachurch is so steeped in consumeristic culture that it can’t even see it… but one really needs to read his post to get the whole train of thought as he critiques “churches that actively promote & market their methodology as THE way to grow churches in the west” and observes that “All of us… must come to a realization that any church in the West swims either with or against the tide of consumerism — whether small, medium or large.”

Among the tidbits are his outstanding suggestion that “To apply statistical analysis to the effectiveness of missional at this point is about as silly as judging the effectiveness of Jesus ministry at the time of his resurrection. (How many were gathered in the Upper Room?)” I have to say I agree with my friend Bill on these points.

I am left with a few observations and questions of my own though.

Firstly, the discussion has perhaps too many dichotomies, and there may be some false ones in their midst. Not only are we discussing mega- and micro, but there are also contrasts between Christendom and post-Christendom at play. One thing to watch closely for in the dialogue is the equation of attractional church with megachurch. While the megachurch is inherently attractional, not all attractional churches are megachurches.

Concerning the attractional church, I’m still somewhat persuaded that its effectiveness is a sign of the continuation of modernity and/or Christendom. I’m also rather persuaded that these have been dwindling, as has the effectiveness of attractional models. By this I mean that the effectiveness of attractional church is not so much n% effective everywhere, but that there are “pockets” where it continues to be quite effective, and the number of types of “pockets” where this is true is dwindling.

Concerning the megachurch, one might have to refer to my other writings on the topic rather than to my recent comments on attractional church in order to ascertain where I stand.I remain convinced the megachurch is generally an unhelpful model for the road ahead. In addition to being generally less efficient with resources than smaller expressions of the local church (by any model), I tend to think that they foster a form of complacency among many members, isolating and insulating them from the culture around them rather than encouraging direct engagement. Passivity is the byproduct, and yes, these are some rather sweeping generalizations. (Bill’s post presents two contrary examples.)

Generally, megachurches appear to thrive in a specific form of environment — middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbs seem to fit well. Materialistic and consumeristic environments are the soil in which the megachurch will tend to spring up and grow — that or none at all. I am aware that there may be strong exceptions to the middle-class or well-to-do suburban characterization, but one must remember that a materialistic outlook does not actually require wealth, only the living out of it does. To me, these are clearly a product of a consumeristic culture. During the rise of the seeker-sensitive model which was most at home in the megachurch (or wannabe), this was acknowledged and used as an apologetic for the model. The only change now is not whether it remains consumeristic, but whether it is clearly acknowledged as such.

So to be clear, it seems to me that attractional models of church are fading in their effectiveness and will be unwise for the long-term future of the church. To the extent that these churches can discern and ascertain the dwindling effectiveness of their approach, they must learn to navigate the liminal space that will see their transformation into missional, or mission-shaped churches.

It seems to me as well that megachurches, on the other hand, are an unwise model not for the future, but now. Much has already been written about their weaknesses and failings, and I believe that these are systemic to the point where attempts to salvage this form are likely to prove less than fruitful. Furthermore, if indeed the attractional models of church will prove less effective in the future, then the megachurch of today must begin now to make such changes as are required to facilitate the eventual shift into much more missional expressions. The larger the organization, the more time required for its transformation.

All of this leaves me wondering if I was indeed correct in my earlier assessment and the followup post. I believe that in fact I am not incorrect in what I have said, particularly where I have defended the need for sound missional theory based on the fact that it will take a significant investment of time to prove the effectiveness of missional church.

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