Monday, December 22, 2008

Cannibalistic Competition

I have written before of a church planter who took out an ad in the newspaper offering to pay people $100 to attend his church. Today he has changed his philosophy and is quite embarrassed by his attempts at church growth no matter the cost. It’s sad but true that even good folks can get caught up in some unsound thinking regarding these things.

Many gimmicks have been tried to get people to attend a church’s services. One congregation raffled off a five-hundred-dollar gift card for gasoline. A fast-growing church in my own area advertised free raffle tickets to the first one hundred newcomers who showed up at their Easter service. The winner of the drawing would receive a new car. Another church in my area had added a new service time and offered free popcorn to anyone who would attend the new service, thus making room for other worshipers in the other services.

As churches in an area feel they must compete with each other, they begin to offer special perks to attract attenders. One church starts serving Starbucks coffee on Sunday mornings, and before you know it other churches in town are doing the same. Not only is this seen as a good thing, some would say it constitutes being relevant and hospitable.

I’m not objecting to serving good coffee but I do see danger in the spirit of competition that these tactics reveal. And I don’t mind when my local movie theater offers special deals with free popcorn to get me to become a loyal customer. After all it is a business competing for my dollar. But when the church, feeling the need to compete for attendees and their offerings, adopts the way of the world, we are in trouble. Some churches have exiting pastors sign a “noncompetition contract,” so they will not start a church within a certain distance of the one they leave. This is how far we have ventured into a capitalistic Christianity that treats church like a business, service like a product, and people like customers.

I know of one leader who left a megachurch in Southern California, which had thirty-five hundred in attendance each week, to plant a church in another community. The church plant went from zero to almost three hundred people in just a couple of years, which should be considered phenomenally successful. Unfortunately, the church planter’s model of success was a church of more than three thousand people. His church plant also happened to be in the shadow of Saddleback at the same time as its dramatic growth. The church planter felt like a failure and resigned.


Anonymous said...

I started a book this year called "Shopping For God" (one of the most boring, yet interesting, books I've read). The author (who I think is agnostic) looked at how the church in America markets itself. One of the principles of successful marketing is brand differentiation--how does yours stand out from the rest? Essentially, the author concluded that the different strands of the church in America (denominations, etc.), don't really differ that much (except for a few doctrinal differences, which insiders make a big deal about, but outsiders don't). Therefore, we feel the need to differentiate ourselves in different ways... and thus the "cannibalistic competition" you've written about.

While I don't think such things are necessarily wrong, I also no longer think they're as "cutting edge" as many want to think. The most cutting edge thing out there is simply a life transformed by Jesus, being lived out in a community transformed by Jesus. When those outside the church can experience that community and actually see up close what Jesus is up to, they start to get curious...

Just some thoughts.

Neil Cole said...

Yes! Aaron, there is nothing more powerful than a transformed life. That is the most attractional gift we have for winning the world to Christ. That is what makes the Gospel, Jesus' Kingdom and the church real and powerful in this world. Substituting anything else for that is the gravest mistake in human history!

Good comments! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Joshua Tucker said...

I completely agree. It's not just the attractional methods that we have based on worldly methods, but almost everything. Instead of being salt and light, we have taken business models and worldly thinking and salted on some Jesus to justify our actions.

The very idea of being focused on numbers is so contrary to Scripture. It's not like numbers are evil; we should want people to be saved. But we have confused evangelism with Church attendance and done everything possible to get people through the doors. Seems quite opposite to our Lord's method.

Often He turned away those who only wanted God on the side, saying the hard things people needed to hear regardless of their reactions. He focused primarily on 12 people, all of which left Him in the end.

It's so strange to read of Jesus' example of ministry and then look up at what we call "Church" today. It's all so backwards, and we should be upset about it. It's not just unhealthy. It's wrong.

The balance needs to come in using that passion and discontentment to drive us to be the change we want to see. Being very analytical myself, it's much easier for me to talk about mentoring than to take someone out to coffee. I personally tend to take the referee's role, rather than taking the ball and running with it, risking getting tackled.

Thanks for the thoughts brother. I intend on continuing to read.

Anonymous said...

As our little church plant begins to take shape (, we are facing these challenges- in reverse. We are trying to be a small faith community in and for our inner city community (where I have lived for almost 10 years). We want to protect against it becoming a primarily commuter church (though commuters should be one part of the community), but the impulse many are feeling is to "promote" in the methods you are suggesting. We (my wife & I, as primary leaders at this stage) have resisted this.

How do you protect against the unintentional, but unhealthy growth where too many people are drawn to the "novel" and the new?


Anonymous said...

Neil, I remain annon because I am a missions pastor in one of those mega churches that raffles off stuff. Our new pastor has raffled off an automobile, plus other stuff. In all each year about $40,000 worth.

I am in the process of trying to leave, but so far I have not been able to move forward.

Thanks for what you are doing and pray for those of us, for the moment, stuck. It encourages me that there are people and possibly places that seek to reach people without gimmicks. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

hIn 2 Sam 24, it says Gods anger burned against Israel and incited David against them to number the people. David then numbered the people and his army, going against the counsel of Joab.
After completing the count, David repents and says; "I have sinned greatly in what I have done." He then gets to choose one of three consequences as punishment (discipline). He chooses plaque. The plaque comes, the Lord relents and says "it is enough". David then buys a threshing field to build an alter to the Lord to offer burnt(sin) and peace offerings. The plague is held back by Davids entreaty for the land.
What I think is interesting in this passage is two things.
One is that it says God incited David to do something that would bring discipline to the people. It seems He wanted to show David that he still had pride issues that needed to be addressed, but also, the people themselves needed discipline as they had begun to fall away in their commitment to the Lord.
The second aspect, is what David says in buying the field; "I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing".
Consumerism, the "its all about me" attitude, easy suffer-free Christianity, the building of mini kingdoms for the sake of ego and pride. I hope we don't miss what the Lord is saying to those who have "ears to hear" and bring the correction to ourselves that we need as the Body of Christ.
Thank you Neil, for being a voice of correction!

Neil Cole said...


The key is to reach out to those who are not under the kingdom reign yet exclusively, and not recruit Christians from churches.

I found the same thing as we stated Awakening, but when we made decisions to not cater to Christians but create a very intimate spiritual family with a high bar on discipleship we saw the more consumer-minded Christians were not comfortable staying.

Neil Cole said...

To the anonymous staff person in a competitive megachurch, I fully understand. It is amazing how subtlely these things creep in and actually seem like the right decision at the time.

I pray your voice is heard there. Follow Christ's lead will not be disappointed.

Neil Cole said...

As usual, Katie, your observations are powerful and pinpointed.

mike kim said...

Neil, glad to see you have resurrected this site. Last we talked in Basel, you were in need of some extra prompting from the 30-somethings in the group : )

Great stuff you've posted so far!