It seems to me that the mental models of churches fall roughly into two sets of aspirations:
- “My Church”. “My Church” is the church that fits us perfectly. It is sweet and small and everybody knows me by name. It’s “my” community, “my” house of prayer, these are “my” people. We are not selfish with “My Church” indeed most of us are more than willing to have others come and be part of it…as long as it remains “My Church”. My Church is quaint, peculiar and dated, it is hard to ever feel at home unless you already happen to be from there. For those who do, it is long on community, love and belonging. It offers tradition, stability and security comforting and confirming the experience of life of those on the inside. It is filled with my favorite songs and traditions and ways of being church that fill “MY” heart and move my soul. But it is so uniquely particular to the people who are part of it, that most of the time they don’t even notice that it is mostly ignored, mostly irrelevant and offers little to anyone outside of “me and mine.” “My Church” is a lot like my friends’ family cabin. It’s cozy, it’s a bit in disrepair but it is filled with memories. The furniture is old and awkward, the wallpaper is so dated as to inspire comment, the walls have “art” and artifacts that are sacrosanct because they were put there by someone beloved and long gone. The appliances are relics but since they are not used that often are mostly fine for the task. It’s not exactly the kind of place anyone else would care for, but for my friend and his family it is indeed “My Place”. My Church is the same. It’s loved because it is mine. It may not fit anyone else, but really what matters to me is that it fits me.
- The second mental model of church is “Mega Church”. Mega church is the church that aspires to fit the masses. While inspired by churches that are genuinely big in size, “Mega Church” is mostly now an aspiration, a model, a way of doing church regardless of size. “Mega Church” is less about what fits me, as what would fit the most people most of the time in the most convenient way. It is “user-friendly” or “purpose-driven” or “consumer-oriented”. It is hip, up-to-date, and continually being remodeled to fit the demands of demanding customers. It is not exactly a place to be “at home” but more a place to “find what I am looking for”. It mostly fits those who run the place, but in their anxiety to make sure it stays up to date it is in constant threat of pandering to whomever passes by. “Mega Church” is more like a “mall” then a cabin, it is a big community gathering place where people come to get what they want. Mega Church is not loved because it’s filled with memories, but because it is filled with energy. It may not fit me, it may not really fit anyone perfectly, but it offers something for everyone (if only we can get them to “buy” into it.”
So, which church do you go to “My Church” or “Mega Church”?
They are pretty different in the appearances they present and the experiences they offer. Like all human institutions (no matter how divinely inspired and dutifully tended they have been) they both have attributes to commend them and they both have obvious shortcomings worthy of criticism.
For all their differences, they both have at least two things in common:
1. Neither has the corner on a “biblical” (or “historical” or even “missional”) model.
2. And both are dying.
We all know that “My Church” is in decline, it has been for a while. Most of us who go to “My Church” have made an uneasy truce with the reality that this place really only fits me and my own, and when we are gone, it will be to. Most of us who are members of “Mega Church” are less convinced. We see the numbers of people and the energy pulsating from the next BIG event and assume that this model of church will be here for the next 500 years. But it won’t. Consumers are leaving “Mega Church” for a new hybrid version of both “My Church” and “Mega Church” called “No Church-except-My-Own-Do-it-Yourself Spirituality” (called the “Nones”, it the fastest growing church affiliation in America, often called “Spiritual But Not Religious”).
For the past two decades or so, the tussle of these mental models has basically been around this assumption: To be relevant and to survive, “My Church” has to become more like “Mega Church”, but to endure and go deeper than the whims of a consumer culture, “Mega Church” has to become like “My Church”. But what about a completely different model, a model that is as unique as each person and culture and as universal as life itself. A model that offers both a sense of identity and belonging (for that is its true purpose) and a model that also continues to grow, change and adapt, for that very ability is in its “DNA”.
Let me suggest a model from a most unlikely source; a model born out of the barrenness and emptiness, yearning and surprise that comes only when someone gets to the end of their abilities and finds themselves unexpectedly expecting. It is a model with a “matron saint” (rather than a “patron saint”) and it is as unlikely to become a reality as Elizabeth was in Luke chapter 1.
But the best thing about this model for church is that whether you go to “My Church” or “Mega Church” this model is actually pretty naturally, available for you and your church to consider:
It’s Mother Church.
Mother church doesn’t exist to comfort “Me and Mine” nor does it exist to attract “Everyone”, it exists to both BE something in itself and Do something beyond itself. It is a church that exists to BE generative and to give birth. It is a church that’s purpose is to reproduce, to bring into the world the unexpected thing that God is already doing.
Next Post: Elizabeth, Advent and A Church of Impossible Things.