“Where is it? If a new thing is happening, why can’t we see it? If these new models or wineskins of church are so great, why aren’t they strong and visible now?”  A friend involved in leadership of a ‘normal’ church regularly throws these questions at me. Other leaders raise the same issue in the form of a statement “when you have a church of a thousand people and are seeing hundreds saved every year, then you can critique current church structures.”

For myself, and other proponents of alternative ways of extending God’s kingdom, including house churches, organic churches, and truly missional churches, these questions are often raised by defenders of the status quo – by leaders within structured churches, as they look outside the domain of organised Christianity at the alternative forms of ‘church’ being discussed and attempted. “If what you’re proposing is so great, where is it? Why can’t we see it? Why isn’t it growing rapidly?” 

These appear to be good questions, at least from the perspective of those who ask them. At a surface level, they are disturbing. Yet when I reflect more deeply, I can sense reasons why growth would be slow, and why the results might not be very visible. And at an even deeper level, there is a sense that they aren’t the right questions – they are questions being asked from a framework that is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the world changes.

Here are some of my reflections in response to these questions, taken from a New Zealand perspective. For ease of communication, I refer to it as ‘new models’ – however, even the concept of what is emerging being ‘models’ is language that belongs in a different paradigm – maybe it would be better for us to talk of experiments or communities.

Reasons why growth might be slow for new models

–          Slow Growth is Normal. Any new model, starting from virtually no people & resources, will be slow to grow.  Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity p6) estimates that Christianity grew at 3.4% per year for the first few centuries. Hence, anything new that starts with small numbers and grows at only a few percent per year, will take a long time to become large.

–          The Existing Models aren’t Growing. Overall, the existing structured church models aren’t growing. Although there are a few exceptions and some structured churches generate 5-10% conversion growth pa, generally changes in church numbers are just transfers between churches (like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic). Hence, even if the new models aren’t growing, that is no different from the structured model. As my wife Margaret said “Even if it doesn’t work, you can choose either the expensive version that doesn’t work (existing church), or the cheap version that doesn’t work (new models)”. We prefer the cheap version so we can use our time and money to serve the poor and wider community, rather than wasting it on church buildings, staff & programs that aren’t working. (Typical structured churches spend at least 90% of their time and money on providing services for the church members).

–          The Existing Models are the Norm. The existing church models are the norm, and people (both churched & unchurched alike) think this is the only way to do church. Hence, alternative models are only credible either with people who have thought through and question or reject the current models, or with new converts, (as long as the converts aren’t drawn into structured church models because most church-goers they meet think they are the only way).

–          The Existing Model Drains Resources. The existing institutional church is large & drains resources from the Christian community, particularly people’s time and energy. It is difficult for a new small tree to grow under the shade of a large tree, as the large tree drains the nourishment from the ground & also shades the light.

–          Exhaustion.  People who leave the organised church structure are often exhausted physically, spiritually, economically & emotionally.  Because of this, they often ‘take a break’ from church activities, and usually don’t quickly throw themselves into making alternative church models work.

Reasons why a new model might not be very visible

–          Invisible by Nature. The newer unstructured models are by nature invisible, as they don’t have professional staff, buildings, big meetings, programs and advertising. Hence, much of what happens in the new models will never be visible, or we will only get glimpses of it.

–          Kingdom not Church. The new modes are usually focussed on the kingdom, rather than on building a visible local church. Hence the activity is spread out everywhere, rather than being centred in a few visible places.

–          No Advertising.  Structured churches often get a lot of profile from relatively small things they do in the community, as part of their self-promotion. In contrast, community and kingdom activities undertaken by individuals or unstructured groups of Christians are usually not advertised, and hence are relatively invisible.

–          Different Language. The new models of church speak a different language.  Structured churches often talk in terms of numbers saved and numbers in their church. However, for people in the newer models who might, in the words of Brian McLaren, ‘count conversations rather than conversions’, the language used is different. Hence, the questions asked from a structured-church perspective are often meaningless questions in irrelevant language when viewed from an alternative paradigm.

Indicators that something is out there now

–          Christians Are Leaving the Current Church. In New Zealand, there are more Christians outside the church than in it. I used to guess that half of the people in NZ who call themselves Christians aren’t in churches. Recently, I saw some research that indicates it is much higher than this. In a Massey University survey of more than 1000 people, the results indicated that out of every 6 people, 1 was actively involved in a church (16%), 1 was linked to a church but not active, 2 had previously been in a church but were no longer part of it, & 2 had no previous church association.  This indicates that in NZ, for ever one person active in a church, there are two ex-church people (plus 1 person linked but inactive). Hence, there are more Christians outside the church, than are active within it.

–          Models Increasing.  There is an increasing variety of new models for churches, including ‘emergent’ churches & house churches. Also, an increasing number of structured churches are trying new things to try to bring new life & growth. These are indicators that people are dissatisfied with the status quo, and are looking to establish something new.

–          Things are Happening Elsewhere.  In other parts of the world, alternative models are apparently succeeding. This is seen in the house churches in China, house churches in India, house churches and organic churches in the USA etc.

Many people are trying a variety of alternative ways to ‘be church’ and extend the kingdom. Some of the experiments will be unsuccessful, and others might succeed – it is worth trying.  As a friend once said “Even if it doesn’t work, I’ll still do it”. There are good reasons for trying new ways of extending God’s kingdom, especially if they are less costly, freeing our resources to serve the wider community.