The “spiritual but not religious” category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian.”
So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script.
One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service.
“For us, it’s all about being interactive,” said Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.
So meh on the dressing up in a rabbit suit (which is not really any less Biblical than dressing up in a business suit) but kudos on the focus on interaction rather than observation. The second page has some decent insights....
Today, younger pastors are less willing to try to finance multimillion-dollar churches with debt. After the recession, there was a surge in church foreclosures, reaching record highs in 2010 and 2011. Since 2008, more than 300 church properties have been sold after defaulting on their loans, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate information firm.
“Every generation wants their own thing,” said Houston Clark, whose company designs spaces and audiovisual systems for churches nationwide. “Kids in their late 20s to midteens now, they really crave intimacy and authenticity. They want high-quality experiences, but don’t necessarily want them in huge voluminous buildings.”
Five years ago, Mr. Clark said, 90 percent of his business was installing expensive lighting and sound systems for megachurches that could hold up to 5,000. But today, 70 percent of his business is working on existing buildings, like warehouses, to renovate the interiors as multipurpose spaces for churches to operate.
It is a trend that even established megachurches, like Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Tex., are studying. After paying off $5 million in debt on its 135,000-square-foot facility last year, the church is again seeking to expand. But instead of building another huge campus, church officials are looking at smaller satellite spaces that can operate seven days a week, with services like child care, shared office spaces and a community theater.
“That’s a significant difference for us,” said Paul Miller, the pastor of ministries for Bent Tree. “We’re really building a community center, more than we are a worship center.”
Good thoughts there and I am glad to see more younger pastors eschewing the notion that a huge mortgage on a building is a sign of godliness. As groups of Christians expand they don't need to build giant satellite campuses or ever larger buildings, indeed as the economy stumbles along and our Washington overlords keep burying us in debt the church will not be in a position to keep "spending as worship" in the future.
So the article was a little silly and off the mark, nothing less than you would expect from the New York Times trying to speak to an issue it simply doesn't understand. Sure some of this is a bit over the top, nothing like subtly trying to show how "relevant" you are by naming your church "Relevant Church". No big deal. Of course this sort of conversation is terrible threatening to the self-appointed (anointed?) powers that be. Not surprisingly the article has been a source of ridicule and in one such attempt at mockery I read a subsequent comment from someone named Kevin (full name redacted) on Facebook.
That made my eyes bleed. The number of things wrong with the idea of "worshiping in spirit and truth" equaling "sitting in comfort and safety in a pew watching a religious performance" are myriad. They are also pretty common. However I doubt many people who read that comment would see a thing wrong with it. The gathering of the church is where we go and we don't want to be interrupted while we are "worshiping", whether by messy people or often by our own messy children. Anyway, the reaction to this NY Times article is often a clumsy but predictable appeal to "Biblical leadership", defined as a strong, hierarchical sort of worldly leadership focused on a pastor who "preaches Biblically". That is what has gotten us where we are, not leaders trying to think outside of the religious box, and yet so many "leaders" in the church keep prescribing the same medicine that has gotten us sick in the first place.
Appeals to the cult of personality model where people are drawn to "church" based on a powerful individual, whether that individual is Rick Warren or John Piper or D. James Kennedy or Joel Osteen, are great for packing the pews and filling the coffers (and selling books). On preparing the church for ministry, not so much. As Alan Knox points out in a post this morning, Remembering the Importance of Mutual Edification, the primary purpose for the church gathering in whatever setting that might be is mutual edification, which I define as preparing one for the work of ministry outside of the gathering, rather than a misguided notion of what constitutes "worship". To put it more bluntly if you gather with the church and are not actively being edified and equipped in a way that prepares you for the work of ministry you are wasting your time and should find something else to do on Sunday. There are too many Christians who spend year after year "going to church" on Sunday and coming not even marginally more prepared or willing to minister to the lost in spite of decades of ever more churching.
Rather than ridiculing those who are trying to reach the lost in ways that seem odd to our traditional ideas maybe we should see if those methods are effective in reaching those we are called to minister to and take the Gospel to. This sort of criticism of those who try to operate outside of the bounds of religious tradition are not new, they were even directed at our Lord:
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:29-32)
Who does that Jesus guy think He is, hanging around with sinners! Doesn't He know that proper religious folks stay far away from sinners and lepers and women and children? I certainly am not suggesting that a pastor dressed in a rabbit suit is the same thing as Jesus eating with tax collectors but the point is that the religious establishment sees any threat to their power, prestige and pocketbook as something to be squashed. As the church our calling is to be a radical, subversive counter-witness to the prevailing religious establishment of the day rather than a willing partner indistinguishable from the religious establishment. That might mean, in fact I am convinced it must mean, that we operate outside of our traditional boundaries because the people we are called to reach simply are not found in our cozy religious cocoon. We have allegedly constructed these religious boundaries to protect "the truth" but instead we have created a hedge to keep out those who need to hear that truth. I have been in far too many gatherings where "outsiders" feel uncomfortable and that is not their fault. It is ours and it needs to change. If we aren't sharing the Gospel we are guilty of hiding it. None of us should desire to explain how we hid the light of the Gospel under a basket or buried the talent to our Lord.