Note: I realize that it has been some time since I have posted. The goal of the plate-spinning trick is to make sure that the audience concentrates on the plates in the foreground and that they are still spinning at the end of the performance. Over the past couple of months, this blog has been one of the background plates. This is not an apology, merely a statement.
I woke up to a thought this morning: “Monument, museum, or mission? Which best describes my congregation?” I have traveled professionally more this year thus far to conferences, speaking engagements and consulting appointments than I have ever before. And the number one question that I have been asked is what my vision is for the local congregation. As Christians, we know that the Church will continue through God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance.
However that does not mean that local congregations are automatically going to continue opening their doors each week. Now, most of these people who have asked to pick my brain assumed that I would automatically herald the bountiful blessings of the mega-church movement, validating that they—and only they—are the answer to the Church’s future. “Bigger is better and better is forever,” I heard one leader say in a consulting session. Yet, the longer that I work with congregations and the more research that I read, the less and less convinced I am that megas are the answer. If you will hold one for a moment, let me explain what I mean.
I am not saying that mega-churches are unnecessary. I think they were an evangelism trend that, in many cases, has seen its day. However, they are here to stay. What I am saying is that building a massive religiously-affiliated recreation complex in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana is not the answer. What is the answer? Simple: “Go, find someone who does not know about God, and tell them. Teach them, pray with them, minister to them, baptize them, and disciple them to go and do likewise” (my paraphrase of Matthew 28:18-20). The answer to unlocking the future of the local congregation is mission!
Think about your congregation for a moment: How would you describe it? What goes on from Sunday to Sunday? What values does your congregation hold? What is the institutional ethic that powers your congregation? Earlier this summer, my family and I drove to San Diego for vacation (they are still there). Along the way, we saw a few monuments, some museums, and a mission or two. Here is how they relate to the local congregation:
- Monument—The congregation is large, large enough to attract people simply with its presence. It did not start that way, yet neither did the Lincoln Monument. And neither did the story behind the monument. It is open certain times during the week, inviting passersby and season-pass holders to come in and hear again the monument’s tale: “We started off small. But we decided to reach out to the community, so we built a gym. Then we added (a food pantry, daycare, outreach clinic, etc.). And before you knew it, we built this big wonderful building! Enjoy the coffee shop, and make sure you buy a CD or book from the gift shop on your way out.” Like all monuments, some congregations have become testaments to the great things we did. Yet they do not look to the future.
- Museum—This congregation comes in all sizes. Yet the defining mark of a “museum” congregation is that it is locked in the past. Museums tells story, whereas monuments are simply for show. Museums invite people to learn history, and perhaps be inspired to retell the story to someone else. Living museums, like the Mormon Battalion in San Diego, are great at this. “Museum” congregations have not experienced change in years, opting to stay locked into the “glory years” of their history and acting as if nothing has changed around them. Fewer and fewer people come, dust collects in the corner, and the symbols become tarnished. Yet the faithful continue to gather each week to retell their story in the hopes that someone new might be impressed enough by the show to drop a coin or two in the collection plate.
- Mission—Whether they were in Ireland or San Antonio, missions existed for one reason: to serve as a central location for evangelism. The monks and preachers would find their way to the mission, receive their “marching orders,” then go out and proclaim the Gospel to all they could find. Today, “mission” congregations are not Sunday-only operations like “museum” congregations. Nor are they like “monument” congregations where people must come to the building to take advantage of the membership perks. “Mission” congregations are active and actively involved in their community. For example, small groups are popular in “monument” congregations. However, they have become focused almost primarily on fellowship. The reason is because fellowship and community have been sacrificed on the altar of “bigger is better.” Yet, “mission” congregations continue to effectively use small groups as evangelistic and discipleship tools because unchurched people are not going “to church” on Sundays. Yet, they will meet at a pizza buffet or burger joint on Thursday night because they have to eat. In short, “mission” congregations do not exist for the sake of an expansion project or to entertain the tourists. They exist to proclaim the Story to as many people as possible.