Thursday, September 18, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Megachurch response to commuter culture

A question from Dan: "On page 63 there is reference to the commute that Christian people may have to their places of worship. What positive ways, if any, have you seen the megachurch respond to the idea of the "recovering a parish mindset" that you talk about on p. 67?"

Later on in the book I talk about the multisite church movement, and this is something that has been bubbling up in recent years. Instead of churches building bigger and bigger facilities and people commuting in from farther and farther away, churches are decentralizing and focusing on individual neighborhoods and local communities. They're setting up local campuses and neighborhood home groups that are still connected to the regional "mother ship," but focus on a particular local area or suburb. It's a retooling away from the commuter model toward the parish concept.

It's encouraging that megachurches like Willow Creek have been shifting away from an affinity-based ministry approach to a more geographic-locality-based ministry approach. (A few years ago they hired Randy Frazee, author of The Connecting Church, to help them focus on local multisite campuses.) So instead of affinity-based ministries segmented out for twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and divorcees and singles and recovery groups, now Willow is focusing on local campuses like their DuPage County campus, or McHenry County or North Shore or downtown Chicago. Even those attending the main Willow campus in South Barrington now organize themselves so they sit with people from their local community. Lake Zurich area here, Mundelein, Schaumburg. If you go to Willow’s website and click on the Neighborhood Life link, you’ll find ways to connect with others in various local suburbs. Much of it is organized by school district. That way people can connect with people from their local area and build community together (and spend less time commuting all over the Chicagoland region).

The shift from affinity-based ministry to geography-based ministry is one of the major paradigm shifts of the last five years or so. I affirm both approaches, since different churches and contexts usually require different things, but I applaud the geographic shift in emphasis. And it’s often a both/and. A megachurch like Willow is big enough to have plenty of people within the geographic groups to also have affinity groups within the geography groups. For smaller churches, there are certainly times to have affinity groups for singles or college-age or retirees or whatever. But there’s a big benefit to having local, community-based intergenerational life together that crosses affinity group categories.

Another megachurch example of parish localism happened at Rick Warren's church, Saddleback Church in Orange County, a totally suburban environment. After 9/11, Saddleback provided lawn signs to their church members. The signs said "Pray for Peace" or something like that. Folks went home and put the lawn signs on their lawns. As it turned out, people saw these lawn signs pop up all over their neighborhoods, down the block, across the street. They discovered that all these other Saddleback Christians lived in the same area. They had no idea that these neighbors were Christians, let alone went to the same church! And out of that a lot of local small groups were developed, and people became intentional about creating community in their local suburban neighborhoods. Not only did this help them connect with Christian friends that were nearby, these groups had better evangelistic witness and ministry impact in their neighborhoods.


Michael DeFazio said...


I'm a pastor at Real Life Church in Santa Clarita, CA, where our whole small groups system is geographically based. We have two things working in our favor that make it doable in our context: we're a young church (about 8 years old) so people don't know any different, and our valley is perfectly suited for this kind of segmentation.

As much as I absolutely love neighborhood based community, the one problem I've seen is that since many of our geographical sectors are separated according to income level / economic class (and in some cases therefore according to racial differences), I worry that we're reinforcing - rather than overcoming - these distinctions. We encourage our groups to 'find people in need' and to 'go out and serve' and lots of good comes out of it. But it doesn't reach down deep, challenge their basic assumptions, and continue to 'create one new humanity out of two'.

Any thoughts?

Friar Tuck said...

Very good stuff here. Thought provoking even though I do not live in the suburbs.

Al Hsu said...

Michael - Great, great comment. Yes, for every good move, there are always unintended consequences. And the class separation thing definitely bumps up against the local geography issue.

A few responses come to mind. One is that suburbia does continue to diversify, so we're seeing greater socioeconomic and cultural diversity within local suburbs, not always on an individual subdivision/neighborhood level, but certainly within a mile or two radius. So opportunities for greater class diversity and community and ministry across class lines may well become more available.

Also, this is part of a larger issue of a church's overall culture. Many churches are still pretty homogeneous in race/ethnicity or income/class overall, not just in particular geographic clusters of parishioners. My own home church, located in close proximity to Wheaton College, is predominantly populated by college-educated professionals and more than our fair share of people with master's degrees and PhDs. We tend to attract those kinds of people, and (unintentionally) tend to repel working-class people who feel like they don't fit in to our culture. So our church needs to become a place where people across the socioeconomic/professional spectrum can feel more at home so local small groups can likewise welcome and incorporate people of all backgrounds.

I think every church needs to diagnose its own need for particular correctives. Some churches are very activist and need to be more contemplative; others are too contemplative and need to be more activist. Some churches are not local at all and need to become more local, regardless of the class issues. Other churches might be too economically homogeneous and need to lean into greater diversity, even if that goes against a geographic/localist ideal. So there aren't easy answers - every church has to discern for themselves what God is calling them to pursue for their congregation and context. Hope that helps!