RIP the Church Building

I woke up with a ton of thoughts in this area, and wanted to try and capture some of them.

1. I think there is a big split coming in the way most folks will experience church. and I think the two ways will become increasingly dissimilar.

Thats my premise.

By that I mean, that the small 100 person small town church, and the 200-400 person suburban church will go the way of the downtown church has for most locations, abandoned or lightly used historical markers, kept around mainly because the historic committee says you cant tear it down.

I think the choice increasingly will become, get really big, OR get really small.

Path 1: Get Big.

The really big I think will be a continuation of the current mega church trends, and will accelerate as the 2008 led giving collapse continues to gather smaller and less “efficient” churches in its wake.

I think the animating features of this branch are the following.

1. there are too many pulpits and not enough really talented preachers. Less people have been called, and the standards for quality have been going up. Higher relevance, higher production values of the presentation, and more sophisticated, multimedia and promotional support for the message. Someone “mailing it in” with a Sermon they delivered 5 years ago, or wrote the hour before service never really cut it, but it is so much more apparent if you have been to other churches the week before. 

2. The average person is engaged and wants to be engaged as a consumer of content and media. That’s not a church creation, but there are some styles of worship and presentation that cater to that better. And those styles are typically expensive to produce and require scale to have any chance of not going financially bankrupt.

3. The average parent deciding where to point the car on sunday morning wants and outcome of “good behavior” from religious education instead of a production of a disciple and all consuming commitment to follow Christ.

I like to think about it like this. The average gas station 40 years ago had probably 2 pumps. 20 years ago, maybe 4 maybe 6 pumps. If you build a new gas station today you have 20 or 30 pumps. and the main driver is that it is more efficient to have 1 clerk serving 30 customers at a time, than it is to have one clerk serving 2 customers at a time. We can observe the same “get bigger” trend in grocery stores, car dealerships and any number of other industries.

If you have a small church you cannot be as efficient with your resources as you can be with a large church.  

What happens to the older smaller churches? I think they will have to get more efficient. In the old days they used to have circuit riding ministers. Now we will have closed circuit riding ministers. I think that we will see a number of satellite church plants take over the aging infrastructure of mainline churches, very slowly at first, and increasing rapidly as the builder generation leaves the maintenance to their next generation.

Path 2: Get Small.

This is more interesting mentally to try to picture. In a lot of ways it is a really old approach to ministry. Small meeting with little technology, breaking bread together and doing life.

But the earnest return to this model I think is just now getting to the “right place right time” period. I have seen some churches do this for their sunday school and small groups without a formal building space for such meetings. I have also seen the emergence of the “I am Second” movement which seems to lean heavily on this approach for meeting.

But these I see as initial shoots that will over the next few years find one or two get the recipe right and really take off.

I think the driving forces that are leading this way are the following:

1. People need people, and you cannot get to “being known” without a lot of face time with people around you caring about and working with you.

2. The 3rd information age allows for great resources and teaching to be duplicated much more easily.

3. The increasingly archaic feeling of the traditional church and the increasingly theatrical production values of the Largest churches leaves a large “divine connection gap” for most people

4. Putting everyone into mission & leadership. I think that if you want everyone to participate in the mission and actions of the church, then you almost entirely defeat that purpose by having a large building and professionals responsible for each area. It creates a crowd of people watching the leaders waiting for their cue, instead of a community of leaders that take action independently and automatically.

5. They are inherently viral. Mainly because of number 4. In a social connected world and viral church model that “fits in the communication channels” will have to evolve at some point.

Can the Church return to its viral roots? I think so. Can the current social media technologies preserve enough of the complexity of the story to have it remain meaningful upon retranslation? It will have to, but it is fuzzy to see how exactly that multi threaded complex narrative will be told in the new tools. 

Conclusion (at least so far)

I would have argued one over the other maybe this time last year, but I think the evidence would suggest that both are going to get stronger, and not at the expense of one another. I would further suspect that at some point in the nearish future (10 years-20 years?) that the two will become so differentiated that folks will not be able to cross over from one to the other.

But either way, the church building that I grew up in, is in for a rough 10-20 years while this plays out.