Killing the Church by Networking
by Eric Asp
The Birthday of the Church
Every spring, Christians celebrate the Church’s birthday—otherwise known as the day of Pentecost. Typically, birthdays are an occasion for gathering all of one’s friends, throwing a party, and celebrating another year of accumulated wisdom, strength, and happiness. However, the church congregation that I happen to lead in Amsterdam’s city center (www.amsterdam50.nl) has recently started celebrating this annual “Birthday of the Church” not by meeting together for our regularly-scheduled Sunday worship gathering, nor listening to a sermon, nor singing songs, nor by trying to organize some kind of birthday party… Instead, we’ve started encouraging our congregation to scatter throughout the city and serve other people. Instead of wishing ourselves “long life and glory” (as the traditional Dutch birthday song would have it), we try to make ourselves small and subservient. The past couple of years, we’ve decided to do this by volunteering for various service projects organized by an inter-church initiative called Serve the City (www.stcamsterdam.nl).
To me, this type of birthday observance seems like a fitting thing to do. But honestly, I’ve had some doubts: Is this really what is best for our church?
Scatter-and-Serve vs. Gather-and-Celebrate
Pastors often talk about growing their churches in the same way that farmers talk about raising livestock. The collective wisdom of most pastors would seem to be that we need to “shepherd the flock,” maintain consistency, and fortify our congregations with high-quality music and messages.
However, I often prefer to subvert the standard expectations for ministry, in order to get our people to think critically and principally. I want them to think about the church as a world-wide network, more than a single congregation. I want them to engage with the world around them in a way that helps and affirms others—not just serving itself. While many Christians seem to act as though the ultimate purpose for church growth is to grow the church some more, I ask: Wouldn’t it be better to stimulate service? Wouldn’t it be wise to develop kind and compassionate men and women who can distribute themselves to different churches, businesses, schools, and cities which are in need of leaders?
This, of course, is the motivation behind our scatter-and-serve concept, as opposed to the classic gather-and-celebrate concept. I stand behind it, as a pastor. I believe it’s ultimately the right way to live out our calling as followers of Jesus. However, ironically, experience has shown me that the best way to live out our calling as followers of Jesus is often not the best way to grow a church.
What is Best for the Church?
Canceling a weekly worship gathering so that people can go out and “serve the city” has got to be one of the last things that church growth experts would advise. It’s almost treated like heresy by some believers. Through the years that our church has emphasized “scatter-and-serve” as a strong counterweight to the traditional “gather-and-celebrate,” we’ve seen personal growth and an expanding sense of our involvement in a world-wide network. But for every person who has been strengthened and empowered through this approach to networking, there is another hungry Christian “sheep” who resents being directed in that way. Consequently, many of the people within our church—and, naturally, many of the people who have left our church through the years—have been frustrated with these ways of doing things.
Even so, I believe that networking is one of the best ways to develop the world-wide church, even if it occasionally seems to come at the expense of the local congregation. Of course, I hope that we don’t kill our local body of believers in the process; but even if we do, as a Christian pastor, I have a lot of hope for the possibilities of resurrection.