So I’m a rookie-practicing church planter. I’ve been a pastor in different settings and cities for the last 14 years but starting a church out of nothing certainly makes me feel like I’m in a different ball game all together. Even though I’m wet behind the ears as an official church planter there are some core values that I’ve stood on over the years to create a trajectory of spiritual vitality. With all the ministry fads and tools that have been waved under my nose I’ve always pursued loyalty to the principle of simplicity. One of our church community’s early non-negotiables is simplicity. I recently told another pastor “I don’t know much but I know it will stay simple.”
This issue of simplicity is even more sensitive with the “dechurched” – (those who likely have a significant affinity towards Jesus Christ but for some reason have found current expressions of church irrelevant to their everyday life) and “unchurched”- (their only understanding of church is from a distance; TV preachers, politics, best-selling books and maybe family history). As an insider to the church world, I perceive we’ve projected an image that church is complicated; growing in Christ is a set of complicated classes, caring for our neighbors requires a complicated approach, getting on board with the churches mission is a complicated membership process and community is a complicated program to sign up for.
Simplicity is always under assault. I remember when I first began songwriting I would hear a great song on the radio and hear all these cool sounds, beats, breakdowns, guitar licks and vocal acrobatics. I then felt like I had to somehow mash them into every song I was working on. What I ended up with was always a wannabee song that wasn’t memorable or moving, even though I included all those slick components. Then when I was 23 at a songwriters session in Nashville I heard a hero of mine, John Foreman say “obsess over the melody, forget the other stuff, push away all the bells and whistles and stick with a simple and strong melody” That statement changed and simplified my songwriting permanently.
Most churches function like a songwriter throwing everything they can into the mix of their church hoping that it comes out making a beautiful noise. The end result is often that people are busy in programs, money is spent on ministry stuff, Christian cliques are championed but the core of who we are and where we are headed is lost in the clutter. Jesus, Missionality, and Community often get relegated to a corner with all the complication.
The honest reality is some people are drawn to simplicity and others are turned off by it. I have a suspicion that some are looking for fresh air in their church life. I was so jazzed recently when I overhead someone say “I just want a large dose of Jesus, a community to share my life with and a mission to pour my heart into.” Now that’s simple but not stupid. Contrast that with those who might be turned off by simplicity looking for: a great worship band, a captivating preacher, an exciting children’s ministry, a cool building, a woman’s ministry, a men’s ministry, an active single’s ministry and a counseling ministry. I’ve ministered in these buffet settings; the drift that happens is slow and steady. It becomes seriously difficult to keep the vision front, center and accessible.
I believe that simplicity in our church expression might eventually be birthed out of necessity. I foresee that potentially the economic recession might prevent us from offering so many program options, with great facilities staffed by numerous paid professional pastors. It might force us to permanently widdle down church ministry to the lean essentials.
I’m not advocating for sloppy, boring or mediocre church. I’m advocating for pushing back the millions of program options and instead intentionally developing, excelling at and funneling people towards the essentials. More is not always better or always healthier.
When I spent time in Kenya I bumped into a growing and vibrant brand of Christianity that genuinely shocked me when I encountered it. Now I’m sure there is a temptation to not see anything transferable from a 3rd world culture like theirs but I wouldn’t want to be so arrogant as too brush them off as spiritually underdeveloped. It was their intense focus on worshiping Jesus, developing families and sharing the hope of Christ with neighboring tribes that dominated their gathering. A young and frail indigenous pastor in Kenya glared at me and said “we’d rather not have your U.S.A shopping center church, you could probably learn a bit from us.” I think he was right… keep it simple.