Calling all pastorpreneurs

News out of Willow Creek is that programs are not the key to real success. Does this spell hope for the small and medium-sized church?

To some extent there's no arguing with sheer success in numbers. Megachurches have found a formula for attracting people to church.

To its credit, one of the most well known of those megachurches, Willow Creek, has studied it success beyond mere numbers. Moreover, it has shared those findings even though they are not entirely self affirming. Out of Ur reports:

Directly or indirectly, [their] philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.

So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, “We made a mistake”?

Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry.
In the Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”

Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

Read it all here.

Over at Opinion Journal there's a discussion of James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God:

As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don't have "high barriers to entry"--that is, they don't demand a lot of their congregants. They're often referred to as "seeker" churches because they appeal to nonbelievers--and not always successfully. It's easy to get in; but it's also easy to get out.

So "pastorpreneurs," as Mr. Twitchell calls them, face a challenge: How do you get more people to join than quit? One way is by having current members proselytize. The fastest-growing denominations, Mr. Twitchell says, are "selling, selling, selling." They are "foregrounding growth as a sign of value." As he explains: "Missionary zeal is at the heart of their attraction not only because showing the Way to others is a source of jubilation but because it means that you yourself must have found your way. The value of the next sale (the convert) proves the value of the previous sale (yours)." It all comes down to a kind of narcissism, apparently, like taking pride in your Prius.

Another key to product success, Mr. Twitchell argues, is "innovations in supply." Thus megachurches offer playgrounds, coffee shops and a mall's worth of services. But megachurches have also, crucially, found ways of attracting men. Just as department stores put men's products near the entrance because they know that men are the hardest customers to draw into a retail space, so megachurches, Mr. Twitchell says, have catered to men's interests.

Citing Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Mr. Twitchell explains: "Men are the crucial adopters in religion. If they go over the tipping point, women follow, children in tow." So now megachurches sponsor sports ministries and groups whose members ride motorcycles together. The language of prayers and sermons has moved away from a condescending lecture tone and taken up sports metaphors instead, asking congregants, for instance, to step up to the plate and help the team. In such a way are men induced to buy the megachurch product.

The article concludes, 'But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving "brands" than with saving souls.' Or advancing the Kingdom.

Read the Opinion Journal article here.

Other analysts are more positive about megachurches. See also the recent work by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Megachurch Myths described here. The myths:

MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
REALITY: They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.

MYTH #2: Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about Christianity.
REALITY: Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs.

MYTH #3: Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
REALITY: 79 percent of churches surveyed have joined together with other churches on local community service projects, and 72 percent on international missions.

Comments (14)

Actually, we had a great discussion around this topic in class today. The Willow Creek dude is right about at least one thing: the goal is forming disciples. You can sell all you want but if you aren't selling something authentic, people won't buy it--or at least won't keep buying it. You can offer playgrounds, coffee shops and a mall's worth of services--but I'd rather you just offer me Jesus...

But Derek, you already have Jesus. I agree that it is important to sell something authentic, and I am not suggesting compromising the Gospel, but if the marketplace for art and literature tell us anything, it is that authenticity doesn't necessarily sell. So to speak. So it isn't just a matter of putting your authenticity out there and watching people flock to it. You have to make some effort to meet them where they are.

But Derek, you already have Jesus.

Yes, but... Discipleship--an authentic relationship with the living God--is like any other real relationship: it takes time and engaged effort over time. Programs of whatever sort that nurture a rootedness in basic Christian doctrine, familiarity with the Scriptures, and an increasing openness to the transformation of the Holy Spirit over time are needed. The wine & cheese club may help hold the community together while the more substantive programs do their work, but a wine & cheese club alone will not do the trick.

I distrust much of the advice that goes under the rubric of "meet the people where they are." Why try and give them something they already have--why not give them something they're hungry for instead? (Resisting a gorganzola joke here...)

I don't think most people come to church because of something the church offers--it's because they've come to a realization that there's something that they need but lack.

I agree with this much. "The wine & cheese club may help hold the community together while the more substantive programs do their work, but a wine & cheese club alone will not do the trick."

Meeting people where they aren't isn't remotely the same thing as giving them something they already have. I don't know how to have this conversation if that isn't recognized.

The way that the churches above seem to understand "meet the people where they are" is to offer the same kinds of services--playgrounds, coffee shops and a mall's worth of services--but with a "Christian" environment label. To my mind, that's offering them something they can already get. I don't want to join a church because it has a Christian health-club.

What do you mean when you say "meet them where they are"?

I mean that you try to understand their culture, their personal experience, their potential anxiety about being seen entering a church, as many as possible of the myriad factors that help determine why someone hasn't come to your church already, and then you try to make the transition into your church as comfortable as possible for them. Getting people who don't go to church into your church for the first time is extremely difficult. I am in favor of being flexible and creative about how that is done.

I think that there is a fine line being defined in this discussion so far - how do you help people who haven't come feel comfortable without aping the culture at large?

I would ask this: who is the "someone" that you are trying to get in the door? Mega churches offer a complete package: a social network, daycares, shopping opportunities, cliques, bible study, even jobs. There is one here in Seattle that has real estate services. If what someone wants/needs is a totally new subculture to be a part of right down to the shopping and health club a mega church is the way to go. How well they also nurture mature adult christian people probably varies from place to place as it does anywhere else.

But I am curious, are those people - the people who are looking for everything in that way - are these the "someones" we are trying to get in the front door? Obviously there is a need for this, or mega-churches would not be the phenomenon they are.

I think there are also other people who need and want church, however, who do not need what mega-churches have to offer. How do we reach them, or maybe a better question is how do I make a connection between the folks who want what my parish offers, and help them feel welcome so that they can stay and be formed here? And then go back out into those parts of the world they already inhabit to work, play, socialize, and be apostles?

I agree about understanding their culture and experience.

There are limits on flexible and creative, though. There's a line between tuning our proclamation to reach the culture and capitulating to it; I'd suggest the shopping malls are a capitulation because they don't offer an alternative to our ravenous materialism, they just slap a different label on the products being consumed.

Alissabeth's comment raises the quesiton of the size of the unit doing the evangelising. Most Episcopal parishes have fewer than 100 people in church on a Sunday, so we don't face the temptation that mega-churches might in terms of creating our own pervasive micro-culture. Our congregations are too small and too poor. If people are looking for a mega-experience, they probably aren't going to look at us to begin with.

My concern has more to do with evangelising the neighborhood in which the congregation sits. On the one hand, it is a commonplace to observe that our congregations need to find ways to make themselves attractive to their neighbors. On the other hand, do a majority of our congregations make a well-thought out effort to do so. Not in my experience.

A not-entirely hypothetical example: primarily white parish in a soon-to-be primarily Latino neighborhood. The immediate neighborhood features lots of relatively large families in relatively small apartments. Few parks. Very little public space. The church gets a small but not insignificant grant from the diocesan Latino ministry committee. What's the best way to spend it? I suggest a direct TV subscription so you can sponsor Central American soccer nights and get the people of the neighborhood comfortably through your doors. Once you have their trust and attention, you can take it from there.


I think that what you are describing, Jim, is hospitality - something that any Christian community should be teaching and encouraging in its members. Should they do it in order to grow - maybe. I'd be willing to bet that it would have that effect. But mostly they should do it in order to be good neighbors, to be hospitable to the Latinos who are moving into their neighborhood, etc.

I agree with Derek - I am not a fan of slapping a fish sticker on shopping malls and health clubs and calling them ministries. As Episcopalians worship is at the heart of what we do, and whatever ministries we engage in should be honest and transparent attempts to either live out Christian values in connecting to other people - service, hospitality, etc - or to connect folks to God through worship.

Jim what I like about your example is that it's doing something that doesn't alter the worship life of the parish in order to make people more comfortable- but offers parish resources to the community in other ways.

I think that the size of the parish is important - more important is that most Episcopal Churches are not mega-churches. It would be inauthentic for them to attempt to fuction in that way. I also believe that there are plenty of folks out there who do want what smaller Episcopal parish churches have to offer. If we were to sacrifice our unique identities to imitate mega-church techniques we'd lose the chance to reach those folks.

I am with you about the slapping on of fish stickers. And I do think that worship shouldn't be fussed with very much--although I don't think it fusses much with Richard III to set it in the midst of prohibition era bootleggers or a Rebel Without a Cause cycle gang, as long as you don't mess with the words. So make of that what you will.

I do think our Church has been reluctant (to put it mildly) to learn from the experience of churches that are more numerically succesful. And I think these lessons are somewhat more complex that critics of mega-churches want to acknwoledge. See Thumma's book on mega-church myths on that.

I agree.

Here is what I think megachurches are really, really good at - marketing.

They can identify their market, reach their market, and develop products that will hook their market.

We have a different market, I think. But we need to be examining these principles and figuring out how to apply them in a unique way that is authentic to who we are.

I guess what makes me uneasy about your not-so-hypothetical example is how we answer this question: are we looking to be of service to the community or are we attempting to get people to join our church because of the services it provides? To put a finer point on it, are we reaching the unchurched or are we poaching congregants from a store-front Pentecostal church that can't afford to provide the same kind of projects with the same kind of budget?

My family lives in an area with two megachurches; the local Episcopal parish can't compete in terms of budgets and programs and therefore the youth group has no stability or coherence because most of the kids in the congregation routinely go to the other churches because that's where their friends are. The formation they're receiving is, well, less than Anglican...

Are these things ethical issues that should concern us or is it every man for himself in the new mission field--or is there a third way? How we answer this has implications for our understanding of discipleship.

Derek wrote: "are we looking to be of service to the community or are we attempting to get people to join our church because of the services it provides? To put a finer point on it, are we reaching the unchurched or are we poaching congregants from a store-front Pentecostal church that can't afford to provide the same kind of projects with the same kind of budget?"

I don't follow. Of course we want to be of service to the community, but we don't JUST want to be of service to the community. We don't want people coming to us exclusively for the services we provide, but one assumes that just about everybody "gets" something out of coming to church or else they wouldn't come. I think the answer to whether we want to reach the unchurched or people who might be unhappy in other churches is both.

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space