The formational debt of church growth
I was first introduced to the term “technical debt” (or code debt) by a software developer. Once I understood it, I realised that the modern church has a debt of its own – albeit a formational one.
Technical debt refers to the situation where a new version of an app or operating system makes a quantum leap in functionality that outstrips the safeguards and stability required to make it efficient or reliable. The new version opens up new benefits and opportunities for the user, but the system is often released before it is fully stable, tested, and reliable.
Behind the advancing flame-front of innovation is a stability-vacuum. And so, a series of updates follow that address the bugs and pay that technical debt.
There is a legitimate parallel in the modern church-world. Ours is not a technical debt, but a formational one.
The gains in organisational proficiency that the church-growth and leadership movements have provided have equipped us to make huge leaps in our effectiveness of “doing church”.
We have refined the art of building our congregation and defining metrics. We now understand the necessity of integration pathways, alignment campaigns, volunteer induction and community engagement. We are committed to better governance and smart use of social media.
But the high proportion of energy invested into building the church has meant that our ability to build people has atrophied. Attendance might be up, but biblical literacy is down. Church health may seem to have grown, but spiritual health is suffering.
You may have already recognised some symptoms of our tendency to build numbers rather than people. Here are a few:
- Stats for divorce, anxiety, depression, and addiction are exactly the same within our church as they are in our community.
- Relationships are shallow, and insecurity runs deep.
- Rising leaders measure their ministry significance in terms of job titles, and time with the mic.
- We love the idea of lots of people, but have less interest in a single person.
- Success is viewed in terms of attendance rather than transformation.
- Attendees spend more time at events than they do in personal prayer and reflection.
Jesus said that He would build the church, and that we must make disciples. But have we focussed on doing His job at the expense of fulfilling our own? I am convinced we have. The lack of resilience, depth and overall discipleship maturity of western believers has put us into spiritual overdraft, and it is imperative that we pay up.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very comfortable with the idea of churches growing – the bigger the better (with conditions). However it is imperative that we address the need to form our people in a way that builds depth, and a genuine dynamic of being spirit-empowered.
The breadth of alternate strategies being proposed by thought-leaders are varied. For about 20 years many of the strongest voices have leant towards a more deconstructed and simple way of doing church. The combined need for better community engagement and spiritual formation has given rise to fluid church, missional church, simple church and new house-church models.
I applaud their efforts, actively getting behind movements like Red Dirt Church in Australia. Well-resourced conventional churches should get behind these innovative models since they can reach where others can’t.
But I am not a simple church guy, and maybe you aren’t either. I am essentially a spiritual formation guy – believing that if you can get people more profoundly connected to God, He transforms them and fuels their heart to reach out to the lost.
I also believe in the benefits gained from having larger groups of people. They can provide critical mass, better resourcing and access to higher capacity leadership.
What’s more, I like exciting gatherings, enthusiastic worship, and all the upsides that come from getting the church working right in a more conventional setting. When you have more people, there’s potential to get more done for God. As long as we focus on what matters.
I cant help but agree with the comments of Mike Breen, champion of the 3DM movement who said “The missional movement will fail because it isn’t making disciples”. As one with a renewal-oriented worldview, I would take that one step further: The discipleship movement is also doomed to fail unless it helps people engage more fruitfully with God’s Spirit.
For all the better tools, systems and digital access we now use, we are still largely leaving people bereft of a powerful, credible and transforming relationship with God. We just seem to be teaching them how to perform better in their own strength.
So, how do we keep the best of what has been gained through the church-growth movement, but pay our formational debt of discipleship?
A working discipleship model
I have long pondered on how to join the best of all the models. To make powerful and healthy disciples, we need to weave in the right relationships, instruction, stretching experiences, and encounters with God.
I have come up with my own evolving model which you are welcome to use or evolve. It factors in the seasons of growth people inevitably cycle through, the need for catalytic and stretching moments, and the power of intimate and ongoing relationships. There are some tools and methods woven in as well that years of testing have proven to work well.
Having worked on the formation culture of both large and small churches, I am now going to start something brand new. The church plant we launch in early 2019 will use this model from the ground up. Every new attendee will be inducted into a culture of discipleship and mission.
The theory is simple, we are to fill hearts, and fuel mission. The practice is never quite so simple, but it is imperative that we find ways to make powerful and healthy disciples who will go and do the same.
Feel free to dial in to see how we progress over time.