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The Long View
Justin D. Long, ed.
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Church Forms:
Describing, selecting, optimizing along two axes
In this post we look at two qualities that broadly describe the methodology of a church. These two have been broadly discussed in blogs, social media, and books.
On the vertical axis we place the professional/amateur question. We might also think of this as the centralized or decentralized question. Let us not think of these in a positive or negative sense. The amateurization of a skill set simply means to broadly spread it through a population: to make it possible for anyone to do whatever it is (photography, or flying drones, or programming websites, or publishing a book) as well or nearly as well as a 'professional,' or one who is paid to do it.
For the various programs of a church, are they run by a centralized and paid staff, or by mostly volunteers? Centralization and 'professionalization' can lead to certain levels of 'quality' or skill: for example, very expensive pieces of equipment can be run (like high end cameras). But centralization can also reduce the ability of a church to scale. A mega church could reach several thousand members in size, but probably could not reach a million or more in a single congregation.
The second axis is the pastoral vs. missional question; or, as we put it here, whether a church is mostly focused inward or outward. By inward focus, we mean oriented primarily toward pastoring the existing members; by outward focus, toward ministering to potential new believers. When we think about these two forms of focus, let us remember the church gets new members from two sources: existing believers (births and immigrants) and non-believers who become believers (converts).
Based on the two axes we can define four quadrants: the inner-focused, amateur church; the inner-focused, professionalized church; the outer-focused amateur church and the outer-focused professional church.
You may already be thinking of examples for each. But one more comment. On the chart there are two boxes: the outer margin and an inner dashed line. I have never known a church to be perfectly balanced (in the center) of the two axes (e.g. right on the center dot). While I have known some to overlap an axis, I have known few I would think of as perfectly balanced on an axis (for example, equally outward and inward focused). Most churches will tilt toward one of the four quadrants. Some will tilt mildly, as a matter of the church's situation and historic preference. I would place these inside the dashed line. Others are more extreme in their tilt, being 'mostly' one way or another. I place these outside the dashed line, closer to the edges.
How does a church tend to select its form? Are any of the quadrants ever an 'always wrong' strategy? Let's start thinking of some examples in each.
An underground church in Iran is an example of a highly decentralized, amateurized church. The reason is obvious: security pressures keep the church from meeting openly. Secret house churches are required. Pastors are often untrained, simply house church leaders.
A mega church with many thousands of members meeting in one building usually requires a degree of centralization and professionalization. Some churches select this form, intending to grow large. Others just gradually evolve the systems required as larger and larger meetings demand them. For example, children's Sunday School in our own church (which is not large by any definition) requires a certain amount of centralization, because all childcare workers must undergo a background check and some training.
A church planting movement nearly always selects its start as a highly amateurized, decentralized network of Bible studies. These have the opportunity to multiply rapidly. Such movements are often seeking to grow larger than any single mega church, aiming for 100% of a large area.
Finally, let us think of the small church pastored by a bivocational pastor. Such a church is usually highly centralized with most decisions (there being very few required) made by the pastor or the pastor and a committee of elders. This kind of arrangement could be fine for a rural, lightly populated area, or it could become very ingrown.
Most commonly, however, churches select one strategy and gradually 'drift' into a form that spans multiple axes. What I know of Saddleback illustrates this: There is a significant amount of centralization and professionalization to run the church. Yet the total number of people in laity-led Bible studies is 120% of those in the Sunday morning service. In other words, more people go to Bible studies than go to Sunday morning service. The key 'pastoral' worker in this situation is the small group leader, who usually uses a curriculum and may be just as 'amateur' as an Iranian house church leader. Likewise, while I have never been to Shoal Creek, Roy Moran and I have discussed it before, and it likely overlaps in a similar way (though likely favoring the amateurized, decentralized side).
Picking the right 'overlap' is truly an optimization question. In this I think churches and movements could learn much from the business literature around 'growth hacking' and pivots. It is possible that a church will start out seeking one particular strategic quadrant—but then as the church grows (or doesn't grow) it might 'drift' toward another. It takes a great deal of intentional measurement, monitoring and course correction to keep from drifting toward a tactic that fits the needs of the moment yet denies access to the strategy needed for the future.
Are there situations when a particularly quadrant is appropriate? Inappropriate? Amplifies? Corrupts? Should be sought out? Should be avoided? Hit reply and tell us what you think.
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