Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Institutional Church and Simplification

Many of the leaders who decry the institutionalizing of the Church do not realize they have been erecting and rapidly continue to erect institutions of their own. Programs, strategies, processes, events, etc. all contribute to whatever institutional entity your church is becoming and will become. Many are finding too late to avoid a mess that the life of their church is glutted with activities, patterns of activities, and accompanying information that distracts congregants and competes with the stuff that matters most.

As an illustrative example, let me direct you to this post on branding by NewSpring Church's Tony Morgan. Morgan discusses the problems connected to sub-branding different ministries within the same community. He writes:
We're also trying to thin out all of the unique sub-brands we've used in the past. For example, we decided that "Fuse" and "Ignite" were meaningless to the students we're trying to reach, and, we didn't want to start branding those ministries ahead of NewSpring Church itself. With that in mind, you may have noticed that references to "Fuse" and "Ignite" have faded in recent months. (And, by the way, student ministry attendance is up.)

If you want an example from the marketplace, check out Google. Their products, for the most part, all include the "Google" name and specifically identify the product without requiring any guesswork. You can use Google Desktop or Google Maps or Google Finance or iGoogle or Google Video. The only real exceptions to their strategy are the companies they've acquired (like Blogger and YouTube) where there was already an established brand presence. You don't see them taking one of their products and trying to create separate brands to define each product. (It's not Mapilicious, as an example. It's just Google Maps.)

In Church world, though, we've fallen into the trap of letting every ministry compete against each other for attention. That's why we feel like we need to create a logo and a name for every ministry that exists in our churches. (There are some big, visible churches that have fallen into this trap) . . .

If you want a good example of how all of this plays out in Church world, in my opinion, LifeChurch.tv has nailed it. Check out their website. The first thing you see when you go to their site is the promotions for their current series. Then, when you dig deeper to find next steps beyond the weekend, you have the choice of opportunities like LifeGroups, LifeMissions, LifeKids and LifeYouth. That's brilliant. They've made it completely obvious to people what those other environments are all about. Even if I'm completely new to the church, I know that my kids go to LifeKids. How smart is that?

It's pretty smart.

Morgan goes on to talk about how branding anything and everything provokes the leaders of these individual ministries within the church to compete for promotion and exposure and prevents them from spending time actually leading their ministries. (I should mention at this point that the Jared he refers to in his post is not me.) Churches create whole new enterprises out of different ministry emphases, then each one may get its own vision and mission statements, etc etc.

I'd like to take this a step further. Setting aside for a minute whatever you think of NewSpring or LifeChurch (and churches like them), Morgan makes a good point about the inordinate and schizophrenic focuses this sort of micro-intense sub-branding creates. But more than that, it only creates more and more programmatic bloat within a church. In its direst form, it pushes communities further and further toward doing church and further and further away from being the church.

This is why I like the concept of simple church so much (despite not caring too much for the Simple Church book). The more bloat you cut from a church's system, the more powerful and effective it will be at carrying out its primary mission. The more bloat you cut from a church's system, the less "institutional" (in the negative sense of the word) it will be.

This is something we are trying to be preemptive and proactive about at Element. Very often we have folks who decide they'd like to go bowling with other Element folks or go do dinner and a movie or whatever, and they then ask the leadership team if we will make it an official Element event. The motives behind this are pure: these people simply want as many people as possible to attend and want to take advantage of Element's contact list and exposure.
Now, the thing is, we are at this stage very able to do this pretty much for every request we get. And occasionally we do turn congregational ideas into official, calendared Element events. But we still turn down most of these requests. It causes some confusion and disappointment, but we do our best to explain. Here's the gist of the explanation:

Our mission is centered around three "tent pegs":
a) a weekly gathering for worship and teaching
b) a monthly service project
c) community gatherings (This does include social events, but the regular fulfillments of this peg are our weekly PRAXIS missional Bible study and our weekly Element After-Party dinner.)

These three tent pegs are essentially three events: a worship service, a small group Bible study, a service project. These are the things we want our institution to focus on.
We don't want to end up as one of those churches/ministries that has a bloated calendar for a community that is really busy but not really growing and then has to ask itself, "Whose feelings do we hurt by cutting their program?" (Some of the best features in the book Simple Church are the horror story warnings about overextended and busy-sick churches.)
The way we prevent becoming like those churches, the way we prevent getting to the confusion of the masses by masses of activities and programs, is by not accumulating them in the first place.

What we do instead is something like this:
"Bowling sounds like a great idea! Why don't you call some people up and invite them to go?"

This actually charges people with being missionaries. It lets them know they don't have to (and we don't want them to) run everything through the system of Element. We want to inspire and cultivate the work of reconciliatory community, to free people up to gather and commune and live their lives apart from our plans and programs. It allows Element to focus on the first importance of the gospel and therefore actually nurtures better community, because people are trained to embody the gospel through the routines of their life and not merely through the events of an institution.

No comments: