A friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Initially I laughed at the idea of a church offering “Hip Hop Praise Jam” and “Gregorian Chant Liturgy” in the same morning. Then I laughed especially hard at the name of the church: “Consumerist Church of the Sacred Demographics.” The icing on the cake for me was the sermon title: “God Has a Wonderful Cafeteria Plan for Your Life.”
Finally it hit me — this is exactly how most of us approach doing church. And then I stopped laughing.
Some will say that it’s important for churches to offer something for everyone. They will tell you that the object of plugging into a church is to find the niche that connects most with you and churches should go above and beyond to have a niche for everyone.
I am not among those who would say these things. The temptation to become a consumer-driven church is real and we need to be careful lest we become nothing more than franchised shopping centers of religion.
Setting Up False Inferiority Complexes
One of the reasons we shouldn’t push all churches into niche ministry is because many churches simply cannot engage that sort of approach. If you’re a United Methodist, you’ll know the vast majority of our churches are classified as “small churches” (membership < 300). Small churches simply do not have the resources to pull off a vast array of niche ministries. And pushing them to do so by mimicking whatever great, new church plant down the road is doing, will inevitably sets up an inferiority complex.
It’s time we start admitting that much of the amazing work the Holy Spirit is leading in a particular church simply cannot be duplicated and mass-produced.
This is why we need to take a moment to slow down so we can tell the difference between our biblical mandate and our American capitalistic drive.
A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.
It’s Okay Not to Offer Something For Everyone
I know this may feel a little counterintuitive. If we want to reach people, don’t we need to offer something that will connect with them? Well, yes and no.
Churches need to peddle faithful worship as as a way of connecting people to God. This can be done through whatever style best fits the context of the church. And it’s okay not to offer multiple styles — in fact, it’s often better when churches stick to only one style and do it very well. Research done through the UMC Vital Congregations Research Project shows that multiple worship styles have a positive correlation ONLY in congregations that worship 350+ — this accounts for about 5% of all UMC congregations (click the link and go to p. 39 for the data).
In other words, most churches are better off choosing one style and doing it very well.
Programs offer another conundrum. On the one hand, you need to offer basic formative programs for children, youth, and adults. On the other hand, you can find yourself trying to be the Wal-Mart of churches by offering something unique on every aisle for the average person to choose from. When is enough enough? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: maybe we should think of our programs more as a means to form people as disciples of Jesus, and less as a means to attract outsiders. Ministries are not advertisements or commercials — they are faithful ways we seek to serve others and be formed as disciples. People may well be attracted to faithful ministry. But the purpose of ministry is not primarily to attract.
Jon Taffer is the host of Bar Rescue on SpikeTV. It’s a show about turning downtrodden bars around into profit-making businesses. I personally think it has a lot to say about how we approach doing church as well. In one particular episode, Taffer goes in to help a bar that specializes in offering a little something for everyone. This bar is a hodge-podge mess of a business with no real identity because it wants to be something for everyone and ends up not doing anything well. Taffer makes a profound statement during the episode when talking to the bar owner. He says: “Bars can’t be something to everyone, they need to be everything to someone.”
So your church doesn’t offer something for everyone — you’re in good company. How about we try harder being everything to something and trust God to take care of the rest…