We share in the greatest story–the Gospel story–yet every single church denomination is losing people.

That begs the question: what’s the problem?

We share in the greatest story yet our churches shrink.

It’s not for a lack of resourcing, at least not in North America.

What could it be?

I surmise it’s the simplest answer–we can’t tell our story in a language people can understand. There was a time when most everyone connected with the Biblical narrative in some fashion. In that world you could haphazardly reinvent the church service to re-attract lapsed churchgoers.

The thing is, the tactic of creating cool services to address demographic holes doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t stop many churches from blindly trying, but there’s simply no longevity found in fly-by-night parachute church plants or special services designed to grow churches.

Packaging a service to appear ‘hip’ or ‘relevant’ doesn’t address the root problem the North American church is not capable of telling a Gospel story in a post-Christendom world.

To put in bluntly we’re, “out of touch”.

That’s not a surprise to most church leaders. However, the same church leaders who admit to being ‘out of touch’ or the same ones trying contemporary evening church services as the answer. The only thing they appear to be good at, if anything, is switching Christians from a morning service some place else. At the end of the day we’re SO out of touch our solutions to address the disconnect are still operating with a fundamental flaw.

To become better storytellers of the Gospel we firstly require a fundamental paradigm shift in our understanding of mission.

We lack an honest introspective look at how our churches approach the very concept of mission. The very essence of the church and its function as part of God’s mission is a foundational paradigm that must define our churches. Before asking the question of how we do a new service or church plant, we need to change the reason WHY we embark on these ventures.

During my brief six years church planting I have seen nearly a dozen church plants in relatively close proximity to my neighborhood close. One thing is consistent: the church plants that had nobody living in the neighborhood they gathered in, or those that quickly moved into the neighborhood and held a service for commuters, closed within two years. I’ve noticed starting a new church completely outside of cultural or neighborhood context is inextricably tied to quick failure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan for new church services or church plants, there’s always room, but we don’t seem to be interested in longevity. There is a level of hubris in many new endeavours, which is tied to a notion stuck in Christendom that denominational sandboxes need to be protected and particular doctrine needs to be propagated.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, nobody outside of the church cares.

So where can we go from here? How can we address the decline and increase the longevity of new endeavours? Here are some core ideas to consider before church planting or having a church service outside of your cultural context.

  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Not with yourself, but with the other churches in your neighborhood. Not all will share an identity of collaboration, but you will find allies. Also, if you have interest in the injustices/inequalities in your neighborhood, look for players already on the grown connected to non-profits and the city. Collaborate.
  • Start with people, not with service. A paradigm that a church plant begins with a service lends too much emphasis on the institutional ‘thing’ of the church, and less on the core foundation–its people. Even doing ‘neighborhood analysis’ for a month or two before having a new service in a ‘target area’ is not genuine investment. The formal gathering of the people should happen after the discipleship of the people.
  • Send out teams of leaders/innovators along with different gift mixes. Sending out the single one lead pastor to go and start a new church or lead a new service merely further emphasizes the divide of mission suggesting there are some functions on professionals can do.
  • Finally, back to the neighborhood, LIVE in your target area. This is particularly crucial in church plants. If you, and the bulk of your community, do NOT live in your neighborhood you will either fail or sit stuck for a very long time (and movement state will be nearly impossible to achieve).

The final point on where you live is crucial because everything boils down to the this: our story emphasizes the embodied experience found in presence over a once a week show and tell service. Embodied language is incarnate language which means our participation in any ministry, new church, new service, whatever, must include embodied proximity to the people and places we serve.

This is a serious challenge to commuter church experiences and services built around attraction. IF, and that’s a big if, there is genuine passion to serve a particular place and its people, then incarnate presence is the unequivocal necessity for longevity. Without, you will struggle considerably to connect with the world outside of the service walls and wind up like all the rest–closed.