After the Evangelical Industrial Machine: People v. Production

“People v. production,” I mused back in 2015. I’d just had a first-time visit to City Church Long Beach, creeping into the worn-down seats of an elementary school auditorium with my then-little family. After about 15 years of ministry, I felt just about as worn down as the seats. And what I’d just witnessed, from the Scripture reader wearing super-casual clothes that would have gotten her shunned in most “good” churches I knew to the friendly, laughter-filled responses to the (many) bumps in the service flow – just the overall warm and family feel even in this crowded room – it was so life-giving.

The previous few years of ministry in another context had been extra challenging, a constant tug between my commitment to a community and my awareness of a growing mismatch between my vision and theirs. Which is not at all to say that that church was awful; it was a pretty normal, American, evangelical-ish church, filled with great people. It’s just that the normal, American, evangelical-ish church is also very production oriented. My experience of exhaustion as a church leader is not at all unique. “People v. production” seemed to encapsulate a lot of that dissonance, that clash of leadership style and goals.

Production and Its Pressures

What do I mean by “people v. production”? Well, let’s start with production. Bill has a habit of telling people just learning about City Church that we’re “not a very good church.” It’s about half Enneagram 8 oppositional energy and half ironic nod to the evangelical industrial machine we both grew up in spiritually. By that industry’s standards we now fail, week after week.

“Evangelical industrial machine?” you ask. Surely that’s a bit overstated.

OK, experiences may vary. But we’ve seen an awful lot of “bigger is better,” crank-it-out and build-it-up energy in the church and the industry (yes, industry – print publishers, music producers, and conference organizers) influencing it. One-size-fits-all recommendations and a monopolizing vision of what it means to be a “good” or “successful” church. Changed lives, yes, but also numerical growth. Curbside appeal. Production.

Let’s brainstorm what might go on that list these days.

  • Slick AV, in service and online
  • Compelling music
  • Charismatic preaching
  • A variety of ages and life stages ministries to choose from, from kids and youth to singles and moms
  • Some missional connections in the community and overseas
  • Bonus points for awesome aesthetic vibe and excellent coffee

All of these things may be good  – may even be great! – if you have sufficient people with the gifts, time, energy and intrinsic motivation to pull it off, without becoming burnt out, without neglecting other parts of their lives. But lots of us don’t. And we hurt our people when we insist on them trying to make it happen anyway, on production whatever the cost.

Thus, our last blog all about people who’ve felt manipulated and burnt-out by the demands churches have placed on them, and the “unforced” alternative.

Thus one of our earliest blogs about narcissistic leaders in the church and the damage they do. (Narcissistic leaders love production – it all builds up their self image.)

Starting with People

So how do we right-size, human-size, our expectations for what our community can do together in a healthy, sustainable way?

A more human, loving approach might look something like this: we reverse the process. Instead of starting with the goal (“we’re going to be this kind of church with these kinds of ministries, because that’s what a good church does, d*mmit”), we start with the people.

What are they/we good at? Passionate about? What kind of time, energy and resources do they/we have to cheerfully share, from a place of centered rest? We build our goals out from the community we actually are. We build according to the gifts, passions and deep values we actually hold, instead of pushing toward the kind of community we’ve received messages we should be.

(Any other asset based community development fans out there sensing the resonance?)

Let’s take Kids Ministry as an example (yet again)

Because it’s such a volunteer-heavy area of ministry. Just to give you another real-life glimpse of how we’re trying to live this out:

  • Our Kid Min is generally not fancy; story, craft, playtime, boom. We do try to make sure it’s really caring and safe. That matters to us.
  • We have one volunteer who has wanted to go all out when she serves once a month, pulling together incredible crafts and story-times for the kids. Wow, we celebrate that one “fancier” Sunday a month – she’s amazing! We also celebrate our simple Sundays and those faithful volunteers.
  • Building back up after quarantine, we’ve decided to only offer Kid Min on as many Sundays as we have volunteers for. Which sounds completely obvious, but it’s actually a conscious and, we hope, culture-forming decision: while we will intentionally invite people to participate, we will not feel desperate or push for people to say yes. So if we have enough volunteers for 3 Sundays a month? Great, we offer Kid Min 3 Sundays a month. When we have enough for 4, we’ll offer 4.
  • One thing we’re also trying is a rotation between stations, so volunteers can sign up to help either with story & craft OR with playground monitoring. Because some people might be happy to hang out with kids playing, but not comfortable teaching a lesson, and vice versa (“unforced” showing up again).

It’s Not Without Cost

Of course, making this commitment to running our Kids Min this way has costs. Like people who are looking for super exciting programming for their kids will probably not be joining us. And there are other churches who do that really well and can serve those folks. They might even grow numerically faster than us, and we’re going to have to embrace being numerically smaller. (I’m emphasizing “numerically” because we think there are other ways to be “big.”)

On a deeper level, committing to “unforced” ministry means letting go of our desire for control. We’re giving up any vain thoughts that we can set a detailed plan for how things will unfold on any given Sunday, much less strategizing two-to-five years into the future! Because if we really empower our volunteers, our leaders and teams, and they bring in their perspectives, energy and ideas, the end “product” will not look just like us and our limited vision. It will be unique and at least a bit unexpected every time, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, shaped by all the various contributors. (Hopefully with the thread of our community values weaving everything together.)

These costs aren’t usually the objections people share out loud though. This one is:

“Doesn’t God deserve our excellence?

I think people who ask this question are probably leaning into verses about how God deserves our worship, how God is worthy of glory and honor. Fair enough.

But shouldn’t we hold those verses in tension with the ones about how God desires love and not sacrifice (a big show) – how what God really requires of us is that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God? (Sounds pretty non-production-oriented to me.)

Given those verses, I’m thinking yeah, those are the things I want to be excellent in – the ones that help me love God and love my neighbors. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy or not make any effort at all. (Like the time I really looked at our ridiculously beaten up church sign that welcomed folks, sort of, on Sunday mornings – yikes! That was an easy and necessary fix.) Yes, sometimes relationship building requires effort. But we make an effort because we love God and people, we don’t sacrifice people because we love looking like we made an effort. That’s a pretty key distinction.

we make an effort because we love God and people, we don’t sacrifice people because we love looking like we made an effort.

Hitting the Balance

Here’s a simple word picture I use to try to orient myself sometimes, when it comes to these questions of excellence:

I think about what goes into creating a truly hospitable home, one that creates real welcome for people – because that’s where we want to excel. If we spend no energy at all on setting up a welcoming environment, it’s just a mess, no place to sit, nothing prepared, then our guests will probably not feel comfortable. And that’s not love.

But going too far the opposite direction, making things so perfect people are worried about smudging the couch or dropping a single crumb, and they can’t relax – that’s not love either.

Somewhere in the middle, where people feel comfortable curling up on the couch and getting out their own glass for water, that’s just about right. That’s the kind of “excellence” we’re aiming for.

Have we as leaders erred too far in either direction at times?

Absolutely, no question. But there’s something about being able to name this people v. production tension that keeps us having the right conversations so we can get back on track.

So we welcome kids to a not fancy but safe and loving Sunday storytime, 3 Sundays a month for now (coloring sheets available in service on the others).

And we serve normal church coffee every week. Sure, it’s not barista-level, but our first Sunday back in person post-quarantine, several people told us that when they saw our incredibly faithful coffee host, that was when they cried. She embodies consistency and welcome to them.

So tired Jesus followers like 2015 me keep stumbling into worn down seats in a simple auditorium and finding a worshipping community that’s stumbling along too and warmly welcomes them. They find rest.

People v. production – one matters more than the other.