In 2009 Wendy and I stepped out of traditional church leadership, recruited a small group of like minded people, and began experimenting with what it meant to “be the church.” The group went through several iterations. We closed it in 2013. It was called “The Thingy.”
Blog posts about the group were the first things I ever published online. I wrote them in hopes that others might learn from our successes and failures. The blog I wrote them on is long dead, so I’m going to post them here hopes that someone might be inspired by them and learn from the adventure we had.
Two nights ago I posted the posts from the first six months of the group.(Click here to read it.)
Last night I posted journal entries at the one year and two year marks to show you how the group evolved. (Click here to read those.)
Tonight I’m posting my journal entries from my final reflections, after the group had ended. Enjoy.
Final Thoughts – April 24 2013
Experimentation unexamined is unproductive. A little over four years ago Wendy and I joined with a small group of people in Baltimore to experiment with different ways of living as the church. Our hope was to birth a new form of church that would engage post-congregational, post-Christendom, post-institutional, post-whatever. We called this experiment “The Thingy.”
The experiment started to end in December of 2012. Wendy and I still meet monthly with members of the group for dinner and have discussed rebuilding or starting something new, but we haven’t gotten anything up and running yet.
I need time. Time to process. Time to analyze the last four years.
Before Cory gets mad at me, let me pause here to say: I’ve written before about the great things that came out of the group. It was a fantastic experience, lives were changed (including mine), and I learned a massive amount about what it means to be a Jesus follower. Great stuff happened and I wouldn’t trade the journey we had. The good stuff is not the focus of this post. I want to examine what didn’t work?
Since December I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the journey. I’ve journaled countless pages. I’ve spent hours in prayer and reflection. I even took one of the white boards in my office and wrote the words “WHAT DIDN’T WORK?” across the top. Then I spent the three months writing statements on the board, pondering them whenever I found my hands idle, rewriting them, erasing them, and adding more.
On Sunday morning I had to erase the board and use it for another project, which told me it is time. The meat has marinated long enough. The time has come to eat the stew.
Here are five things that didn’t work:
1) Consensus Approach to Leadership Mixed with Unclear Vision
From the beginning I forced the group into a consensus model of leadership. I was the primary driver of this approach. The group was small and I still believe the consensus model might have worked if the shared vision had been clear and well defined; but the vision was not. Therefore the consensus model forced us into long discussions that exhausted and frustrated new members.
2) We Began with “Nots”
When the group formed we were driven by what we didn’t want to be. We knew very clearly what we wanted to avoid. Somewhere around the beginning of year two we each began forming pictures what we did want to be…and these pictures didn’t completely mesh. I made things worse when I had another revelation at the end of year two and didn’t communicate it well.
3) The Need Was Not Felt
When we first began, my idea was to model the step structure of Alcoholics Anonymous. The need for an alcoholic to find healing is physically present and therefore urgent. In our current cultural climate, an individual’s need to connect with God outside of common institutional church settings is only physically present in spurts and therefore rarely urgent.
4) We Did Not Respect Standard Cultural Groupings
We naturally gather with 2 to 5 people for intimacy, 12 to 20 people for strategic decision making and deployment, and 40+ people (depending on the size of the room) to be inspired and motivated. We ignored these cultural groupings in our experiment.
5) We Tried to Erase the Foundation
Church is similar to Congress. To quote Dan Carlin, “Legislation never goes away. It is never repealed. It just becomes the foundation for what is next.” The current expression of church as a gathering on Sunday morning is still to prolific to be ignored, regardless of how ineffective or problematic it is.
Final Thoughts Part Two – April 25 2013
I’m going to come at this one sideways…but stay with me…there are methods to my madness.
When we started the Thingy I realized our system of church – the way we do church – no longer matched contemporary culture and needed a reboot.
We (the collective American church) have designed church to be a “disciple factory.” People are put on the conveyor belt of programming which we believe will develop them into our local church’s brand of fully functioning Christ followers.
To inspire people to keep moving through the assembly line we develop a reward/consequence system.
Rewards come in the form of:
- Public praise and pats on the back
- Increased responsibility and ownership of the congregation
- Greater access to revered leadership
Consequences are more passive:
- Shame through consistent reminders that everyone needs to follow the system
- Restrictions on participation (you can’t be a “deacon” unless you have been faithful to follow the system)
This is type of system is what Daniel Pink calls an “extrinsically motivating system”. (Check out his book Drive, or if you don’t read watch this video of his TED talk.) Pink explains that these incentives are fantastic for simple, straightforward tasks; but for complex, conceptual, creative tasks (like living as a missionary) this type of system discourages innovation and inspires people to do only the bare minimum required to receive the reward.
Church leaders: Want to know why there is a funneling effect in you congregation? Want to know why people who are successful and creative in their professional life simply show up week after week and barely participate in your church? Part of the reason is you are operating in a closed, extrinsically motivating system.
Our hope with the Thingy was to move from an extrinsically motivating system to an intrinsically motivating system, which I believed would end the funneling effect.
An intrinsically motivating system is one in which:
- individuals own the mission of the organization, are fully engaged in the life of the church,
- individuals are excited about mastering necessary skills needed to carry out that mission,
- individuals have the ability/competency to direct their own path in accomplishing the mission. (The mission I’m referring to is the mission of the Kingdom – the imitation of Jesus through devotion to God and the sharing of His love with the world around you; also known as love God, love your neighbor.)
When I looked around Baltimore, an organization I thought was already working well as an intrinsically motivating system was Alcoholics Anonymous.
Members of AA are given 12 steps – which are not programs to participate in but guidelines for personal growth members translate into their unique circumstances at their own pace. Routine attendance at a specific meeting is not the goal. Attend any meeting whenever you want. The goal is character development, a life free from addiction.
We began the Thingy by building our own version of the 12 steps; but instead of life free from addiction as the end goal, we put imitation of Jesus. We spent four months building character traits. It was fun, exciting, and challenging. Then we began meeting in AA style. We would read the character traits and discuss how we were progressing with each one.
That was where things went wrong. The discussion made everyone feel like crap. We never measured up. Even small successes were outweighed by massive personal failure. The system lasted four months before we couldn’t take it any more and were back into a redesign phase.
Moving to an intrinsically motivate system from a conveyor belt by open sourcing discipleship through giving lifestyle goals not programming goals was good. I’m more convinced than ever it is where the church needs to go if it is to once again be a voice in culture. The problem was not the big idea. The problem was the end goal we established.
When someone begins attending AA they have hit bottom. Their addiction has become so overwhelming and destructive they must take drastic action. There is an ever present need to change their character. They can feel it every day, in every muscle of their body. The need is tangible. It is painful. It is urgent. I fantastic sponsor once told me, “The only way an addict stops drinking is if he is willing to kill himself before he takes a drink because he realizes taking a drink and suicide are the same thing.”
The need to be a more mature Jesus follower is not the same as the need to overcome addiction in our culture. It is something we think about after personal failure. We don’t feel it every day. We don’t see it as urgent. Therefore, it is not a problem we direct our lives after.
I don’t really want to discuss rather the state of culture is right or wrong. It simply is the world we are in. Let’s blame Constantine. We can pile on him. The list of the ways he destroyed Christianity is so long already he won’t notice one more thing.
If I had it to do over again, I would have made the end need something more tangible, something people can see, something they feel is urgent. Something less introspective.
We the goal was about our personal development, we spent a lot of time looking inward, navel gazing. This contrasts with Jesus’ mission to the world, which is not about me. It is about others.
The goal needs to be something outside of my personal development. Maybe the pain of a city? Something like:
“We need to imitate Jesus because it is the only way to bring healing to the city we live in.”
Changing the goal will shape how people innovate. Questions will not be, “How forgiving were you this week?” (a question Thingy members asked ourselves). Rather questions will be “did you show forgiveness to one person this week?” This is where Wendy and I were going with Love Your Baltimore…but then I ran out of steam in February and needed some time to finish reflecting…and thus these posts…and now we are full circle.
I know I dropped a lot of thought in the last thousand words. If there is anything you want me to write more about let me know. I will happily spell it out in muddled confusing detail. It’s my pleasure because the act of explaining helps me more than it helps you.
If there are no questions I’ll post another one in a few days.
Final Thoughts Part Three – April 28, 2013
Five years ago Wendy and I began rethinking “church.” We were frustrated with our practice and felt our understanding of church needed reforming. As we studied, talked, dreamed, and debated several things became clear to us:
- We had replaced the mission of sharing Jesus’ love with the world with the mission of growing an institutional church (think the building on the corner you see everywhere in Baltimore). While a growing institutional church may be a byproduct of Jesus’ love being shared; Jesus’ love being shared is not necessarily the byproduct of a growing institutional church.
- Jesus intended for his followers to be defined by a shared lifestyle of reckless and messy love, but instead we were defining them through shared programming.
- We were participating in an unhealthy hierarchy which unintentionally elevated some believers over others removing the responsibility of mission from most of the congregation.
- Because the institution was program dependent (growth was measured through programming growth, staff was hired around programming, and people joined because they loved programming) the money which made programming possible had a powerful voice in the direction of the institution.
I could go on and on here, but I’m drifting from the real point. If you want more “wants wrong with contemporary forms of church” ranting ask for it in the comments. Back to the point…
We recognized the current definition of church, the definition we lived under, the “institutional church”, had some serious problems at its foundation which needed to be fixed.
But how does someone bring healing a patient who won’t admit she is sick?
Most church leaders will agree that tweaks need to be made. They will admit the living room walls need to be repainted. They will confess the kitchen counters are out of date. They will talk about how they would love to buy a new couch. Few church leaders will admit the house needs major structural repair, that the floors tilt to the right, or that there are cracks in the foundation.
I completely understand this denial by the way. I often long to return to it. My current perspective was not an easy pill to swallow for me either.
Seeing the huge problem and the uphill battle getting an existing church to join us would be, we decided to start from scratch. We banked on the belief that there were lots of people who felt like us out there and that they would get excited about finding non-institutional patterns of following Jesus.
We were half right.
There are a lot of people out there who recognize the problems with the institutional church…but very few of them share our passion for finding solutions. People who shared our understanding of the church are wounded. They aren’t looking to develop a new definition of church. They are just happy to be free and clear of the institution.
Around year two I was discussing this with a friend from London. He explained to me the difference between the European church and the American church in a way that helped me understand:
- When his great-grandparents were in their twenties, everyone belonged to an institutional church. So in his grandparents’ elementary school class everyone went to church.
- When his grandparents were in their twenties, people began to grow frustrated with the institutional church and many of them stopped participating. So in his parents’ elementary school class about 60% of the kids attended church.
- When his parents were in their twenties even less people attended an institutional church. There were those newly waking up to the problems of the institution and then those who had simply grown up without it. So in his elementary school class about 30% of the kids belonged to a church.
- Now he has kids. In his kids’ class, only about 10% of the kids belong to an institutional church.
I look at my kids’ classes and we are somewhere around 60%. If trends continue, the basic difference between the American church and the church of Europe is time.
But when Wendy and I founded the Thingy were pretending our kids’ classes were at 10%. They aren’t. Not yet.
Somewhere around year one a pattern formed I found informative:
- I would make friends with someone in the community.
- After a while, Jesus stuff would come up.
- We would then have a series of fantastic conversations about God.
- They would connect/reconnect with Jesus.
- Then they would go to an institutional church.
Note – not join the Thingy.
We would always talk about the Thingy. Sometimes they would visit the Thingy. When they did they often were intimidated. One friend told me the Thingy was like “the Green Berets” and he simply wanted to “re-enlist in the army.” They would go to an institutional church because somewhere they could remember it. They attended as a kids with grandparents, or their parents were members somewhere, or they had been in a youth group. Sadly, it was never long before the problems of the institution began to creep up again and they would settle for a weird middle ground of consuming but not joining.
We were too different. We were too much. We were too fast.
We weren’t just trying to reduce pollution in vehicle emissions We were seeking to eliminate driving altogether.
We weren’t just trying to drive people to healthy eating. We were working to replace every meal with a shake.
We weren’t just trying to teach people to slow their energy consumption. We were looking to them to unplug from the grid completely. Down with electricity!
I still believe the American church desperately needs reformation. Things have to change.
But I’ve come to understand that reformation needs to come from within existing structures.
If you don’t want to work within existing structures, then wait a few generations. If trends continue you will have your clean slate to work from in about sixty years.
That’s depressing. I can’t end that way. Dr. Gloer at Truett told me to always end stuff with joy.
Here is my encouraging, happy ending…
Working in the institutional setting is not as hard as I thought it would be four years ago. Helping Valley (the church I currently work at) for the last three and a half years through a season of transition has been surprisingly restorative with me. People don’t live in institutional church because they think it’s awesome. People live in institutional church because they love Jesus and they were told this is what loving Jesus looks like. If you, fellow reformers, walk slow and are willing to defend your thoughts over and over and over – you will see change. It will be slow, but it will come.
And I must say, there are few things more beautiful than watching a Christ follower come alive and join Jesus’ mission in the world. It’s fantastic.
Alright. Those are my thoughts. Feel free to push back, challenge, yell, question, or agree with anything I’ve said. Bring it!
A Rebuttal – May 13th, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote a series of posts detailing lessons learned from the neo-monastic missional community Wendy and I helped create. My best friend and co-founder, Cory Barnett, felt I was being to negative, so today he brings you fifteen things that worked.
FOURTEEN AWESOME THINGS I LOVED ABOUT THE THINGY!
by Cory Barnett
- Our relationship with Jesus is closer, deeper, and more personal than ever before, because by omitting the regular Sunday service, we were forced to develop the relationship on our own (as opposed to letting the event dictate our involvement).
- Through each individual sharing their own Jesus stories, every member of the group was able to see the stories from everyone else’s perspective. The sum of the parts was much greater than the whole.
- Members learned a new level of humility, through the understanding that all people are equally loved by God, and…
- …it is our job to show that love to those that don’t have it by meeting them where they are (not dragging them into a church.
- Realized that churches are ok, but limited because they are designed to provide a service to other members.
- As Christians, we should be striving for restoration of all things, to the way God intended it to be…whether identified as “Christian” or not.
- We learned that the church not only “doesn’t understand” when a group of Christians decide to minister to others outside of a church setting, but they actually think that harm is being done…but can’t really explain why.
- When explaining to others (both churched and unchurched) the purpose of The Thingy, the obvious hurt and frustration with the church was loud and clear. While we didn’t increase our numbers, the most common comment was “yeah, that’s the way it should be.”
- We realized that money typically tied up in the church machine can be put to much more effective use when members are free to not only give directly to those in need, but can also pool resources together to impact the lives of those that don’t have a church to turn to.
- Worship is not a time in a church service, it is an expression of gratitude and wonder, and can happen any time, any where.
- Church is not an established gathering, it is any time Christians come together.
- We realized that Jesus didn’t establish a church service. He was taking church to anyone, anytime they would listen. That is how we try to be.
- When Jesus was walking around, he was looking for the people that were hurting. Then he fixed them. Then he said “stop the stuff you are doing”. He never ended by saying “now go and find this group of people and meet with them every week”.
- Finally, we re-built our expectation of the church. Now, when I go to church, I am there because I want to be around other Christians, to celebrate what He has done for us, to sing with others, to learn from someone. Here is my point. If I don’t go, there is no guilt, no shame, no feeling of letting someone down. I can feel the closeness of my Father any time…all the time.