Effingham Newsletter: May (Franchising Church)
Something that’s been on my mind lately is how similar many churches have become. It can be a great thing--we have fewer boundaries separating us from our brothers and sisters down the street. On the other hand, American churches are taking on a life of their own and losing their theological distinctiveness. It’s as if we’re franchising of The Church-- not as obvious as McDonald’s or Starbuck’s, but with similar results.
Regardless of location, community, or region, many churches look alike. A church in suburban Charleston takes on the same flavor as a church in suburban Orange County. Rather than being filled with a potent mix of local flavor, culture, music, taste, economics, and the like, churches settle for an imported, diluted version of something that worked elsewhere. Sometimes, this is effective, but other times the results simply ring hollow.
To offer a comparison, as a resident of Florence, I can choose to drink locally roasted “Cashua Coffee” at Aroma Underground or the “Pike Place Brew” at Starbuck’s (named for their original location in Seattle). Though both are delicious, only the first one provides a connection to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. It supports local roasters and offers a chance to catch up on local news or hear a local musician. Many churches that import the ecology of another church offer a “delicious” ministry, but they can miss the deep connection of their local community and neglect innovation for the sake of imitation. Robert Schreiter writes in Studying Congregations,
"Experiencing God also reveals something about ourselves and our world. To be a congregation is also to engage in a quest to see our world in a special way from the perspective of God...Understanding is therefore about coming to terms with the world in which we live."
Thus, the question of ecology is significant. Congregations must ask, “Why has God placed this church in this community at this time?” Only in understanding the local world (say, within five, ten, or fifteen miles surrounding the local church) can a body understand their specific mission. There’s nothing wrong with my South Carolina church understanding a California community or one in suburban Chicago, but why would we want to? God has placed us here in this place and this time.
Ecology is more than just the outside world, but the internal strengths and weaknesses of the local church. One may find an excellent program to bring into their local church, only to find that there is no one with the gift-set to lead it. Ecology is understanding our world on the one hand, and our place in it on the other-- the world in which we live. A classic demonstration of this is the church that says of the one down the street, “Well, they’re doing such-an-such, why don’t we give it a try?” Instead of embracing our own strengths and developing ministry as a result, we envy others’ strengths and struggle to emulate their ministry.
In North America especially, God has allowed many churches to flourish. There are many workers needed for the harvest (Matthew 9:37). The collection of local churches in a given community-- often one on each corner-- is that of a garden of beautiful trees and flowers, each with their own fragrance and season. A congregation’s ecology is the sum of their own identity and the community’s identity.
Image: The Cambridge Advocate