lessons from blockbuster video

I was driving through our town today and passed the former location of Blockbuster Video. As I looked at the empty storefront, it occurred to me that I remember the days before video rental stores and now we are living in the “post video store age” so-to-speak. There might be a few video rental stores around still, but basically an entire industry came, flourished for a while and went away in a matter of a few years! Although Blockbuster, the largest of the video rental companies, tried to adapt its business model to keep up with the changing times, it didn’t survive. Streaming videos from Netflix and ultra-low overhead concepts like Redbox have taken over the big brick and mortar stores with thousands of movie titles to choose from.

I couldn’t help but make a parallel to the church. Now, before you rush to the conclusion that the Church will vanish like Blockbuster, that is not the conclusion I’m trying to draw from this illustration. I believe the church will exhist–flourish, even–until Jesus returns. The parallel I want to draw is this: I wonder if the big, brick and mortar churches are in danger of going the way of Blockbuster?

Today is the day before Easter and tomorrow many churches will be filled with people. Some big churches are even getting a jump on Easter by having services today to handle the expected crowds. One mega-church in our town is having 3 services today and 3 tomorrow. Another mega-church nearby is having 10 identical services between Friday and Easter Sunday! I’m worn out just thinking about doing that many services!

The day we live in is one of great change. Mike Breen calls it a “cultural earthquake.” Our culture is no longer being shaped by the Church or Judeo-Christian values. Fewer people approach life with a Biblical worldview. This has already happened in Europe and many of the huge cathedrals are now museums or pubs as church population there has plummeted. In 2008, church attendance in both the UK and France was estimated at 12%. The US is headed quickly in that direction. Church attendance is already quickly falling off as more and more people become de-churched.

Our “worship shows” with haze, light shows and loud music haven’t kept the crowds from leaving. Our rockstar-like pastor/communicators who get invited to all the big Christian conferences haven’t been enough to keep people in the fold. And our amazing programs for every man, woman and child just aren’t doing the trick, either. The trouble with the Church in America is that if you peel away the well-produced Sunday morning event, there’s not much of substance happening in the way of discipleship. And without discipleship, much of what we do in church just becomes entertainment. After awhile, the entertainment we peddle in church in the name of God just can’t quite hold a candle to the entertainment the world has to offer. Church becomes spiritual goods and services produced for a bunch of consumers. At least, that’s what I’ve observed more often than not.

So what’s the answer? Transcendence. People are searching for meaning–a cause greater than themselves. When we invite people to join us in making God’s Kingdom tangible to those around us by living out the ways of Jesus in community as the body of Christ, we offer them transcendence–a role to play in God’s great story that He has been writing. Discipleship and mission is the key! Discipleship is simply teaching people to live their life in the reality of the Kingdom of God–to live like Jesus did and lead others to do the same which is mission. That takes intentionality and it takes relationships that go deep. We can’t disciple people when they are sitting in rows. We can only disciple people when we invite a few people into the journey with us–when we give them access to our lives just like Jesus did.

Programs, worship events and fancy buildings are nice, but they don’t make disciples. This is not to devalue the gathering of God’s people to worship together. That is a very important and worthy thing to do, but in too many churches, that is all we do! (I wrote another blog about changing our focus called half-time speech vs. game day.) If we don’t equip God’s people to live out and share their faith where they live, work and play, church attendance will continue to fall. Inviting people to church is great, but it is not evangelism. Inviting people to a small group is great, but it is not discipleship. Getting people to serve on a ministry team is great, but it is not necessarily mission.

Until we put discipleship and mission back in the hands of ordinary people instead of just the paid professionals, the mass exodus from the American church will continue. And it won’t be long before our big, brick and mortar church buildings go the way of Blockbuster Video and the cathedrals in Europe.

rethinking church

Countless articles, books and papers have been written on the subject of “rethinking church.” In fact, when I typed those very words into Google, I got 3,520,000 results! Well, make that 3,520,001, because I’m about to add my 2 cents!

I guess you could say that rethinking church has been kind of a hobby of mine for the past 4 years or so. For starters, let me summarize the typical approach of churches for the past hundred or more years regardless of denomination, worship style or translation preference…

Get “those people out there” (lost, sinners, pagans, etc.) in “here” (to the church building) where hopefully they will hear the Gospel, give their lives to Christ and become faithful church members. How churches get the people into their facility differs greatly, but most churches try to lure people to their building with some sort of program–VBS, Awana, a concert, special speaker, revival services, contemporary (or traditional) worship services, fill in the blank. Its church members become the ambassadors for the church’s programs or services and are encouraged to invite people to events and services at the church.

This is not a bad approach and it has worked remarkably well for decades. The problem is that this is not what the church was designed for. It just happened to work because we lived in a culture that predominantly held to a Christian world view. As we all know, that is not the case anymore. It is no wonder that church attendance is rapidly declining and conversions often measured by number of baptisms is also declining.

You’re probably wondering, “So, what was the church designed for?” I’m glad you asked! First, it is important to understand that the Great Commission was not given to the Church. It was given to individual followers of Christ. The Church was designed to be a place of gathering for followers of Christ for teaching, training, encouragement and community as believers pursued carrying out the Great Commission where they live, work and play.

There is much talk about the “missional church” and “getting outside the walls of the church.” I applaud these efforts because at least it is a little bit of progress away from the mindset so many churches have that says “they know where to find us.” However, I would contend that churches aren’t missional–people are. A church that creates ministry opportunities for its members–even if it is outside of the church–can still miss the point. If churches are not equipping believers to live a missional lifestyle–living as a missionary where they live, work and play–it’s just another program. And it is likely that our programs extract people out of their own context and the ministry God wants them to have.

Now, I am in favor of churches that design externally focused ministries as long as it is with the goal of exposing and training its people to a missional lifestyle. I also believe that a local church should also band together to serve its community–feeding the poor, doing acts of service, etc., but it should always be done in the name of Jesus and not the name of a particular church (another subject entirely!).

The problem is that we have gauged the success of the church with bodies and bucks. So, if that is your measurement, the more bodies in the building and the more bucks in the collection plate, the better your church is doing. And, admittedly, the “attractional” approach is much more successful at supporting that type of bottom line. However, it fails abysmally at making disciples.

The slow, steady way of making disciples is the way of Jesus–He lived His life in deep community with 12 men who spread the Gospel to the entire world. Isn’t it mind boggling to think that you could actually trace the spread of the Gospel that penetrated your heart back to one of the 12 disciples? It is slow and steady, but could you imagine if every follower of Christ took seriously the Great Commission to make disciples where they live, work and play? The Gospel would spread virally around the world which is exactly what happened in the early church.

Until the Church shifts its focus from running programs to building missionaries, we will continue to see rapid decline. That’s why I think it’s time we rethink church.