As many of you know we had the privilege of attending the Vineyard International Conference in Columbus, Ohio.
It was an amazing week with many highlights! I could try and do a review of each session, but the conference was so much more than that... so for starters let me reflect a little on our hosts Vineyard Columbus and how they have contributed to some of my own thoughts on church.
I must admit this was the first time I'd seen (in the flesh) a real life megachurch. It's really easy to cast aspersions about these gargantuan American models of ecclesiology, to simply see all the negatives of the size and the skewed sense of success that can often be created.
But the legacy of Vineyard Columbus is breath taking, as one local told me you mention the word Vineyard in this city and people say things like "they look after the poor, they take care of immigrants and they cross racial lines." I had also heard stories before visiting of social care agencies just telling people "if you need help, go to the Vineyard" and how when church members show kindness and service to others in the city - they never have to say where they are from - because often those on the receiving end of their service respond by saying "you must be from the Vineyard?"
What a legacy to have in your city and it is clear this has a link to their size of church. Now we don't like to think about it in those terms and here in the UK numbers in the multiple 1000's are just abnormal to us for a whole host of reasons. But clearly this church's impact on their city is a direct result of their size.
One amazing resource they've built was the Vineyard Community Centre, as their website says:
Vineyard Community Center's mission is simply to be the best friend to our city. We say this not because we want anything, but because we want to give something. If there is a need or an activity in which we can assist - we will! In addition to immigration services, career counseling, classes for parents, after school programs for kids, and much much more - we offer FREE health, dental, vision, and chiropractic clinics! Last year, our two clinic locations saw more than 1,300 patients through the dedicated service of medical professionals and volunteer teams who live and work in Central Ohio.I really love that idea of being the best friend of our city and amassing the resources to do that really well. So what can we learn from Vineyard Columbus as we think about the future of the church?
I really love that idea of being the best friend of our city and amassing the resources to do that really well. So what can we learn from Vineyard Columbus as we think about the future of the church?
Well firstly lets keep growing on purpose! Pastors and church planters can get so bogged down with church growth and so often the size of our churches can have a direct link to our own sense of worth and identity. We tell ourselves things like "if we just have another 50, 100, or 200 people we will feel much better about ourselves!" As if the church and its local mission have anything to do with us in the first place?
What if our desire for the growth of the local church was driven by a desire to benefit the city? What if we grew our churches to a size that every time kindness and compassion was shown, that the people of our city knew who was at the centre of it all?
The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. ... [but] observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause"What if the legacy of our churches was that we were the ones who looked after the poor, fed the hungry and showed kindness and mercy to all those we meet? What if growing our churches meant we could truly be the best friends of our cities?
Secondly, healthy growing churches can release the resources needed. I've never been that great at Maths, but it's fairly simple logic the more people we have in our churches the more resources we have to serve and bring life to our cities.
Now I'm not saying a church of 50 or 100 can't serve their city well. I know many smaller churches that do amazing things that many larger churches never do. The point I'm trying to make is that the larger our churches can be the more resources we have to release. Thats clear from what's seen at Vineyard Columbus, sure they have overheads, staff and the cost of running buildings (they are also a multi-site church). But they also have an abundance of resources to spend on the transformation of their city.
Thirdly, larger churches can be missional too? There has been much talk about the missional church in resent years and many are opting for smaller organic forms of church as a means of becoming more missional. Having observed this trend for the last 15 years I would say on the whole they are no more missional than any other model of church. Many have become so fixated on their ecclesiology, they have failed to really engage in the mission of the church (I do note this is a sweeping generalisation and there are many who could prove me wrong).
But on the whole most of the large churches I can think of are some of the most missional minded communities of people I know. One that is much closer to home would be Trent Vineyard, in Nottingham. As one American said to me "They are the only megachurch I know that has grown by spending itself on behalf of the poor".
Fourthly in light of all this, it has to be both/and rather than either/or. Could we have a vision for church life that is both gathered and scattered? One helpful resource in thinking this way is Hugh Halter and Matt Smay book; AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church. They highlight the possibility of a model of attracting people to our physical church spaces while at the same time releasing people into hands-on ministry - something that I think is well worth investigating and is so part of our Vineyard DNA.
Context is everything... I do acknowledge that the culture of Columbus, Ohio is very different to Northampton, England. There are no megachurches here in Northampton, in fact the largest churches in our area are somewhere between 400 to 600 people and conservative estimates would say less than 5% of our population are in church at any given time.
But what's stopping a place like Northampton - with over 200,000 people living here and at least another 100,000 living on the outer-edges - seeing some large and significant churches being planted here? How might we do it? What form might they take in a Both/And way of thinking? Well I'll try and answer that in another post!