At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City a rail-thin engineering student from Oregon State named Dick Fosbury stunned the world of track and field with his approach to the high jump competition. Rather than sprinting straight toward the bar like the other competitors, Fosbury stood to one side and ran toward the bar in a short loop. At the last-minute he turned his back and threw himself head first over the bar with his feet trailing as he fell on his back to the mat. No one had seen anything like this before; it was completely unorthodox, dangerous and possibly against the rules. Fosbury would have been laughed out of the competition except he had just set a new Olympic high jump record at 7 feet 4 1/4 inches. To this day on every Olympic high jump champion goes over the bar backwards in what is known as the Fosbury Flop. Dick Fosbury revolutionized his sport because he was willing to do something no one else had tried, to jump over the bar backwards.
The American church needs more Dick Fosburys. We need leaders who stay within biblical standards and respect the traditions of the church, but are willing to jump over the bar backwards. Too many churches are stagnant, too many church plant fails and too many people are unreached with the Gospel to continue to do the same thing over and over and hope for different results. The current models of Americna churches produce extraordinary results only when led by extraordinary leaders backed by extraordinary piles of cash. We don’t need to abandon these current models, but we have to find new models to reach new segments of society and see new patterns of success. So how do we find the “Fosbury Flop” in the American church? Here are a couple of ideas for starters:
Rethink our approach to money
One reason we cling to the existing models of church is they are safe. We have to pay the salaries and keep the lights on, so we stick with something that we know will bring in the needed funds. There is nothing wrong with this model, but it keeps us from changing. We can’t jump over the bar backwards because that’s not what tithers want. The majority of financial support in a church comes from established Christians who are very comfortable with the current model of church. When we introduce something new they vote with their bank account.
The same is true of church plants. A successful church plant is almost always backed by a substantial amount of cash, and supporters give to what they know. Church planters either figure out a way to plant with little support, or they conform to an existing model. They dream of jumping over the bar backwards, but they know they can’t really afford to make that leap of faith.
One way to change the financial paradigm is to create a very austere model; no buildings, very few staff, little or no equipment. Every few weeks I meet with a church planter who is adopting this approach under the label “missional”, “organic” or “house church”. There are a couple of challenges to this approach to finances. The first is there is little to no money to support the leader. He or she almost always has to find a “real job” to support their family. This leads to the second challenge: these churches grow very slowly leading to limited impact. This is not to say this isn’t a valid approach to church, but this is not a “Fosbury Flop” innovation that will soon change the story of the American church. There will always be a place for smaller, slow-growing communities of faith, but we also need other ideas.
Another way to approach the financial challenge of revolutionizing the model is to change the source. Basic economics tell us there are two ways to deal with financial deficits; we can decrease expenses or we can increase income. The challenge with decreasing expenses, as we’ve seen above, is it can cut off growth and innovation. Fewer expenses always means fewer resources to work with. What if instead we increased income? Again economic theory says that increased income is almost always accomplished by creating multiple streams. Rather than simply relying on a single salary, we might take a second job, invest in stocks or buy rental property. Well-resourced individuals and companies always have multiple income streams.
Somewhere along the way we decided that churches should only have one steam of income; local givers. I’ve read the New Testament many times over and I can’t find a single scripture that says the local church must always be limited by the giving of the local congregation. I have some friends who are doing some very innovative work in the area of supplemental funding in the local church context. One of my favorite ideas is combining a child care center, a Starbucks and a community center that doubles as a church on the weekends. Rather than a traditional church building with a coffee shop and daycare shoehorned in, the building is designed from the ground up to house three for-profit entities and a church sharing one location. This is just one of dozens of ideas I see churches experimenting with. I know there are huge pitfalls to when church and business are connected, but there are also tremendous pitfalls when you through yourself backwards over a high jump bar. As some of these ideas take shape I think we’ll see incredible innovation in the American church as finances take a back seat to the creative leading of the Holy Spirit.
Rethink our approach to where we plant
When Seacoast Church launched in 1988 they were the only church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina with contemporary music, relevant teaching and creative kid’s ministry. In fact there were very few churches in the entire state that did ministry similar to Seacoast. Part of Seacoast’s explosive growth is due to the fact they were “first to market” with a new way to do church. Now there are very few communities of any size in America without a church utilizing a similar approach to ministry as Seacoast. Their approach to music, preaching or children’s ministry may be slightly different, but their template looks the same. When new churches come into the community they end up fighting over the same market share. (We never call it that, but that is exactly what it is.) When one church does the model better than others there is a migration to the new church. If the new church is substantially better at the model they may wind up on the cover of Outreach Magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America. Some new people come to Christ, but the majority of the growth tends to be among the already convinced.
We need to get honest with ourselves and stop planting the same model over and over again in the same communities. Just because your church can plant a campus that will boom because you do ministry better than the churches that are already there isn’t a reason to go to that community. Is there something about your model that will actually reach a group of people who will never be reached by the existing churches? If you are going to reach the same demographic with the same basic method as the churches already in the community, why waste Kingdom resources to simply attract a crowd? Where are the communities that do not have a church like yours (or the one you want to plant)? Where is the unique group of people you can reach that no one else is reaching? A lot of resources and talent is being wasted trying to reach the same people with the same methods over and over and over again.
I love the work Christ Together (ChristTogether.org) is doing in cities across the country as they bring churches together to collaborate around bringing the Gospel to every man, woman and child in America. Rather than competing and stepping on one another churches are learning to cooperate and saturate their city with the Gospel. We need more Christ Together type movements among churches in our cities.
Rethink our approach to weekends
There was a time in America when going to a church building every Sunday, singing songs for 20-30 minutes and listening to a 30-45 minute sermon seemed normal. Almost everyone did something similar. We didn’t wonder why church was like that, it just was. We assumed it must be the biblical pattern, though we couldn’t remember any verses that mentioned hymnals or three-point sermons.
Today that model of church seems very strange to the uninitiated. Why would you go to a church building during the football game? Why would you stand and sing songs except at a concert or a ballgame? And listen to a man (almost always a man) talk for more than 30 minutes? Shoot me now.
Of course our pattern of church isn’t biblical or anti-biblical; it’s simply tradition. But our world has changed while we cling to our tradition. The length of sermons is an interesting case in point. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was only 14 minutes long. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” lasted 17 minutes. TED Talks, which have been viewed over a billion times online, last 18 minutes. But we continue to roll out the 30-45 minute lecture every weekend even though we know no one’s attention span lasts that long anymore.
Sitting in rows of chairs or in pews is another interesting tradition. We know that people learn better in circles when they can interact, but we save that for small group. On Sundays we keep them staring at the backs of other people’s heads while we drone on and on.
Musical worship is biblical, but there’s nothing in the Bible about the length of time, standing while you sing, or singing Chris Tomlin songs every time you get together. (Although the Tomlin part might be there, I’ll have to look again.) We stand and we sing because, well, we stand and we sing.
I’m not suggesting that the answer to our woes is to sit in circles, cut sermons to 18 minutes or switch to 5 minutes of Gregorian chant. What I am saying is we do the same things over and over and wonder why the uninitiated don’t connect. We’ve created the one right way to do church, the one right way to go over the bar, and we’ve closed our minds to jumping over backwards.
Is your church ready to flop?
There was a time when Dick Fosbury was the only person on the planet who thought jumping backwards over a high jump bar was a good idea. Until he won an Olympic Gold medal he was just a goofy engineering student from Oregon, when he cleared the bar at 7’ 4 1/2” he became the trendsetter for the next 50 years. We need more Dick Fosburys in the American Church. We need leaders who are willing to walk away from what they know, from what is safe, from what is comfortable and find a new way to share the timeless Gospel. But they need to succeed. It isn’t enough to be different, you have to make an impact. Little experiments are great, but at some point you have to win a Gold medal for the world to notice you exist. We need bold, crazily talented leaders who will lead us to a new model of church based not just on the past, but on what God wants to do in the future.