Neo-evangelical churches (my phrase) are not likely contributing to the growth of church attendance, but are actually “re-cycling” those who find their traditional Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Alliance or ______ church not “working” for them.
Bring it on “Harvest Fellowship”, “The Meeting House”, “Elevation Church”, and the like, but please remember something and walk humbly. You must not fool yourselves into thinking your church is some new and special “move of God” and that you are re-claiming and re-booting Christianity while saving it from cultural irrelevancy. Humility is a virtue and needs to be remembered most when success seems the outcome of our endeavours.
Neo-evangelical church Pastors and their Elders and Boards must stop and acknowledge that professional and “cool” worship music, engaging & entertaining Pastors/speakers, inviting facilities, good children’s programs, great coffee, and a casual vibe and dress align with the same underlying trends that cause the growth of other non-church enterprises as well. Is it a coincidence that the “vibe” and demographics of growing companies like Apple or Starbucks appear closely co-incident with these sorts of churches that are growing? [ If this sounds like a rather crass and mechanical criticism please bear with me as I am speaking out of 35 years as an active evangelical, and 35 years in the economics/commerce/business world.]
Is it just possible that there is nothing powerfully mysterious going on that cannot be duplicated by any congregation or seen at work at your average successful retailer or coffee shop. Before you accuse me of being unfair in comparing what you are doing to commercial enterprises, please don’t take me to be so naive as to not understand the different missions – one eternal and one temporal, but please don’t imagine that growth attendance can be de-coupled from these very temporal actions that I would argue also associate Christianity too much with a particular expression of culture (ironically while almost all of these churches have Pastors who sprinkle their sermons with the word “countercultural”. How convenient! I understand that the Church of Jesus Christ is not such a human enterprise, but we also cannot be so thick-headed as to not see the point being made here.
Many of these churches have re-oriented how they “project” to our culture and have used the same tactical considerations that, like it or not, any other retailer or commercial enterprise uses. Let’s be cool. Know our audience. Relevant. Open. Remove barriers. This amounts to nothing more than a re-branding exercise, and as an evangelical, I am beginning to find the disingenuous way these folks resist this accurate description a further sign of the correctness of the basic criticism. If they remember this, perhaps they will stop kidding themselves that somehow they have stumbled onto the “True Jesus” while the poor Baptist church down the street is stuck on the wrong Jesus simply because they are losing members to them. Indeed – it must be the “True Jesus” we preach since our churches are growing and this is the move of God. Wrong. Oh, how wrong.
Mimicry as flattery…
Sadly, even now these more mainline evangelical churches are starting to mimic the very same tactics. Visiting one of the largest evangelical Baptist churches in the Toronto area recently revealed that the music now sounds the same (endless repetition of mindless lyrics essentially saying, “Jesus, I worship you for caring about mainly me and making me the centre of your life”). The Pastor is also dressing like the Pastors we see at these neo-evangelical churches, and in some cases, these traditional churches are now removing crosses and Christian imagery, etc. What have we wrought? While our members have a knowledge of Christianity that is about a mile wide, but half an inch deep, we seem more concerned with putting “lipstick on a pig” than addressing the appalling lack of Christian education and the churches’ ability to articulate with grace what we believe, and why we even exist today. Am I arguing that any given tactic is in and of itself bad – indeed not. Please don’t imagine you weaken my observation by pointing this out. Rather – my goal is simply to remind you not to associate the visible success measured by attendance and budgets with anything spiritual at all. Relevancy is not a sin. But confusing what is essentially a set of re-branding tactics that naturally result in growth with the work of the Spirit of God might be…don’t we think?
Humility and modesty in assessing what you are doing…
There are also good factual reasons for these churches to remain fully humble. Very often in these churches, the “membership” may be a mile wide and be growing, but the commitment of the majority to the passing along of the apostolic faith is still very limited. Studies of average giving and attendance and volunteering (and other measures of engagement) in these neo-evangelical churches shows no apparent difference with the traditional mainline evangelical Baptist/Alliance/Lutheran/Pentecostal/etc. churches from which they have re-cycled their attendees.
These churches need to be warned to not believe their own press. They also need to remember that should their “gifted and charismatic” Pastor resign or should they de-invest in all the other conveniences they will likely suffer the very same fate and lose members to the next neo-evangelical church and the next “gifted Pastor”.
Do we really need more of these micro-movements or is Protestant Christianity just too enamoured with its own sense of freedom to consider whether they may actually be moving people off the Christian Ship to a smaller lifeboat while the entire enterprise, organisationally, sinks deeper in the waves? I am not going to double-click on that thought further, but am calling those of my friends and colleagues who are so convinced that these new churches represent some sort of “new move” of God to be very, very careful indeed.
I do indeed hope I am materially wrong about this observation and do not write this to be mean-spirited. I offer it in the hope that it will lead to some more humility and self-reflection.
Novelty, in our churches today is being rewarded. Something is wrong. Dear God, help us.