In many ways, we have begun to view the church as a corporation. Some will argue that this is a necessary adaptation to our modern context, but we can say that at the very least it poses some serious problems. It’s not unhealthy to learn from the corporate world and employ certain strategies and practices where relevant. But I think that we’ve bought into this corporate view of the church so deeply that we have developed an identity crisis.
In a previous post, I described the church’s tendency to approach evangelism as salesmen rather than as a compelling gospel-transformed community. I think that tendency derives from our view of church as a corporation rather than a community. In this post, I want to focus on the impact our corporate view of church has had on our approach to mission.
Here’s my observation: we tend to view church expansion in terms of the franchise model.
What do you do when your business becomes successful? You open a franchise in a new area so that you can reproduce your product for a broader market. A franchise is essentially a reproduction of the parent business, designed to offer the same services and generate the same results in a new market.
Now, what do you do when your church establishes itself and grows in popularity? At some point, many churches decide to plant another church. This can mean many different things, but often it involves planting a duplicate church in a new area. Sometimes it even uses the same sermons or music via a video feed. The style, emphases, and strategies remain the same, but they’re employed in a new location.
Is that bad? Not necessarily. I could point to a host of healthy and effective church plants and video campuses that are doing great work for the kingdom. I strongly believe in the concept of planting new churches, and in many cases, two churches in two different areas should look a lot alike. My only concern is that if we think of church plants as franchises, we won’t take into account the people, culture, and needs of the area we are seeking to reach. And this is especially important when we plant churches overseas, though we can find significant cultural differences in our own backyards.
Church is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Okay, let me be quick to clarify: there is one gospel, one Lord, one truth, one body of Christ, etc. So in a sense, that one incredible size does fit every person in the entire world. But should a church in upstate New York look, sound, feel, and function exactly like a church in the middle of the Congo? I really don’t think so. I don’t know how it could.
For one thing, styles change from place to place. Can Congolese musical styles praise Jesus as well as a Chris Tomlin tune? Absolutely! Americans don’t have a patent on worship. Should African churches have buildings, pews, hymnals, suits, and American songs simply because that’s how we do things in America? Absolutely not. If an African church decides that the best way to live out the gospel in their unique setting is to incorporate all of these elements, then that’s great. But too often we create foreign churches which mirror their American counterparts in every respect. Each time we do this, we have simply opened a franchise overseas.
So how do we go about planting churches effectively? I suggest that whether we want to plant a church in the Congo or in the suburb next door, we need to take the infallible, unchanging Word of God into that setting and allow it change our lives in the midst of that cultural soil. Only then will we learn what type of building to create (if any), how we should dress, what strategies we should employ, and how we can best communicate the gospel to the people that God has placed around us.
A franchise is all about duplicating a particular look, feel, and business model. But the gospel takes root in any and every cultural soil on earth. And as the truth of the gospel transforms the lives of people around the world (as it always has and always will), then we will look around in amazement as we see the beauty of the church in each of its cultural expressions.