As a planting pastor, I think a lot about the idea of “church” and how to engage our local community, not only outside of the building walls, but inside them as well. Our worship gatherings should be both attractional and missional and that’s not always an easy balance, and many churches go after this in many different ways. That’s one of the beautiful things about local churches; we can contextualize for our community without sacrificing the Gospel. A local church in rural Kentucky will not and probably should not look/feel the same as a local church in suburban Peoria, AZ. Local churches should be encouraged and equipped to develop their own “personality.” Not every church will have the same approach or “feel” and that is a good thing.
The reason I say all of this is because I think a lot, not just about church planting but church planting in a suburban context. I grew up in the suburbs and moved back to the suburbs to plant Church of the Cross (don’t ever tell God you’ll “never” do something!) Planting in the suburbs presents a lot of issues to consider. We are surrounded by strip malls and chain restaurants where people can reasonably expect a certain level of customer satisfaction. I personally think the Olive Garden is incredibly over-rated but you know what to expect and you will leave generally satisfied even though you just paid way to much for chain-restaurant food. When you go in to any Chili’s restaurant, you know what to expect.
One philosophy of suburban church planting is that we must learn to mirror the approach of the slick chain restaurants because that’s what suburbanites are used to. We must (“missionally”) provide people with a well-run, slick consistency because suburbanites have come to expect a certain level of customer service.
And yet, tucked away in nearly every version of suburbia is that little “hole in the wall” restaurant that is independently owned; it may be a little eccentric, it’s probably a little more casual than the chain restaurants and they probably put a slightly different spin on things. Many of these “mom and pop” restaurants become fixtures exactly because they’re usually a bit different than the chains. There’s a reason Chino Bandido is an Arizona fixture. The chains flourish because, in many ways, they appeal to the lowest common denominator, solid, non-challenging food that can be reproduced on a mass scale.
All of which leaves a suburban church planter with the question of whether to pursue the mass-produced, slick consumeristic model of “do everything with excellence because that’s what suburbanites expect” church planting, or the slightly unique “mom and pop” approach. It’s interesting because those in the slick mindset often say that the “authentic” church plants are sloppy and “authentically bad” while the “mom and pop, unique” church plants criticize the chain church plants for being too-slick and performance-centered.
The question is not (or at least should not) simply be one of preference. If one of (if not the) church’s goals is to make and grow disciples, we should be asking what best facilitates this process. Ed Stetzer, recently profiling Neil Cole noted that “Neil– and everything Neil shapes– is “anti-slick.” Stetzer adds:
Neil’s simple approach is not because he lacks money (although he does and you should send him some). It is because he has passion: a passion that the best way to propagate the gospel is with the idea that the church can and shoulHe does not want a quality church; he wants a transforming one. He explains, “We must lower the bar of how we do church and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” simpler and more organic– like Neil. Like Jesus. Everything Neil does (quoting him here and throughout) “is not bound by a large gathering or service we could reproduce quickly.” That’s the point– church should be simple and easy to reproduce. Normal people, with small messy offices and threadbare couches, should plant and model planting churches led by ordinary people.
As Neil Cole sees it, there is a clear distinction between focusing on “doing church with excellence” and real disciple-making. What do you think? We have worked very hard at Church of the Cross to do things well while not letting Sunday morning become a performance. Prayer is talking to God, not a time for the band to magically appear so that everything can stay on schedule. We strive very hard to create an atmosphere where people can live as family rather than attenders. This means that we will probably never be as “slick” as some other churches but that also doesn’t mean that “slicker” churches can’t make disciples, their approach just makes it more difficult because people’s consumeristic tendencies are often tickled rather than challenged.
What do you think about Cole’s assessment? Should suburbanites reasonably expect the chain restaurant experience from church? Does one model or another facilitate better discipleship opportunities? Should Sunday morning be the primary point of a local church’s life? If not, what is? Should Sunday morning being done well mean that it is a performance?