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Extreme Makeover – Church Edition

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The Failure of One-to-Many

We’ve all seen them – those churches where one person stands up and gives a message to a room full of people and expects – wait, what? You say they’re all like that? Hmm…

Alright, here is my quick & dirty litmus test for all our faithful church-goers on the effectiveness of our sermons:


From memory, recall the sermon topic at your church this past Sunday.

What about the week before? How about two or three weeks ago? I’ve asked this question of dozens and dozens of people (most of them very active in church activities, ministries and their relationship with Jesus). Many people fail to recall the sermon topic given less than a week ago. The vast majority cannot remember the message the week before that and virtually no one recalls the sermon topic three weeks past. But this is the model we rely heavily on to “make disciples” even though the one-to-many method has terrible retention rates for even simple information, let alone transformation.

What’s more, we have – on average – dozens of churches in cities across America holding weekly services housing thousands, maybe tens of thousands of attendees across a city. If we had an army of tens of thousands of well-equipped, Jesus following disciples in a city, then shouldn’t our cities look a lot different? But the fact is, most local churches are not transforming the culture of their city (many are not even engaged with it). Anybody see a problem here?

So, based on a quick survey, it looks like most local churches are neither able to impart memorable messages, nor produce a congregation that is dramatically impacting the community for the Kingdom of God. Based on that, it seems to me that the current local church model essentially provides four basic things:

  • A communal worship experience
  • A (usually forgettable) message
  • An opportunity to pay your tithe
  • Social interaction with people of like mind & values

The worship experience is unique to the Church and the power of communal worship cannot be overstated, but the rest of the experience looks a lot less like equipping a group of world-changers and more like a social club. This is not, of course, universally applicable, but for the vast majority of the Church in the west, Sunday mornings bear fruit dangerously similar to a social club experience and the one-to-many model of teaching is falling on its face.

Well, it’s easy to point out what’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, anybody can do that. But how do we fix it? Well, it ain’t gonna be easy, in fact, we’re in so deep we’re gonna have to make some tough decisions and big changes. We first need to ditch the one-to-many model of equipping because, well, honestly, it’s a terrible model. We use this same model in high school to produce students who are strikingly average against their counterparts around the world. Is this really the model on which we rely to make world-changers and influencers of culture?

Is this too harsh? I feel like when we have been given such a Great Commission and are using such ineffective tools to accomplish it we need a little harsh. I love the Body of Christ. She is beautiful, powerful and full of resources. Because of that, we need to take a good hard look at our failure to shape culture, pick ourselves up and chart a course that actually moves the Kingdom of God forward in our neighborhoods and cities.

The Move to Transformational Community

So, where to begin in this bold new venture? Let’s start by asking how Jesus made disciples, because his track record includes taking twelve misfits and in less than three years turning them into a band of men who would literally turn the world upside down and propagate what would become the world’s largest religion. That’s the model I’d like to follow. So how do we get there? Here’s a potential road map:

  1. Take our big community gatherings and use them exclusively for worship, fellowship and announcements
  2. Raise up mature leaders from within the local church body to create house churches of no more than 12 people
  3. Design the house church experience to build relational connections within the group around a format where everyone brings something to the group
  4. Assign each house church a geographical area to impact through outreaches, service projects and worship events

This model does five things:

  • It engages individuals in relationship with each other and with a mature leader
  • It empowers those who attend these house churches to take responsibility and grow in their own leadership
  • It builds teams who have worked through conflict and learned to trust each other and work well together
  • It facilitates an environment where a “safe place” is can be created and people can receive healing
  • It creates local spheres of influence in a geographic area and a level of spiritual “responsibility” for that sphere

This model still retains the social aspect of the local church, getting to see each other and shake hands (or whatever we do during COVID-19), worship together and learn about what’s going on in the broader community. But, it emphasizes discipleship-based relationship, team building and both social & spiritual responsibility. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:26 that when we come together, “one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.” The New Testament picture of “church” is that everyone brings something; in a congregation of even fifty people, that would be very difficult to give everyone opportunity to share what they brought on a Sunday morning.

So, if our church model (i.e. sermons on Sunday) looks nothing like the New Testament and the fruit we are producing provides only marginal impact on our immediate communities, it gives me great pause about what we as a Church are doing on Sunday morning and casts great doubt on what we hope to accomplish through such meetings. We have an opportunity now to “bite the bullet” and make these changes (drastic though they be) so we can set ourselves up to reach a lost world with the Kingdom of God in an increasingly volatile and hostile world. The pandemic this year has given us a golden opportunity to make these changes, but will we? These changes are necessary now (I would even argue they are overdue), but it’s still our choice. I believe a time is coming when we will have no choice but to dispense with the one-to-many model and move to house churches. Again, COVID gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop those frameworks and move in that direction, but we appear to be letting that opportunity pass us by.

It’s time for us to stand as the powerful people we are and choose to embrace the New Testament model of “church” and stop fooling ourselves into thinking that an hour on Sunday and some Bible study during the week is going to impart transformation into our congregations, let alone the communities surrounding them.

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