Five P’s of Church Life or Death
In 1995, after forty days of prayer and fasting, Mark Jobe felt led by God to pray for a church that would include one per cent of the city – which in Chicago means 30,000 people. This was long before multisite became fashionable but Mark and his team began to dream about what that kind of church might look like and imagined one church with many congregations across the city. Today New Life has nineteen ‘locations’ with thirty-four services and 5,000 attending, with plans for more than fifty locations by 2020. They are in wealthy neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods. Their congregations are made up of Anglo, Hispanic, African American, and every other ethnic group found in the city. They are caring for the poor and helping rebuild broken lives. New Life is an impressive church.
That is a great story in and of itself, but the thing that has most caught my attention about New Life is their track record of ‘re-starts’ – moving into an existing church building, breathing new life into it, and seeing it flourish again. I met Chuck, a New Life legend. Chuck is 84 years old, has been at his church since he was a young man, and his church practically built the neighbourhood, with Chuck leading the charge. But the church had declined until there were only twenty elderly people left. Chuck and his friends invited New Life to re-start them, and now there is a thriving congregation again, with Chuck as cheerleader in chief! (You can see more of the story here.)
There are many reasons why once-flourishing churches decline. Shifting demographics and ethnicity can play a large part – certainly in a city like Chicago. But often decline is the result of some apparently innocent (even positive) decisions that are made while a church is still healthy.
We all have our personal preferences as to how things should be done in our churches. These preferences tend to settle around secondary things like style of worship, or décor. Maybe when those preferences are first expressed the worship style and décor are a perfect fit for the local community, but over time things change, and without further contextualisation those preferences can become a hindrance to the church’s mission.
The thing is, preferences – how we like things to be done – quickly become principles – how we think things ought to be done. Once a principle is firmly in place (“We ought to have banners on the wall to express our values. We are a family so we ought to allow anyone who can play an instrument to play in the worship band.”) it will become a precept – how things have to be done. And once a precept is in place it is inevitable that the practices and programs of the church – how we actually do things – will get set in stone. By this stage, a church has developed a paradigm – the only way it can imagine things being done; and, sadly, when the paradigm is determined by secondary things, it is the beginning of the end.
I actually do believe that churches need preferences, principles, precepts, programs and paradigms – but that each of these should be framed by the primary thing: Mission.
A resolute preference for mission will keep a church from allowing anything to become a principle or precept or program that does not keep the church moving forward in mission. When a paradigm of mission develops it becomes almost impossible for other sacred cows to establish themselves in the heart of a church. Preferences, principles, precepts, programs and paradigms that are framed by mission enable a church to keep moving forward, rather than move into decline. It allows questions to be asked of the secondary things, and for change to take place. Without change, churches die.
It is beautiful to see the way in which New Life has shifted a number of congregations from decline to health by a preference for mission. It is inspiring to witness. But it is not just Chicago that needs churches like this. Every town and city does.
I want my church to be like it. God keep us from preferences that keep us from mission. God grace us with vision to develop paradigms that lead to health, not death.