Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Keeps Sincere Leaders From Collaborating With Other Churches

We're all in the same body of Christ, on the same team, right? Our churches are facing the same cultural challenges, all working for the same goal--spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and bringing glory to God. So why are churches collaborating with each other?

Think about it. How many of your church's ministries include another church? How many of the food drives? How many of the evangelism efforts? How many of the youth events or Christmas programs involve Christians in your area that are members of another church?

The answer for the vast majority of churches in America is: NONE. Not a single ministry effort includes cooperation with another church. (By the way, I'm very curious to see if this problem happens in other countries.)

Think about how many times churches duplicate the efforts of other churches; how many extra items are purchased when they could be shared; how many times churches are struggling to have enough people or money to make an event happen. And think about the powerful message to a community when churches do collaborate. It elevates the attention to Christ, not our particular congregation or our particular pastor.

So why aren't churches in America doing this?

Some churches disagree strongly over doctrine, including substantial biblical issues. That does make it harder to work together. But that still doesn't explain the lack of collaboration. Most churches in the same denomination in the same town do only the required minimum of collaboration. And that's usually giving a portion of their income to the denomination at large and attending an annual gathering of leaders--not actually doing any ministry together.

I've don't ministry in a town with a 1st Baptist Church, 2nd Baptist Church, and 3rd Baptist Church--all within 10 minutes drive of each other, none of whom collaborated on a single ministry event. And don't think it's limited to Baptists. I led a parachurch youth ministry project in another town and on a major intersection found four churches--one on each corner. These churches were all fairly large and successful. And not one staff member at any of the churches had ever even met another staff member from any of the other churches. They could see each other from their front door and didn't meet. Oh, and while they weren't all the same denomination, they were all from mainline denominations with very few doctrinal differences.

They weren't enemies of each other. It just hadn't occurred to them to meet the other church people, let alone work together.

In fact, what's much more likely is for a typical church to be in active competition with other churches. Their leaders work to convince their people that their church is the best church in this area, trying to get their attendees to commit to their church as their church home (and not any of the others).

Think about the mailers you get (or the ones you just sent out). Boil the advertising down and here's what the vast majority of churches are saying to their communities:

Our church isn't like all the other churches you've been to--we're better (i.e. more casual, more open to non-believers, or more spiritual, or more friendly, etc)

I don't think churches compete (vs. collaborate) because their leaders don't love Jesus or are a bunch of hypocrites. In fact, in my encounters with hundreds of church leaders across dozens of denominations I find church leaders to be overwhelmingly sincere and truly committed to serving God.

So why are these sincere followers of Jesus not working together? I think it's actually driven by the system of modern church life--and the economics built into the system.

Typical churches are dominated and defined by their Sunday services. Not only is it the central element of their Christian duty ("being a Christian means attending church"), Sunday services are the venue for collecting income (call it "tithing" if you like, it's still the income stream for the church). And no matter how much we believe in the abstract that we're all in the body of Christ, the typical church measures it success by: 1) how many people come on Sunday morning;  and 2) how much those people give during the Sunday services.

And that creates a zero-sum game for churches. If a person goes to another church on Sunday morning at 9am, then they can't also be at your church at the same time. If they give their tithe to that church, they can't also give it to your church. One church's gain is another church's loss. So collaboration is dangerous because the attendance and giving get muddled. If you hold a joint service, how do you split the offerings received? If you hold a joint community outreach program, where do you tell the new believers to come to on Sunday morning--and who will get the tithe we will tell them God requires?

As long as Sunday service attendance and 10% tithes are the core definition of being a Christian, then churches will always be driven to compete with the other churches in their area. In this environment, the ministries you offer aren't just a method for reaching the world (though they are that, too). They are also your unique features that are used to convince customers to plug into your church--and not the others.

It's just the natural consequence of their system.

However, when you don't have services at the same time and don't require a tithe to a general fund (see my earlier posts on tithing and a simple weekly schedule) the freedom to truly collaborate is amazing. Our church has done this from the start. The amount of shared ministry projects has gone up or down over the years, but we've never had a time when we didn't have at least one shared project--where we were either sending people and money to support another church's ministry efforts or having them join something we were leading.

It's not because I am more holy than the other leaders. Not even close. It's because I didn't have anything to lose--no money I was counting on. We've had members attending multiple churches (our and another) almost continuously since our founding. Because our system makes it easier to do.

What does your church system encourage? How dependent are you on the tithes of your members? What if you weren't?

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