RIP the Church Building

I woke up with a ton of thoughts in this area, and wanted to try and capture some of them.

I think there is a big split coming in the way most folks will experience church, and I think the two ways will become increasingly dissimilar.

That’s my premise.

By that I mean, that the small 100 person small town church, and the 200-400 person suburban church will go the way of the downtown church has for most locations, abandoned or lightly used historical markers, kept around mainly because the historic committee says you can’t tear it down.

I think the choice increasingly will become this: get really big OR get really small.

Path 1: Get Big.

The really big I think will be a continuation of the current mega church trends, and will accelerate as the 2008-led giving collapse continues to gather smaller and less “efficient” churches in its wake.

I think the animating features of this branch are the following:

1. There are too many pulpits and not enough really talented preachers. Less people have been called, and the standards for quality have been going up. Higher relevance, higher production values of the presentation, and more sophisticated, multimedia and promotional support for the message. Someone “mailing it in” with a sermon they delivered 5 years ago, or wrote the hour before service never really cut it, but it is so much more apparent if you have been to other churches the week before.

2. The average person is engaged and wants to be engaged as a consumer of content and media. That’s not a church creation, but there are some styles of worship and presentation that cater to that better. And those styles are typically expensive to produce and require scale to have any chance of not going financially bankrupt.

3. The average parent deciding where to point the car on Sunday morning wants an outcome of “good behavior” from religious education, instead of a production of a disciple and all consuming commitment to follow Christ.

I like to think about it like this: The average gas station 40 years ago had probably 2 pumps. 20 years ago, maybe 4 maybe 6 pumps. If you build a new gas station today you have 20 or 30 pumps.  The main driver is that it is more efficient to have 1 clerk serving 30 customers at a time, than it is to have one clerk serving 2 customers at a time. We can observe the same “get bigger” trend in grocery stores, car dealerships and any number of other industries.

If you have a small church you cannot be as efficient with your resources as you can be with a large church.

What happens to the older smaller churches? I think they will have to get more efficient. In the old days they used to have circuit riding ministers. Now we will have closed circuit riding ministers. I think that we will see a number of satellite church plants take over the aging infrastructure of mainline churches, very slowly at first, and increasing rapidly as the builder generation leaves the maintenance to their next generation.

Path 2: Get Small.

This is more interesting mentally to try to picture. In a lot of ways it is a really old approach to ministry. Small meetings with little technology, breaking bread together and doing life.

But the earnest return to this model I think is just now getting to the “right place, right time” period. I have seen some churches do this for their Sunday school and small groups without a formal building space for such meetings. I have also seen the emergence of the “I am Second” movement which seems to lean heavily on this approach for meeting (the movement doesn’t rely on church buildings for their gatherings).

But these I see as initial shoots that will, over the next few years, find one or two get the recipe right and really take off.

I think the driving forces to this new kind of small church that are leading this way are the following:

1. People need people, and you cannot get to “being known” without a lot of face time with people around you caring about and working with you.

2. The 3rd information age allows for great resources and teaching to be duplicated much more easily.

3. The increasingly archaic feeling of the traditional church and the increasingly theatrical production values of the Largest churches leaves a large “divine connection gap” for most people

4. Putting everyone into mission & leadership. I think that if you want everyone to participate in the mission and actions of the church, then you almost entirely defeat that purpose by having a large building and professionals responsible for each area. It creates a crowd of people watching the leaders waiting for their cue, instead of a community of leaders that take action independently and automatically.

5. They are inherently viral. Mainly because of number 4. In a socially connected world, a viral church model that “fits in the communication channels” will have to evolve at some point.

Can the Church return to its viral roots? I think so. Can the current social media technologies preserve enough of the complexity of the story to have it remain meaningful upon retranslation? It will have to, but it is fuzzy to see how exactly that multi threaded complex narrative will be told in the new tools.

Conclusion (at least so far)

I would have argued one over the other maybe this time last year, but I think the evidence would suggest that both are going to get stronger, and not at the expense of one another. I would further suspect that at some point in the nearish future (10 years-20 years?) that the two will become so differentiated that folks will not be able to cross over from one to the other.

But either way, the church building that I grew up in, is in for a rough 10-20 years while this plays out.

 

Dennis

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We welcome your comments!

Any trends here you can relate to?  How has this affected your youth ministry?

Where have you seen shifts in how people experience church?

What other trends have you noticed in church attendance?

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Dennis Jackson – Twitter: follow @DennisJJackson

Father of 3 awesome kids, Husband to the world’s best wife, and volunteer at the best youth group in Texas.
When at work, computers fear me.
I solve problems.

Arlington TX · http://blog.trainforpurpose.com

 


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Comments

  1. says

    I agree with you for almost all of the reason cited Dennis. I might disagree with your statement that being a smaller church means you are less efficient. Going from bigger church to smaller church, I find that I and the church are much more efficient with our money and time. We’ve done away with meaningless programming and cost expenditures. We will probably weather a storm of uncertainty because we have been weathering for some time already now.

  2. says

    By efficient I am looking at the denominator being “per staff member” or “per lead pastor” indicating effective leverage.. Not a leanness measure like dollars per parishioner or something like that. But I would suspect that a measure like that would also indicate a more efficient use of resources with a larger service base.

  3. Jay says

    The truly “efficient” churches will be the ones that are able to incorporate multiple forms of worship with multiple forms of mission and ministry led by the laity and encouraged by the clergy. I hope that the larger churches will continue to find ways to connect people as the smaller churches do so effectively. With these practices we will begin to see a shift toward the viral church of the Wesleyan movement some 250
    years ago.

  4. says

    Good thoughts and convsersation.
    What I love about this discussion is that we just don’t know what the church will look like 10-20 years from now, but we have indicators, different contexts and experiences and it is interesting on how we all see it. I appreciate your perspective. Mine is different from yours, but what I say I hold losely because I just don’t know.

    It seems as though your persepctive is based on a come and see “attractional” model. “parent deciding where to point their car” “average person is engaged and wants to be engaged as a consumer”. I don’t see that a church with the lights and show attracting new believers. Yet I agree that the mega churches will still be around and will have impact. I don’t think that a church that had the greatest “production” on a Sunday morning will attract people where I live.

    My context is that we are moving to a Post-Christian world. If there are fewer people returning to church then their children will have little to no church history. Why would they go to church? It’s never been a part of their life to begin with. The church must be missional in it’s mindset, not attractional. It needs to be de-centralized meaning that the service/meeting cannot be the most important thing that happens at the church.

    Also (again in our context) the pace of life continues to get faster. There is little time to even go to church. Our schools here now have practices on Sunday mornings! I think the pace of life is a shift that is happening also.

    Yet, the church is amazing and we need and must have different expressions of the church from the mega lights and show church to your small 100 person church and everywhere in between. The journey ahead is exciting and I am looking forward to discovering together what God has in store for the church.

    This is a great conversation and I apologize for the long comment. I enjoy these types of conversations!

    Phil

  5. says

    Jay, I agree with the return to a more roots based form of Wesleyan-ish is in the mix. I am not sure that the multiple styles will ultimately pay dividends, it seems that focusing on a smaller number of styles will help create a consistent identity and provide better results. I believe I saw some data from Barna (I believe it was from them) that showed a strong correlation between focusing on contemporary worship as the primary worship style and church growth.

    Phil, I agree with what you are saying and that matches really closely with how I am seeing the second path forward unfold.

    My context is not necessarily “attractional” it is more kitchen sink, “Do all teh Programs!!”. Where when cornered ministry is treated like a checklist that you mark off as a sign of growth. “childrens, check, traditional service, check, blended service, check, contemporary, eh not yet, youth missions, check, college missions, check, family missions .. maybe”

    So my context is primarily suburban “big but not mega by UMC standards” 2000-3000 member, 600 in attendance churches. But we also regularly attend a much smaller bible church, praise and worship style service. My wife has been on staff at several of the UMC/Presbyterian churches and we have seen those up close on the inside. And last summer I went and did a hands on survey of about 30-40 churches in DFW of different sizes, styles and “brands”.

    I think that those “UMC big” contexts are not big enough, scaled enough to be financially viable long term in a reduced giving post 2008 world. And I also don’t think they are lean enough, missional enough to continue as a movement.

    At the end of the day I think we will find that is a real no-mans land.

    I have some more blog posts kicking around in my head on what I have seen and some interesting parallels to the 1998 internet bubble. Look for those in the near future.

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