Archive for church growth

On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf.

[ii]               Cf.

[iii]              Ibid.

Sowing Seeds of Good News

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on July 13, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The history of church planting in our country is a colorful one.

In our early history, when our country was being settled, immigrants came from the Old World to the New.  And they needed places of worship.  So, naturally, many Roman Catholic congregations; as well as many Congregational, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other Protestant congregations were formed.  During this time, too, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was born.

Later, around the beginning of the twentieth century, after many so-called mainline denominations had been well established, there was the rise of what I shall call the preacher movement.  This is where a preacher, usually a gifted one, would write a sermon, stick it in his back pocket, and go out to the streets to preach it.  Once the preacher had gathered enough listeners to call the gathering a congregation, he’d start a church.  The Mormon Church essentially began this way—as did many Baptist churches and the larger fundamentalist movement.

Again a shift in church-planting methodology was seen after the end of World War 2.  Mainline denominations continued to spread in numbers of congregations.  But growth in overall numbers slowed and even stalled out.  The preacher movement continued as well.  But the tide was turning here too.  Now, after two devastating wars and the loss of many lives around the world, humanity’s attitude had taken a pessimistic turn.  The focus of church planting turned outside of the church, really, to parachurch youth organizations.  Young Life and Youth for Christ formed during this time.  Also, numerous youth camps such as the mega camp I used to work for, Hume Lake Christian Camps in California, began around this time.

Next, in the 1980s and 1990s, came an intense focus on demographics.  Who was our target audience?  What cities around the country were prospering economically?  If we were to plant a new congregation, where would the ideal place be in order to achieve sustainability most quickly?

And if we’re after sheer numbers, we could argue that this worked.  Saddleback Community Church—founded by Rick Warren in 1980 and reaching 10,000 members by 1990—arose out of such demographic sensitivity.  Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church during this time too.

But I add this.  Today Bill Hybels and his pastoral staff say that they went about church planting and growth all wrong.  Their focus was numbers.  And numbers they got!  But they saw way too little growth in Christ.  Real followers of Christ, they say—real disciples—are lacking.

Which brings us to today.  How do we plant churches today?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask, should we plant churches today?

I came across an article this week from Leadership Journal[i] called “9 Reasons not to Plant a Church in 2012.”  Written in January of 2012, it states that there has been disillusionment in the past decade or so with the overall church planting movement.  It then lists the nine reasons for not planting churches.  The preacher model, it says, where one gifted preacher goes out and gathers a congregation, goes against the biblical model of Jesus sending out teams.  Studying demographics, it argues, excludes many segments of society from hearing the good news.  Church plants, it claims, simply redistribute churchgoers from one congregation to another but do not bring in the unchurched.

So, good question.  How are we to plant churches today?  Should we plant churches today at all?  Or, to ask a broader question, what should our outreach look like?

Jesus told a parable, saying, “A sower went out to sow some seed.”

I love this parable.  Don’t you?  There’s a lot to learn from it regarding individual discipleship.

There are four soils.  Our hearts are like one of these soils.  The first is hard like a road.  The word of God falls upon these hard hearts and is not even considered.  The second soil is rocky and shallow.  People in this category are likewise shallow, so when rocky times come they forget the good news of God’s word.  The third soil is decent enough, but thorns and thistles grow in it too.  So when God’s word takes root, it is eventually choked out by the thorny concerns of wealth and pursuits of happiness without God.  Only the fourth soil is where the good news lands, takes root, and multiplies.

And this point rings loud and clear in our postmodern, individual-focused ears:  Our hearts are to be like the fourth soil.

We are clear about how this parable applies to us, as individual disciples of Christ.  But what about when it comes to the Church?  How does this parable apply to church planting?  How does this parable apply to outreach—to illuminating San Antonio and the world with the light of Christ?

To answer these questions we need to shift our focus a little—from the soils and their various conditions to the sower himself.  Who is this sower?  And what is he trying to accomplish?

To answer the first question then, the sower is us.

“Oh, no it’s not,” you say; “there you’re wrong, preacher.  The sower is clearly Jesus.”

Fair enough, I answer; I see your point.  Let’s say the sower is in fact Jesus.  But what is the sower in this parable trying to do?  He’s trying to plant a crop that yields thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times the original.

And the original is no shabby quantity!  He’s scattering seed on the road, in the rocky soil, among the thorns—everywhere!  He has an abundance—a point to which I will return.  Present point is, he’s got this over-abundant original quantity—already seemingly more than he can handle on his own—and he’s hoping to multiply it by a hundred: he’s going to need some help!  And if this sower is Jesus, as you yourself suggested, then who will help him but his disciples?  And who are his disciples but us, the Church?

We are the sower.

But it’s not just about the seed.

So, to answer the second question: the sower is hoping to plant and sustain a healthy, productive crop.

And where does a healthy, productive crop come from?  Why, from the plant itself.

Do you see?  Churches are the plants that produce the seeds of good news for the world.  And only healthy churches will produce thirty-, sixty-, or a hundredfold.

But plants have a life, don’t they?  Some plants live for only a short time.  Others, like the Giant Sequoias up in the mountains by Hume Lake Christian Camps, live and thrive for thousands of years.  Either way, though, new plants must come along in order to keep the seeds coming.

Now let’s return to our question about church planting and other forms of outreach.

From this parable I think it’s rather obvious that churches are the healthy, productive crop Jesus has in mind.

I think it’s rather obvious, too, that churches should be in the business of producing seeds of good news and spreading them across the world.

But there is something about outreach here that isn’t so obvious, something I’ve already said:

You are the sower.

It’s not just the preacher who sows.  It’s not just the clergy.  It’s not just the people and institutions that are involved with establishing new church plants and maintaining them.  Outreach is so much more!

Look again at the sower of this parable.  He spreads seeds of good news far and wide.  The picture is one of carelessness, even recklessness.  He scatters seeds seemingly everywhere—on the road, on rocky soil, on weedy soil, and on good soil.  He has an abundance.

So do you.  You are blessed beyond measure.  You commune with the King of kings, week after week, at his very Table.  You have a community right here that loves and cares for you even when you feel ornery and alone.  You have hope where many others have none.  These are the seeds of the good news of Christ.  And there are so many others!  And you carry them with you wherever you go.  An over-abundance of them!

So scatter them all around you.  Fling them about you carelessly, recklessly, even thoughtlessly, wherever you go.  Someone calls your name from behind and you turn suddenly.  There, in that sudden turn, hundreds of seeds are shaken loose from your clothes, your hair, your pockets; and you’re not even aware of all the good news that has fallen from your person.  That’s the picture here, right?  This is outreach.  This is how you and I are going to illuminate San Antonio best.

It’s not about demographics.  It’s not about being a gifted preacher.  Outreach is about Christ in, on, and all round you.