Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From church competition to church collaboration

I had a good weekend in Minnesota at my alma mater's Homecoming. Got to see some old friends that I haven't seen for five or ten years or so, wandered around campus and looked at the new buildings and facilities. (When looking in some of the new housing units, I told current students, "Back in my day, we didn't have dishwashers! We had to wash our dishes by hand! And we didn't have pre-installed microwaves in the kitchens - we had to bring our own!" and so on.) My talk went well; I basically crammed an hour-and-a-half-long workshop into about 45 minutes. But people seemed to appreciate the whirlwind tour; a number of students came up to me afterward to thank me for the presentation, and a few asked me to sign copies of books. Kind of funny, because I remember when I was an undergrad there, I did the same thing with guest speakers sometimes.

Drove back to Chicagoland Saturday so I could continue guest teaching an adult education class Sunday morning. This week's topic was suburban church ministry, especially the tension between being contextualized and being countercultural. The class got into a discussion of church calling and "brand identity," what makes a church distinctive in a particular community to distinguish it from other area churches. Just as every radio station and TV channel tends to draw certain kinds of listeners or viewers, every church tends to attract certain kinds of people and not others. (The MTV show Beavis and Butthead was a "signature show" that not only attracted MTV's core demographic of males 18-25, it also repelled virtually everybody else, with the effect of purifying its audience for its advertisers.) Few churches, in actual practice, can really be all things to all people - but all churches can be some things to some people. So the challenge is in each church figuring out what they as a congregation are called in particular to be and do.

This led to a discussion of church competition, since in a suburban environment, the default setting is for people to shop for churches just as they shop for everything else. And it seems that churches compete with each other to have distinctive ministries. If I were to rewrite chapter 8 of my book today, I might revise it to frame this discussion less in terms of church competition and more in terms of church collaboration. Every individual local church needs to collaborate with other local churches because no one church can reach everybody in their community. But all the various churches working together can reach more people and more kinds of people than any one church can on their own.

At my college's Homecoming, one alum gave a presentation about what is going on in Rochester, Minnesota. A group of about twenty-five evangelical churches have gotten together as Team Rochester to work collaboratively. They do things like CareFest, a service project day where some 1700+ volunteers from all the churches combine to do practical service work around Rochester, painting public schools, helping with building and rehab projects for the park district and other community institutions. It's an amazing witness to the city of Rochester that could not have been done by one church on its own, but can be done with all of the churches working together, each contributing various gifts and emphases.

Too often we only apply 1 Corinthians 12 on an individual basis - each individual Christian is a part of the body, an eye, an ear, a hand, etc. But I think this applies on a congregational basis as well. The body of Christ is made up of many local congregations, each of which has their own distinctive callings and giftedness. And the more that churches get to know the other churches in their area, the less they'll think of one another in terms of "the competition" and instead they'll see how they can collaborate together to minister to and reach the whole community.


Dianne said...

Excellent post and you make a good point about congregations seeing themselves as part of the body. Wow, what if congregations did this kind of thing, banded together to reach their communities. Lots of stuff to ponder here.

Dan Benson said...

Yes, lots to ponder. This thought has risen in my mind lately as well. I've heard our church called, or "branded," the place where the ex-Catholics go and where all the saved bartenders go.

Adam said...

"some things to some people"

This seems very practical and necessary. One question I have is, "Does it do a disservice to the churchgoers in that they are no longer exposed to those who aren't like them?" That is, "Are they no longer forced to love within diversity (be it ethnic, social, economic, or otherwise) because they are all of the same kind?" Paul dealt with this sort of diversity between Jews and Gentiles in a number of his epistles and grounded his argument (for unity within diversity) in the necessity to love--the greatest commandment. Would we say today that it's okay for churches to specialize or focus in on the Jewish demographic, and let another church focus on the Gentile demographic? Would Paul say it's okay? Maybe I'm failing to make some necessary distinctions. If so, what are they?

Al Hsu said...

2e - You raise great questions/concerns. I'm not arguing for a return to the homogenous unit principle of intentionally making monocultural churches to reach particular monocultures. I would hope that local churches would still have healthy diversity (of ethnicity, socioeconomics, temperaments, etc.) within their congregations even as they pursue whatever particular ministries they are called to pursue.

I think the answer is something of a both/and rather than a dichotomized either/or. And "unity in diversity" captures that dialectical tension pretty well, or the diversity of 1 Cor 12 even as we affirm the oneness of the body.

One example that comes to mind is how InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has navigated the question of ethnic-specific or demographic-specific fellowship groups. There are good missional reasons why an IV chapter might be an Asian American-specific chapter or a black chapter - there are any number of people who for whatever reason would never connect with a predominantly white IV chapter. Same goes with affinity-specific ministries like Greek chapters for fraternity/sorority students, or athlete-specific small groups or whatever. At the same time, these affinity-specific groups need to be part of the larger community. So even though there might be multiethnic, Asian, black, Latino, Greek and grad student IV chapters at a university, they should also have a combined larger identity and shared fellowship, worship and service together as well.

Moby Dick said...

It is very sad that the message of Jesus Christ is just a business. Churches are like stores, and they employ marketing experts to brand the church and its message. The message of Christ is the only thing that is getting lost all the time, as more and more scummy ministers drive around in expensive cars and live in mansions.