I recently heard a church leader explaining a lesson that the church can learn from Starbucks. He said, “People value convenience over community.” He explained that for years Howard Schultz and other leaders at Starbucks sold Starbucks as a place of community, a third space, where people could meet and engage with one another. “Now,” this pastor explained, “what people really value is convenience. Starbucks has learned this, and the church is going to have to learn this as well.”
This pastor was basically saying that the church is content. To paraphrase his thoughts, he was saying that the church is the great content that church leaders provide. People used to have to “go to the store” with other customers to get this content, but now they don’t have time for that. They still want our products but with convenience.
Aggregation versus Congregation
When I was growing up, churches were building big buildings, or in some cases making an idol out of their building, and people would warn, “The church is not a building.” Then came a rise of superstar pastors and cool worship bands, and people would warn, “The church is not an event.” But now, in an age of streaming media, we need to be reminded that “the church is not content.”
The Greek word ecclesia, translated “church,” is probably best understood as the assembly, gathering, or congregation of people called out by the gospel of Jesus and joined together with one another and with him. Church, or ecclesia, has more to do with the people than the building, the event, and certainly the content that people consume. The church is necessarily about community, and there is an emphasis throughout the scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, urging Christians towards one another.
I heard a pastor describe the difference between an aggregation and a congregation by comparing them to a sack of marbles and a cluster of grapes. He said that the church is not an aggregation, a group of people gathered together but disconnected like marbles, but rather a congregation, a group of people joined together organically, like a cluster of grapes, and necessarily bound with one another. The vision of our Lord for his church is that it would be a congregation, not an aggregation. The church is not made up of fellow customers who are enjoying and consuming the same kind of coffee; it is a family who, though it may be enjoying coffee together, is primarily focusing on one another.
Before COVID-19, many “leading” churches had begun to organize themselves around content. Some had an “online campus” that you could join from anywhere in the world, complete with “online pastors.” But most churches were still oriented around their congregations. Pastors were focused on pastoring, groups were focused on community, deacons were focused on meeting the practical needs of the body, and the church members were generally focused on one another.
Then COVID hit, and churches became content-producing machines. Many churches (including my own) that had no streaming service began streaming services weekly. We launched new podcasts or lunchtime conversations, and we shared music, updates, and Bible study material all over the internet. These capabilities provided an incredible crutch for us in these hard times, and this new content was an excellent means by which church leaders could stay connected to their people. But now, as we face re-opening, let’s remember that all of this was just a crutch.
The other night I was walking through my basement, and I saw a pair of crutches that I used after a skiing injury last year. When I hurt myself, I really needed them, but now I am well. I can walk rightly again, and the appropriate place for my crutches is in my basement. I say that to say, as the church begins to open up, we need to fight against the urge to continue to depend on our crutches. As church leaders, we need to shift our focus from merely “providing content” (though biblical truth will remain central to our ministry) to our people.
So, as you begin to re-open the church, here are a few things to think through . . .
Connect with your Members (one another)
If you are a church leader of any kind, from the Senior Pastor to a Group Leader to an involved member, this is a great time to be connecting with your church. If coming together continues to get safer, then this will be a great time to call your fellow church members, to set up a coffee or a walk, and to seek relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ that you haven’t seen in a while.
Remind Your Church about Church Membership
Tim Keller recently said in an interview that every church is basically going to be a “replant” in the coming months. While this is likely a threat to the church as an institution, I think it is good for the true church of Jesus Christ. It will allow us to rethink and reprioritize what we focus on as a church, and my hope for your church is that you would be focused on people and disciple-making. This “re-opening season” would be a good time to teach on what the church is and to remind the church of the numerous and clear “one another” commands in the New Testament.
Remove the Crutches (at the appropriate time)
If you really want your church to have a “full recovery,” at some point you will have to remove the crutches. While producing helpful online content for church members is valuable, it can also be a hindrance to real relationships that churches need. There are many benefits to a livestream service or Zoom Bible studies, particularly for those who are physically unable to attend, but these benefits can also be a hindrance to meaningful relationships and the necessary congregational aspect of a local church. If you are a church leader, I want to remind you that just because you started doing something during COVID-19 and just because it was a good crutch in this unprecedented time, that doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it as life returns to normal. (To be clear, we are still not close to normal, so these crutches may be necessary for many more months.)
The church may have a thing or two to learn from Starbucks, but how we prioritize community in a local church is not one of them. There will be many voices in the coming months talking about a “new normal” for the Christian church. This could be a time when many well-meaning people who are actually more focused on goats than sheep can inadvertently lead the flock away from green pastures and towards the wolves. Make sure you are listening for the Galilean accent of our True Shepherd. He is the one who really loves his church and truly knows what is best for us.