What Makes a Church Work?

What Makes a Church Work? June 25, 2012

In the 1970s and 80s, Willow Creek did something churches hadn’t previously done — they surveyed a community to find out why people were not going to church and then imagined and created a church that met the needs of that demographic. Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell each established a church called “Mars Hill” and both have reached into mostly unreached demographics and have flourished. Then there’s smaller churches that are flourishing, and have flourished, and most people don’t know about them — like Brentwood Baptist outside Nashville or HCBC in Pennsylvania.

What makes a local church “work?” How would you respond to this question? Or, what assures that a church won’t work? Do you think faithfulness and relevance are good categories?

By work I mean take sudden grasp in a local community or flourish or succeed or grow or whatever. I’m not making judgment here about what “success” means but instead wanting to probe into what happens when a church strikes home in a local community.

Graham Buxton, at Tabor Adelaide, in his book Dancing in the Dark, proposes what is now a rather common paradigm for understanding what Christian ministry is, and what it means to participate in the work of God in this world: the combination of theological faithfulness and church/community relevance. He’s not defining “works” as much as he’s articulating the challenge of ministry: to participate in the world in which God is at work. Important: I’m interested in the “works” question; Graham is focusing on what ministry is: the incarnation of the work of God in a local community. But I want to shift this into what you think “works”?

Barth is at one end of the spectrum: the revelation, God, Word spectrum; Tillich is at the other end: the existential and human crisis in this world is where things happen. Ministry will have to endure paradigm shifts in order to comprehend what it is.

Another question: Where do we begin? With the gospel or Bible or Christian claim? Or with culture?

With Vincent Donovan, though, Graham asks what it means to “contextualize.” Is this an either/or a both/and? Is it the symbiosis of humans sensing what God is doing?

This all means this: we need a North American and a South American and an Australian and a New Zealand form of ministry — and it gets altogether local for Graham. Why? Because each is a different context and God is at work in each context, in different ways, and in culturally sensitive and appropriate ways. The Spirit is at work: Do we sense what the Spirit is doing?

Graham Buxton sketches what “world-view” is all about, and how worldview shapes how humans in various contexts comprehend reality or what is going on in this world — and until we grasp the worldview of our audience we are not likely to tap into the central issues of our world, culture and country.

So he sketches a few local churches, and I find it interesting that he chose Mars Hill Seattle (and wrote this book 10 years back). But he focused on local, incarnate expressions of ministry.

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  • James Petticrew

    I wonder to what extent Willow Creek and Mars Hill reached “unchurched” that is those with no previous involvement / interest in Christianity or did they mainly reach out to the “dechurched” those who had dropped out of previous involvement, those who had been alienated from Christianity or had had childhood involvement ?

    Any one know if any stats exist on this?

  • @James, my memory of a study on mega churches said that 25% of members had not attended church in the previous 5 years. Which sounds very low, but it is about twice the rate of smaller churches.

    That doesn’t specifically address whether the people had any previous church involvement. I don’t know of any stat on that. Antidotally, I would guess it is about 75% of unchurches have some church exposure and about 25% have no church exposure. But I think the vast majority of people have some church exposure. But maybe I am wrong.

  • When we started Anchor Community Church, we decided that it ought to be a church of and for the neighborhood where the facility was located. One of our visions was that people would walk to church. Fourteen years later, we’re still living out that reality. Ironically, I don’t live in the same neighborhood as the church. However, some of our staff do, some of our leaders do, many of our volunteers do. We preach from the Scriptures every week, we teach for reflection and application, and we serve the neighborhood and find ways to care for the poor and needy within our congregation and in the community. The church originally started with many families from the suburbs, as it was a large suburban church that made Anchor mostly possible. These days there are only a few suburbanites left. This has been a difficult situation, as we had hoped there would be some integration and collaboration between the downtown neighborhood where our facility is and the wealthier suburban neighborhoods. It’s been harder then I realized to keep these two worlds connected. In regard to neighbors hearing the Gospel and embracing Christ, I think what we are doing works. In regard to connecting Christians in the suburbs and downtown, we still haven’t found what works.

  • Phil Miller

    PowerPoint. Lots of PowerPoint.

  • Scott Gay

    This is a frontier post. Know what I mean? One hopes we will not waste our time and energy on the wrong frontiers. Please, please not any neo…. Calvinism, pentecostalism, Bible….I’m pushing for involvement in the thought world that we have found ourselves that is different. The assertion of the dignity and autonomy of being free, an affirmation of goodness, an awareness of change and process as purposeful.
    So what works. Doesn’t matter if you are mega or 2 or more gathered. The key to me is multi-voiced worship. The Anabaptists could probably help us get back to this, but no matter. This is the best method to communicate the reality of God existing, occuring, and being at work in that place( or thing).
    I could give a thousand ways we could improve in this area. To me multi-voiced worship is the means to the both/and paradigm( Barth/Tillich; theological faithfulness/community relevance) posed in this post.
    There is an Anabaptist prayer book called “Take Our Moments and Our Days” that is a beautiful outline of how this approach could be structured to be multi-voiced. You could follow that prayer book in your home with family, in a Wednesday night bible study, or in a many thousand seat auditorium and it would “work”.

  • Bob

    Phil (#4), You may be on to something.

    Tim (#3), Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s insightful. Connecting people in the suburbs with those downtown is a big challenge. It may be that it’s not as important as some of us would think. Or maybe it is? I’m not sure. Sounds like your church is faithfully preaching and serving. Keep that up, for sure.

  • Fred

    Money. Lots of money.

  • JohnM

    James Pettigrew #1- Or maybe “re-churched” is the key to numerical success. Nothing breeds success like success, and a good portion of church growth is, as someone has put it, owing to “recycling the saints”. Big churches have a big gravitational pull. And Americans have cars. And have little attachment to neighborhoods anymore. Or denominations. And little old churches start to look depressed and depressing.

    But what jump starts the grow in the first place? I’m half guessing – and I don’t like thinking it – a few charismatic personalities is the key. That and novelty. But once it’s starts, it snowballs – not so difficult to sustain. That’s the way it looks to me. But as I admitted, half guessing.

  • Michelle

    Our church here in France will soon celebrate its 120 year anniversary, and as I’ve researched the history, it all comes down to this combination of faithfulness to the message and flexibility to the needs of the community. Over the years this has meant things like setting up a soup kitchen in the basement in the early 1900s during an economic downturn and hiding Jewish children during World War 2.

    The church currently distributes food every Monday and gives practical help weekly to people in this multi-cultural area. The tricky thing is that this church has never been “successful” in a church growth, be fully financially independent kind of way. But, it’s definitely been faithful.

  • MD

    1) Create a 501(c)3.
    2) Structure it according to the business model of corporate board, president, department heads, employees, corporate center, financials, purpose statement, goals, and standards for success evaluation.
    3) Conduct the operation with top-down lines of authority.
    4) Manage the work of the organization toward desired ends.
    5) Limit personal face-time by programming meetings with well-defined start and end times.
    6) Give the corporate leader a special place of honor.
    7) Elevate the pastor/teacher gift above all other gifts.
    8 ) Create a statement of subscription which will set this organization apart from others.
    9) Make sure the employees top priority is to tell others the name of the organization, its meeting place, the types of programs offered and the attractiveness of the events held.
    10) If times get rough, make sure that the organization doesn’t die.

  • ab

    As a social scientist, one thing that has always stood out to me is how so many of the churches that are well-known as “successful”/ growing or working well almost always seem to be located in areas where there is a high amount of population growth or shift. I am specifically located in the Philly suburbs, and when I demographically look through census data for research I can see location by location that the churches that seem to be the “in” thing or those that are growing also happen to be located in counties and communities experiencing massive population gains. IE– greater western Philly suburbs have grown by 70% in the past decade– No shocker, each suburban area that has had that growth also now boasts a large mega-church busting with people and ministries. I say this not to minimize the hard, missional, gospel work that we are all called to, but to point out to those in smaller churches that sometimes growth has little to nothing to do with how you are teaching, programming, marketing, etc. You can be completely tuned into the needs of the unchurched and the people you are reaching, have strong teachers and community and still be small. so much of church “working” sometimes seems to come down to sociological moments.

  • #1 James,

    No statistics but at least what I saw at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids was the large numbers of dechurched people. It was like a hospital where recovering fundamentalists and reformed people were reintroduced to Grace of God.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    As a campus pastor turned urban community developer, I go back to a suggestion that Dr. John Perkins gave to Daniel Hill, as Mr. Hill was planning a church plant in urban Chicago. Mr Hill planned a church to reach the hip young generation until Dr. Perkins pointed out that “The success of a local church should be directly tied to the degree that it holistically transforms its immediate neighborhood. Any other success factor is secondary.”

    Randy Gabrielse