New Churches, Global Movements and the U.S.A.

February 5, 2012

McDonald's: Billions Served

The American way: Make a reproducible franchise

Two of my friends made an unexpected connection online. Their dialog stirred thoughts in me that had fallen dormant… What does it take to start new churches in the U.S.? What’s the connection between new churches and evangelism? Is anyone reaching post-Christian America? What should Kay & I do (if anything)?

Andrew Jones (a.k.a. tallskinnykiwi) wrote a Leadership Journal post, 9 Reasons NOT to Plant a Church in 2012.
My former pastor Dave Jacobs replied with My Patellar Reflex to Andrew Jones’ “9 reasons NOT to plant churches.”
This could be interesting, I thought…

New churches: He says / he says

Andrew Jones

Andrew "tallskinnykiwi"

Andrew starts by quoting C. Peter Wagner, the godfather of Church Growth. “Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism under heaven.” But Andrew is observing a shift away from starting new churches and toward “a wider range of transforming Kingdom activities.”

Dave Jacobs

Dave "Small Church Pastor"

Dave points out that most of Andrew’s examples come from outside the U.S.A. He infers a connection to house churches, in particular “the missional-house-church movement.” I’m not sure this is what Andrew is talking about. But Dave says that comparing house church movements in other countries to the United States “is often a matter of apples and oranges.”

(By the way, you’ve never seen two people disagreeing with more humility, openness and respect. You guys rock.)

Global examples: It doesn’t work here. Or does it?

From the Korean cell church model to Chinese house churches, people have tried to import these patterns to start new churches in the United States. I’ve been there, done that, and now see two problems:


Icon of Colonel Sanders

1. Americans love models! It doesn’t matter how organic and Spirit-filled it is overseas. We want to reduce it to reproducible systems, much like fast-food franchises. If you open a new McDonald’s or a new Baskin Robbins, you go to training classes to learn how to follow their pre-established systems. The “cell church model.” The “house church model.”

I’ve certainly been guilty of this wish. But now I feel drawn back to my first love: Jesus. When we look at thriving churches and movements, including those within the U.S., we forget how they got there in the first place:

  • Prayer.
  • Shaping our lives towards that of Christ.
  • Dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
  • Hospitality.
  • Serving the marginalized.
  • Expecting God to speak and move.

If we really want to copy successful churches, we can’t copy where they’ve ended up. We instead need to copy how they started.

2. We haven’t reckoned with the uniqueness of the American spirit. “It works there, why doesn’t it work here?” Because we haven’t done the missionary homework of exegeting the culture — that is, interpreting the context. This isn’t Korea or China. That much seems obvious, but only in retrospect. We honestly thought the Korean cell-church model would take off here.

What a lot of people miss is that this isn’t the Christianized America of their memories. This is postmodern, post-Christian America. Cyber-connected but relationally starved. An individualistic consumer society seeking instant gratification.

Enter missiologist Alan Hirsch who teaches us to ask, “What will sound like good news for these people?”

To be continued… [This is part of Starting New Churches: Is Our Focus Misplaced?]

Photos by Keoni Cabral (license) and Thomas Hawk (license)

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

13 responses to New Churches, Global Movements and the U.S.A.

  1. well i hope i am not guilty of reverse-colonialism, or trying to export something very foreign to American shores.

    but thanks for the mention and linking to this interesting conversation (which made the Lausanne Movement email last week)

    First of all, the examples I gave were not house church or cell church – both of which can be just as attractional in nature as traditional church

    Secondly, . . . actually there is no secondly.

    What I did observe, and wrote about in my series of posts, is that the weekly worship service, which has come to characterize church in many countries, esp. USA, is curiously and strategically absent from working models of movements overseas and in some cases across USA as well. The worship service can sometimes consume more than it contributes and new movements are tending to avoid them and invest their energy in other Kingdom activities that produce more and better fruit.

    That might be a different argument than the one you started here

    btw, my father met Colonel Sanders in teh 1970’s.

    • Hi Andrew! No, any reverse-colonialism is actually from my experience.

      Does the Lausanne email include Dave’s patellar questions, or do you mean conversation in the larger sense?

      As far as the worship service energy vortex… hey! No fair! That’s actually where I’m headed in coming posts.

      If you’re ever in the area again, I’d sure enjoy chatting about this tough soil called Silicon Valley.

  2. “If we really want to copy successful churches, we can’t copy where they’ve ended up. We instead need to copy how [they] started.”
    Excellent thought. AND, when we copy how they started, we need to be open to the possibility that ours will not end up as a copy of theirs. God just might do something a little different, ya know?!?

    • Great point, Martha! Thanks for adding that!

    • Whoops, thanks for catching my typo, Martha. 😛

      And I really like your bonus thought. You & I could even start in the same neighborhood, but end up with completely different churches. And that could be part of God’s plan to “be all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some.”

  3. Thanks again, Jon for your always insightful thoughts. I love your observations that we Americans love a model, and that we forget to recognise that we are immearuably different in nature. So true…We are so used to fast answers, fast results, and uniform products that we forget that things of the Kingdom of God can’t be pigeon-holed into easy to replicate recipes for success.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Modernism still has strong hooks in Christian thinking, as you describe. If post-modern cynicism can be overcome (or at least balanced), there’s hope in the post-modern recognition that life just isn’t that simple. Complex things are grown, not programmed. And any living thing (including the Body of Christ) is complex.

  4. “If we really want to copy successful churches, we can’t copy where they’ve ended up. We instead need to copy how they started.”

    That’s an excellent observation, Jon. Thanks for that.

  5. Linda L Lanning February 7, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I’m so glad to hear someone mention “relationally starved”. It seems to me that this is out primary problem in our present culture. I have been seeing too many people dying in the church (and not just spiritually & emotionally) from the lack nurturing relationships. We are crippled in becoming the body of Christ by our inability to form real communities with real and deep relationships.

    It seems to me that the fact that we don’t insist that our leaders have emotional maturity BEFORE they start leading is the underlying problem. I mean, the gifts are great, but, if I understand I Cor. 13 correctly, they need to exercised in love for the purpose of building up of the body before they have any true meaning. A person who hasn’t at least passed the Child level of maturity will only seek to have their own needs met and ends up trying to make their church serve them.

    • Hi Linda!!

      You raise an important point regarding lack of relationships in church. Curiously, though I was using “relationally starved” to refer to the culture at large as a contrast to “social networking,” the normal people (a.k.a. non-Christians) I know have tighter, stronger relational networks than most people in churches.

      • Exactly! Your average neighborhood bar is much friendlier and more relational than most churches AND everyone is welcome to come just as they are. Why would they want to “come to church” when we have less to offer them than they already have. If we truly love a relational God, how can we continue to be so ensnared by our culture? And if we are the body of Christ, why do we act like we don’t really need one another. When we start to become more Christian than American and develop the deep intimate interpersonal relationships that should characterize the church (“Love one another as I have loved you” ….) then we will see the lost drawn to Jesus. Until then, we aren’t being light OR salt.

        • Perhaps we ought to stop planting churches, and start hanging out in bars. And game nights. And neighborhood potlucks. Then maybe we’ll see the real Jesus in action. The Kevin Prosch song “Harp in My Heart” comes to mind:

          Yes I wish you would put the words in my mouth, God
          To tell the world what you’re really like
          Not some dead god who lives in some building
          But a Father of kindness, a Son of forgiveness
          A Spirit who helps me, that’s who you are
          That’s who you are, that’s who you are!