The collective footprint of the Church (capital C) in America is shrinking in terms of:
We have more huge churches than ever before. Church planting organizations are launching new churches as quickly as they can. Yet the “pie” isn’t increasing in size. The percentage of Americans regularly attending and joining churches is in decline. Mainline denominations are seeing record numbers of church closures and pastors walking away from the pulpit. There are enough “Dones” (with church) to warrant a label for the movement.
How do we reconcile the onset of the megachurch movement with a smaller overall footprint for the Church in our nation? Is centralizing into a few large churches where we’re heading? Is that a good thing? Is absorbing members from smaller churches into larger ones that can offer more programs and amenities expanding the Kingdom or contracting it? Those questions aren’t dissimilar to asking whether Walmart setting up shop in a small town and putting many “mom and pops” out of business is good for its residents.
The answers to those questions will hopefully lead us to the path to expanding the Church’s footprint.
How is the Church’s “Footprint” Determined?
…Not by the Number of Churches
We can’t plant churches fast enough to atone for a flawed model. Any organization that defines the wrong “customer” puts its future in jeopardy. As we’ve discussed throughout this blog series, the “root cause” for the Church’s decline today is the radical shift that took place over the past few decades:
- Churches no longer view the lost in the community as their “customer” – the target audience where they should invest the bulk of their energy and dollars.
- When churches were the food bank and homeless shelter during their first 1900 years, they plowed as much as half their income back into the community. Today that number stands at an average of less than 2%, with many churches allocating no budget to local missions.
- Churches no longer rigorously prepare members to BE the church, training them like “employees” to pursue the real “customer”. Instead, they worry that some may not come back next Sunday, threatening the church’s survival or growth plans.
Ignoring the intended customer is a losing proposition for any organization. It’s like trying to sell more widgets when you’re losing money on each one. As they say, you can’t “make it up on volume”. If each new church is unwilling to upset the apple cart and risk challenging members to pursue and serve the real “customer” – then we can’t “make it up on volume”. Each new (internally-focused) church will only perpetuate the prevailing view that the church cares more for itself and for its own than for those outside the “4 walls”.
…Not by the Size of a Church
A church may be enormous, yet occupy a very small footprint. In other words, it may grow vertically but not horizontally, much like skyscrapers that:
- are tall, but take up very little ground – they go up, not out
- gather a lot of people together into a confined space
- house those whose goal is to help their organizations grow
- provide a nice office environment, far removed from the dirt and poverty just outside the ground floor
- try to attract tenants and keep them as long as they can
- measure success by the size of the building and number of occupants
- block the view of neighboring buildings and scenery
The key consideration when measuring a church’s footprint is whether it’s “taking ground” – not its member rolls, budget or square footage. A large church that has defined the wrong “customer” and therefore doesn’t transform and release won’t take much ground even if it plants new churches. Each new campus simply replicates the same misguided “skyscraper” model. Crowding more churchgoers into a single institution that doesn’t effectively build and send disciples further contracts the overall footprint of the Church.
…Not by the Physical Space of all Church Buildings
Think of the vast physical space represented by all of America’s churches. Historically, those buildings were utilized all week long to provide services, education and shelter to the community. Now, hundreds of thousands of church buildings sit nearly empty Monday through Saturday. A company measures its footprint by how its branch offices are utilized throughout the week to serve its target customers. Churches only fully leverage their buildings for 3 to 4 hours each week and do so for the wrong “customers” – even shortening service times to further “cater” to those members. Instead, churches should be maximizing the productivity of their physical space all week – providing programs for the real “customer” and conducting discipleship classes to equip members to expand the church’s footprint between Sundays. Yet, we see too many churches ask only that members invite friends to come to the church building for that one hour next Sunday.
…It’s the People
The footprint of a church is the cumulative impact for the Kingdom of the members who make up the church. It’s how much ground they collectively cover for the Lord as they live out their lives among their spheres of influence. A churchgoer isn’t occupying much space for Christ if they rarely share their faith or serve others in His name.
In fact, Jesus intentionally scared everyone off whenever He was on the verge of becoming a megachurch pastor. He “preached it down” or disappeared to go pray each time He built a huge following. Jesus thought the best strategy to take ground was to build a few disciples. He chose to narrow His following down to the real Powerful (vs. pensive, private, passive) few. He didn’t worry about hanging on to anyone. Jesus felt a small number of highly effective disciples would cover much more ground than a slew of casual followers.
It’s Your Turn
Are there enough pastors willing to disclose all the costs of discipleship and ask churchgoers to endure everything that becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ entails, knowing many will never return again?