One mark of the times in which we live is that everybody is in a hurry. Nobody likes to wait. We want things NOW. We get frustrated if we have to wait two weeks to see the doctor – or 10 seconds to download a computer file.
This has had a huge impact on churches. For one thing, people aren’t as committed financially. I was reading about the fundraising challenges of Not-for-Profit organizations, including churches. People today will open their wallets, but they want to see “immediate social impact.” If they don’t see results, they’ll take their money elsewhere. There are fewer and fewer people prepared to build an ongoing financial relationship with an organization and stick with it over years.
People also want immediate experience. It’s not enough just to show up. They expect something to happen when they come. I’ve heard that first time visitors to your church will decide within seconds whether it’s the place for them, based on how it makes them feel. If the church isn’t “doing anything” for them, they’ll be gone.
Studies and polls suggest that this attitude will only become more prevalent. It’s a big challenge, because the Christian life is not only an experience, it’s a way of being meant to be cultivated over a lifetime. It’s about relationships that take time to mature. Church doesn’t lend itself to an adrenaline rush.
Here’s the thing, though, about basing our decisions on statistics of what is true for most people. While it may be true of most people, it’s not true of all people. There are still many people who continue to yearn for what Eugene Peterson (quoting of all people Friedrich Nietzsche) called “a long obedience in the same direction.”
The question is, will we focus mainly on the rule? Or on the exceptions?
Should we emphasize broad experience in order to appeal to as many as possible? Or deep commitment knowing that only a few will respond? The problem with a lot of our churches is that they don’t do either very well. They may tweak things on the surface, but the basic experience stays the same. And they don’t create a lot of long term growth in faith.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but most United Churches simply can’t compete in the marketplace of experience. We don’t have the resources to be that “happening church” that will draw in large crowds of seekers. It’s not in our DNA.
What many of our churches do have is the capacity to develop spiritually mature disciples of Jesus. For my money, we’d be better to focus on what we can do, rather than what we wish we could do.
Let me play with an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.
Two things are true of most outliers. First, they were born with natural advantages. Most NHL hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. Why? Well, Gladwell says, from the time they first lace up their skates, they are playing against kids that may be almost a full year younger than they are – a huge advantage for a seven-year-old. They are bigger, stronger, faster. They get picked for the best teams with the best coaches. The gap between them and the kids born in October, November and December grows wider.
Second, they practice more. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. All the violinists at the Juilliard School of Music are really talented. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. What separates the very best from the very good is that they practice two hours a day longer than most of their peers. Why were The Beatles better than everybody else? Gladwell argues it was because when they were toiling in the brothels of Hamburg, they were forced to play from early afternoon to late at night every day. Practice really does make perfect.
So let’s draw an analogy to churches. Is it possible that at least some of our churches could become outliers?
Most congregations have built-in advantages. Even the smallest church has at least a core of people who have been deeply formed in Christian faith, who know Jesus, practice prayer, and live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This wealth of spiritual maturity is a tremendous hidden asset.
The problem is, they’re often out of practice. They haven’t been challenged or given an opportunity to grow into mature leaders who can really shape the character of the church.
So what if at least some of our congregations really focused on building on the assets of faith present among them, and calling forth a commitment to grow and mature over the long haul?
The truth is that there will be fewer of us in the future – fewer congregations and fewer people in those that remain. And maybe not 1 in 100 are prepared to make the kind of commitment that would be required to produce an “Outlier” church.