Friday, September 07, 2007

Guest post: Praise God from whom all economies of scale flow part 2

supermarkettrolley.jpg My post praising God from whom all economies of scale flow has caused a flurry of comment and interaction on and off-blog. Here is a guest post from a keen eyed watcher of world and church, wanting to be known simply as “the consultant”

One key issue facing Christian Church(es) in the modern environment seems to be the whole question “cooperation versus competition”. In other words, are
the different churches competing with each other, as opposed to working for
the ‘common good’. For example, if a church says that it is involved in
“church-planting” on a polytech or university campus, what does that
actually mean? Prima facie, everyone assumes this means that the church is
attracting new people, who would not otherwise be involved in a church;
(evangelising, to use the old term). However, my impression is that, in
practice, what tends to regularly happen is that the new church mainly
attracts people away from their existing churches to something that is
currently new and exciting – at least, it’s new and exciting for a few
months. You could rather bluntly, call it “congregation stealing”. The net
gain, across the overall Christian community however, may be quite small,
and instead we’ve just shifted existing people from one place to another.

Now, I don’t pretend to be able to second-guess what the intentions of any
church-planting people are, and I don’t doubt that they do this with the
best of evangelical intentions. Presumably they want to see church growth,
with something new and vibrant happening. But, I do wonder if there is a
risk of confusing our own personal church’s growth with the wider growth of
the Christian community. It’s that tendency to be somewhat myopic, seeing
what’s close to us and important to us, but not quite noticing the bigger
picture of what’s happening for others.

In a sense, denominational lines seem to have died in the late 1970s, and
since then people have often gone to whatever seems good, wherever that is.
The obvious victims of this are the older mainline churches; Anglican,
Presbyterians, Methodist etc. Call it “economies of scale”, or whatever,
the principle is that people have gone to what satisfies their needs, as
part of a consumer-like approach, rather than loyalty. Therefore the blog
“Praise God from whom all economies of scale flow” seems to be making a very
valid point .

At what point do we perhaps take the risk of saying, let’s put aside each of
our own personal interests here, and cooperatively work together? That might
mean that a new church planting group would get alongside the existing
churches, and work together on new ventures to make meaningful links with
the local student community. Or, it might mean that if we have some great
“secret” tactic that we are using to attract people, that we would share
this widely with other churches. The list goes on, if you really start to
tease out the implications of this. A person such as Steve Taylor
personally shares a lot of his own insights, strategies and tactics – and
deserves much respect for what he does in that regard – but how many others
do the same?

Perhaps a true test of whether we are focused on our own interests, or those
of the wider Christian community (and the people we are working with), would
be if we were prepared to create new links with (evangelise) people – but
then, be prepared to let those people go to other churches. I somehow
suspect that this is the approach that the “great people” of the past like
Wesley would have taken.

Looking forward to the pushback from all students and blog readers involved in church planters and those involved in student ministry.

Posted by steve at 03:37 PM


  1. Interesting thoughts here eh. Is competition rather than collaboration a legacy of our Western free market mode of operating. As a tertiary campus chaplain my role is to encourage students to find contexts of spirituality relevant to their needs. I am sponsored by a collaboration of Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and the institution itself. None expect “bums on seats” as a return for investment except maybe the education institution itself. Wellbeing of students is beneficial to the community at large. There are hopeful stories.

    Comment by helen — September 7, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

  2. helen,

    appreciate the comment and great to have your perspective. can i ask how you navigate what seems to me to be the ever increasing christian student groups arriving on campus? seems like a spirit of competition, and i often get the sense that each new group is looking down on existing groups. how do you practically work toward cooperation?


    Comment by steve — September 7, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  3. Tech is very different to uni as many students race in for classes and then do ‘community’ off campus. Two Christian groups tried recently and found recruiting too hard so they left to try the uni. What if churches celebrated their differences and helped people find spiritual communities of ‘best fit’ for each person? Maybe they could even share some of their gifted people and ideas with other groups to create more smaller units? Isnt multiplication of resources at the heart of the Christian ethos? In my own role I represent Christ and the Body as a unity of diversity (I wish eh!)

    Comment by helen — September 7, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  4. How is it that a church-planting team would not know that the latest additions to their church family are new (parallel: babies) or from another (parallel: adopted)?!? Do they not talk to them? Or are they/we too interested in gaining critical mass that we don’t care if they are disgruntled or stolen from another church-family?

    Seems to me a big factor in the “student ministries” issue is the way they (the individuals involved) see the need or non-need to have people fully plugged into a local church. Here in the U.S., most of the student group leaders I have talked to / been friends with don’t really care if people find a church family. Most of them came from the ministry itself. Worth a discussion or two (grin).

    Comment by David Malouf — September 8, 2007 @ 3:09 am

  5. Bringing change, even connecting emerging/fresh expressions of church to older congregations, often causes enormous stress and conflict. Where do we want our energies to go?

    Comment by Eleanor Burne-Jones — September 8, 2007 @ 8:29 pm

  6. Fascinating comment Eleanor. I’ve both planted and transitioned existing churches. Neither is a cake walk and both require enormous energy but in different ways and at different times.

    I would say that planting kept me the most honest. It’s easier to confuse size with health in an existing context.


    Comment by steve — September 8, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

  7. I think this is where a catholic approach to being church has strength over hetrodoxical (that’s not a word is it?)congregationalism: a big picture that balances out obsession with potentially superficial local success.

    I joined the Anglican church a number of years ago,not from a desire for either big or small, but partially from the hope that a wider perspective may encourage greater cooperation and cross-pollination (to use horticultural rather than market driven jargon) between various geographical communities. The Anglican church does suffer from decline, and it also suffers from insecure competion among its own clergy; however I am hopeful and do see developing signs that big and small can co-exist in a mutually supportive manner. The practice of re-seeding local churches does happen on occassion, and the sponsorship of experimental churches seems to be emerging.

    All in all some interesting perspectives have been coming through in the comments.

    Steve, good on yer mate for stoking the fire,

    from an “alternative country hippie” type living in exile.

    Comment by Andrew — September 9, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

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