[Warning: This is written mostly to other church planters or those on church plant teams. I am not writing this to make any point to anyone who has left our church over the last year and a half. I am writing this to help other planters/pastors who deal with this issue.]
Consumer Christianity is a thing. And here’s the rub… I don’t think any of us are immune. None of us. EVERYONE church shops. Why? Because we have choices. In China, you’re just lucky to find a church, and you’ll take whatever you can find. In America, we choose. So, we shop. Nobody is immune. Nobody.
Have you ever done the type of internet search where you put in filters to narrow your search? Take home buying, for an example. You put in price range and location and how many years old the home is, etc., and pretty quick you can go from 300 homes to 4 homes. Everyone knows that if you enter several filters in these types of searches it’s pretty easy to come up with 0 results. “No homes meet your search criteria. Please remove at least one filter.” This is exactly what church shoppers are doing. They have so many filters on for their church that they can’t find one. Churches found: 0. [Often this even leads to Christians not being part of a specific church, but that’s another blog.]
How does this filtering thing apply to church planting?
Well, we are still building the dang house, folks. It ain’t even built yet. (Sorry, sometimes I go full on SW Missouri. Roots baby.). Our house might not even have a roof yet. We don’t even have a permanent location. Our address is somebody else’s address (like a school). We might not even show up in a search without any filters, but when you start adding filters we are toast. Church plants get filtered very easily. And obviously I’m not just talking about an internet search. Even if you can find us, the filtering process has only just begun.
Church shoppers beware of church plants. Beware! After all, they might just need you to help complete the project! And who wants a project? Not most shoppers.
This is part of why church plants try to focus on those without a church home. Un-churched people aren’t church shoppers, because newsflash: They aren’t looking for a church at all. But guess what that means. We just turned the filters around. Now, the church plant is filtering people. The filters are unintentional, but as we shop for people, we can’t avoid certain filters. And guess what, sometimes the filters we have set for finding people take us to the same place. Church Plant Prospects: 0.
How does this happen? Well, let’s play this out from both angles, just for fun.
First, from the Consumer Christian angle. For those who might be test-driving our church plant, here’s a potential scenario: Ridgefield Randy and Rhonda like the following about our plant: 1.) great music, 2.) great kids ministry, 3.) great preaching (this is hypothetical), 4.) friendly people, 5.) awesome donuts. But there’s a problem. One of their filters is that they want the pastor to use the KJV. I don’t. They gone. (And if you’d like 1,000 other potential filters, I could probably list that many. Seriously. Dare me.)
Second, let’s look at this from the un-churched perspective, where the church plant is unintentionally filtering people, even as we “shop” for them. Here goes the potential scenario: Ridgefield Randy and Rick….…. Okay, do I need to go on? Try to remove that filter, by the way. I have tried, without compromising Scripture. Hasn’t worked so far… and again, I could give you a thousand other potential filters. In case you think this is hypothetical, I would estimate the loss of twenty families in our first year over TRUTH presented in LOVE from the Bible. Gigantic filter, especially here in the PNW.
The point is that it is hard enough for any church to please enough people to continue to exist these days, but as a church plant, nothing is established so it is that much harder. We don’t have decades of work in the community to our credit. We don’t have generations of families invested in us. We are trying to come into existence in a climate where people have dozens of filters set from every angle/perspective imaginable. It’s really, really tough for a church plant to avoid filtration from both church shoppers and the un-churched. Really tough.
Do you know what the biggest filter of all is, in any church? It’s the pastor. If they don’t like the pastor, they gone. And guess what, not everybody is going to like the pastor. Some might like the pastor, but think there is just this one thing… that if he could change…. In fact, there is a whole set of filters just about the pastor. Did you know that? (Did the pastor just quote Rick Warren/John MacArthur? We’re so gone.) So tons of people don’t come or don’t stay because of ME. Ouch. [By the way, if you re not a pastor and you are reading this, encourage your pastor. He’s been hurt a lot over the years. His wife, too.]
Back to the point, when we are accidentally filtering people and they are intentionally filtering us, it’s pretty easy to come to a result of ZERO and it’s pretty hard to gain any ground, especially for a church plant. Maybe we can get a certain percentage in the door, but of that percentage, how many do we keep? And for how long?
There is only one solution.
If you think the solution is the church figuring out a way to reduce filters until enough people like it, you have not been listening or you haven’t tried that enough to find out that it’s impossible, long term. You’ll be a revolving door church that gets very little done for the Kingdom if your solution to filtration is just trying to do better.
The only solution is COMMITMENT.
I have second guessed myself and been second guessed by many in the area of asking people to commit to our church in membership, but I have come to believe it is the only solution (or at least a helpful tool) to the problem of filters.
People actually add filters like in year two, by the way. You’ll think you made it through, but give it time. They’ll find out about your false advertising or your bait and switch, eventually. They’ll catch you every time. (“How dare he say that. We thought he was always nice.”) After all, the pastor was in a bad mood that day… or the music guy didn’t do a hymn like he did the first Sunday… or maybe it’s something much more serious and real, because churches are a mess of messiness just like any other human organization. (Not to mention the one doing the filtering might have an issue as well.)
So what would I say to the church shoppers (i.e. all believers in America)?
Find a church that you can stand. (Is that unfiltered enough?) Commit yourself to that church. Make it better with your presence/service. Stay with it. Stop shopping.
And what would I say to the church plant who is unintentionally filtering the un-churched crowd? Make the changes you can make, but remember this: Jesus filtered the crud out of the crowd. Not everyone is ready. Take what you get and be thankful.
The experience of my first church plant (a twelve year journey) taught me a phrase I can’t forget. It doesn’t sound great so I’ve tried to get it out of my head, but I can’t. It just keeps coming back! And now I am going to curse (hopefully help) you with it. Here it is:
GO WITH THOSE WHO ARE READY TO GO AND LET THE REST GO.
I probably just filtered some people right there. I hate that, but living to please people is killing me. We are not the church for everyone. I am not the pastor for everyone. But we are the church for some people and I am the pastor for some people. Thank you, my people!!!
My solution to the filter problem is this: I’m going to ask those who stick around for longer than a couple of weeks to firmly commit so that they don’t continue to be a church shopper whilst sitting out in my congregation. If my asking them to commit causes some to filter me, so be it. I’m pretty sure Jesus asked for commitment from His band of brothers/sisters… His church. At the least, we will be more than the next-stop-shop for a few.
I hope this helps some fellow planters.