I’ve been thinking through what it means to be church, what size is appropriate, and what forms are most useful for particular peoples.  This came in part from a lecture by David Garrison on Church Planting Movements, where an essential form of church can be constructed and rapidly reproduced (sometimes several generations a week).  The following weekend, Rabbi Sam Nadler, President of Word of Messiah Ministries, came to give training on planting a Messianic congregation.  Christmas eve, I an Episcopal midnight mass.  Neither of these models match what I see in my current congregation of 2700.*  Even the home congregation’s Christmas eve vespers service was atypical of them.

While shopping this week, I picked up Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship.  Since it was Kimball and on the topic “emerging” I knew it would be different from my current experience.  I’ve only skimmed the book, but here’s what’s already working minmy brain:  What is the difference between big box church and what can be reproduced in smaller churches with very little budget?

By Big Box, I mean the megachurches that do everything, especially those that do everything for the attender.  There are some very large congregations that act like nimble smaller churches. 

For example, Central Christian Church (Henderson, NV) is quite large – the 3000-seat auditorium is filled 3 of its 5 services, and nearly so for the other 2.  They have 2 satellite campuses, and one of those has multiple services.  Yet they seem to spawn ministry easily to match needs.  They use ordinary people int he congregation to spawn new acts of service and study.

But more common is the auditorium church, with Disneyland parking lots to hold the thousands that come to their arena seats and watch the jumbotron of half a dozen professional singers and a well-paid preacher give just enough Gospel to make them feel good.  They pay a nominal admission fee (not quite the tithe) and go home, feeling good that they’ve met their minimum weekly requirement.

Kimball likens this to taking the car to the minimart service station – get a full tank of gas & a cup of coffee, and then on your way until next week.  You’ll come in periodically for the oil change (seminar) or periodic maintenance (conference).  But that’s all the level of participation that’s required.

I’ll take that analogy one step up, to the full-service Super Big Box (WalMart, KMart, Meyers, etc.)  There’s a gas station, true, but also a restaurant, coffee bar, bank , eyewear, electronics, books, food, etc.  It’s a one-stop experience.  In the variety of churches, I’ve seen snack bars open the public, Starbucks franchises, bookstores, DiscoveryZone kids’ playspaces, music schools, etc.  I applaud these services, and have used each at least once. (The Starbucks had a dollar-a-cup self-service honor station! Would that work outside the church?)

The question I will explore in the coming days is what alternatives are available to the Bix Box, and what Big Box practices are good and reproducable.  (Let’s not discount their value simply in reaction to the excesses of a few.)

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*Note:  I’m not the pastor, but an active layman in that congregation, and a worker to strengthen other congregations.

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I just found Drew Goodmanson’s post on “Five Trends for the Future of Church Planting.”  His prediction #5 says that “More churches will be planted without the role of a preaching pastor.”

That brought me back to my musings on the nature of the church.  How big must a church be – or rather, how small can it be – and still be called a church?  What is the essential structure?  Are staff essential?

The trend in the past decade has been to send a preaching pastor out to start new churches.  He will begin with a Bible study in his living room or a cafe, and when there are half a dozen, he will form a small congregation, with himself as pastor.  Or he will simply rent space somewhere, bring in recorded music and preach for whoever shows up.  (I’ve done it that way.)

However, if you read David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements, you will join me in recognizing that in situations of exponential growth, there’s no time to hire a pastor.  Exponential church planting is where a person is trained in how to share their faith and then actually does it, winning his whole family, or a group of friends, and they agree to continue meeting together to learn about this faith.  In some situations, one or more from that group may share the newfound faith with another circle of friends, who accept the gospel and agree to begin meeting to study.  One of the examples Garrison gave us a few weeks ago was a man in Asia who did just that – started a church that started a church – before he came back to the second week of training on what to do next.

If a group of believers are gathered as a church, performing the essential functions of a church (see more here), but lack the theological training to provide one another anything more than shared ignorance, then it is perfectly fine to use recorded or broadcast sermons and teaching.  This does not, as one comment to Goodmanson’s post suggested, lead us into becoming  “less and less relational and relying more and more on technology.”   The technology is a supplement, but without the human-to-human connection in an accountable community, there is no church. (Just not a preacher.)