Follow the Money: Building Church upon the Powers

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 15, 2007

The theme for the latest Cutting Edge is reaching city folk–though not necessarily urban folk. There is a difference. It used to be that when one talked about reaching the “city” one talked about issues of urban poverty, race, homelessness, crime, etc. These days, with gentrification, doing church in the city is now trendy. And so, while “urban” churches still exist–ministering in the margins, the “City Church” is in ascendancy. City churches reach out into their metropolitan areas and try to tap into the vibe of the city center.

City-centers are basically the strong economic, artistic, and creative cores of those cities which have been sufficiently globalized. As global cities succumb to the globalization, their city centers begin to resemble the city center of, say, New York City. Large American cities are developing similar city centers too–through gentrification. As a result, city centers are getting packed full of upwardly mobile, highly educated, artistically-minded, urban professionals.

As I paged trough this edition, I felt really grumpy. It is filled with images of young, attractive, professional types. The overarching message was this: is the new center of gravity of city culture and this is who we should be doing church for in the City. And indeed, now that gentrification is happening, it seems that all the strategies that used to be employed to reach affluent suburbanites are now being revamped, made trendy, and fitted to reach affluent new-urbanites.

Is it me, or is this simply the “Deep Throat” method of church planting–FOLLOW THE MONEY? Why does it seem that church planting trends follow the demographics of empowerment? Those who are in cultural ascendancy become the focus of church planting efforts. Sure, sure this is more “effective” then simply wasting time building a movement in the margins. It makes sense to build up a solid core of competent, attractive, affluent young adults and then use their precious resources and talents to then go an serve poor folk…

…then again, Jesus didn’t exactly make alot of common sense…and he certainly wasn’t very “effective”. On whom Jesus lavished his time and intention wasn’t merely a matter of strategy. Jesus, I believe, ministered largely in the margins for theological reasons. Why is it, then, that we are so unwilling to follow in his footsteps?

Beloved. Let us do church in the margins; I know it is unsavory¬† and risky to do so. But remember: Jesus tells us: blessed are the poor. Lets take him at his word.¬† Let us act as though it is the poor who are indeed blessed.¬† Let us not, instead, build church upon the assumption that affluent young families and professionals and urban hipsters are the blessed ones upon whom we should build Christ’s church.

We must resist the urge to build your church upon the Powers. What do I mean when I say “building church upon the Powers?” By this I mean that all-to-often we start churches in a way that capitulates to things like racism, consumerism, and individualism hoping to “later” become faithful to what we already know is right. For example: when we started Missio Dei, Ed Stetzer told me to start a church with young white educated folks just like me and then try, later on, to cultivate diversity (this is exactly what Bill Hybels did). Or perhaps spending the first couple of years trying to grow a big, rocking worship service that caters to consumer tastes–preaching things that are sure to attract seekers and frustrated sheep, only later dealing with questions of “how do we cultivate real community” or “how do we begin, now, to address the hard-hitting teachings of Jesus Christ?” I know of others who have tried to attract young affluent families to their church hoping later on to use those resources to help the poor (thus making the affluent the core of the church and almost making certain that “the poor” are simply the recipients of their ministry efforts).

This isn’t to say that we should forsake the affluent. But it is to say that we should stop starting with the affluent, building upon the affluent, and elevating the culture, style, and sensibilities of the affluent. Instead of building a church upon the “best of these,” in hopes of ministering later to the “least of these,” why can’t we simply go among the “least of these” at the very beginning? Instead of staring out with the message: “blessed are the rich” why don’t we begin where Jesus began? Instead of taking upon ourself the mandate: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to build a church among the affluent” why do we not instead follow Jesus in saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he as anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor?”

By the way, you can get the latest copy of Cutting Edge (and subscribe) here.

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9 Responses to “Follow the Money: Building Church upon the Powers”

  1. toddh on March 15th, 2007 9:56 pm

    Right on buddy, right on.

  2. toddh on March 15th, 2007 10:03 pm

    To add to that last comment, what you are saying smacks a bit of denominational strategy for church planting. I think the “follow the money” strategy has probably been operative for a pretty long time, at least since the first US suburbs were created. By the way, where did you find that picture of Cori and I with her parents? Our lavish lifestyle is now no secret!

  3. markvans on March 15th, 2007 10:09 pm

    I took the picture…while I was coming back from the kitchen after getting some more caviar!

  4. Jeff on March 16th, 2007 10:46 am

    As long as we measure success by the world’s standards than we will use the world’s methods…
    Let’s face it. This is the skeleton in the closet of the emerging church movement that will be part of its unsavory legacy. Yes, I know there are theological shifts ungirding the movement, but what have we really done differently than the “seeker-sensitive” movement of the 80’s and early 90’s? We’ve just moved it from the sprawling suburbs to the urban centers and repackaged it for a new generation of consumers under the guise that reaching young urban professionals is somehow more noble than reaching young suburban families.
    You are right on, Mark. I was sadly disappointed in the lastest Cutting Edge, as well. They normally do an excellent job, but I think they really dropped the ball on this on. Of course, it’s not all their fault. They’re just following the money.

  5. grace on March 16th, 2007 1:36 pm

    Awesome post! Your point about starting one way with the hope of becoming something different later is very important.

    I think that if we realize that what we plant has a DNA, then we can understand that if we plant a certain DNA, we will not grow something completely different than what we plant. This of course means paying careful attention to the core DNA of what we actually plant so that we can grow into what we actually intend to be.

    Also, your ideas about consumerism and individualism remind me of a great article I read this weekend. ;) I think these will be determining issues for whether the church in America (not only the suburbs) truly becomes missional.

  6. Geoff Holsclaw on March 16th, 2007 5:52 pm

    great post. this is all too true. It has been happening for a while here in the Chicago. thanks.

  7. dlw on March 18th, 2007 5:39 pm

    good stuff man.

    I guess I think its harder not to follo the money when the money is pretty darn concentrated. That’s part of why I believe the Basic Income Guarantee is import for both enabling people to spend more time studying the Bible/serving others and mitigating the influence of the wealthier on churches.


  8. Ryan on March 19th, 2007 11:04 pm

    Thank you for such a passionate and insightful post. I really feel encouraged and strengthened by it.

    At the same time, I want to caution you about stone-walling those who truly feel called to reach the “new urbanites.” It would obviously be very unwise to become suspicious of all such people.

    My wife, my friends and have recently started a new church in downtown Springfield, Missouri called “The Core“. I worry all the time that our ministry might become “sexy” and lose its edge. After all, our focus is on four people groups: Artists, College Students, Urban Professionals, and the Poor. Three out of four of these constitute a trendy outreach.

    Fortunately for us, Center-City Springfield is not a place where you can easily extricate one of these four groups from the others when starting a church. The enclaves are just not big enough for that. And when one can look around at his own urban neighborhood and see the people in these four groups being neglected by the Church, is it so hard to understand that we would have a real heart to reach them?

    Please be careful as you critique your brothers and sisters. I myself am always tempted to have such an attitude toward “rich suburban upstarts”… especially in an over-churched city like Springfield. But God is calling us to a radical love for one another which I believe precludes such cynicism.

    Nevertheless… thank you for helping me to stay on course.

  9. Taylor Burton-Edwards on March 20th, 2007 12:05 am

    I mostly agree. If we’re starting new churches or faith communities, we really ought to work at getting this point right from the start. The mission of God is precisely AMONG the poor– not at them, not even always to them, but happening right there among them and with them. If we’re not there, we’re missing the heart of the mission. And we’re less likely to go there later if we don’t start there.

    So I mostly agree. Except I think that the revolution of the gospel can, and does, happen everywhere and among all people in every social/economic class if we can tease folks into seeing the possibilities and letting it happen.

    It’ll be harder for the rich and folks who want everything buttoned down, labeled, predictable. The Spirit just doesn’t work that way.

    Harder, but not entirely impossible.

    The really hard part is to keep working at reframing mission. The default position in lots of churches, the way lots of churches filled with middle class folks think and process mission is about either helping “them” from a distance, or about getting “them” to join “us” in our snazzy worship experience. (Pick your “them”). Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to draw crowds to worship. Nor did he ask them to get others to join anything, at least not up front. He sent them out to declare the arrival of God’s kingdom as he’d been doing, and to show that kingdom’s arrival by doing what he was doing– reframing God as the one out to save rather than exclude or condemn, making sure the poor were getting good news, touching lepers and cleansing them, encountering and fending off demons that oppressed them, and eating with the sick, the friendless, the outcasts and the needy. Living that way and telling folks why they did so– because this is what God’s kingdom makes possible now– this plus a whole lot more– becomes an invitation to discipleship to Jesus for all who want this liberated life. Disciples are made by Christians being disciples ourselves in mission in the world– not by programming a super duper relevant techno extravaganza of worship, and not by getting all the “right” people to join us. We join the wrong people– and some the right people, too– and God makes us all right for Christ’s mission as the Spirit sees fit.

    Not “bring them in from the fields of sin” but rather “get out in those fields– they’re white unto harvest!” We go there (which may be then 3 block radius around our workplace, or church facilities, or the neighborhood where we’re building a Habitat house) where God’s mission already is. We trust the Spirit to be already about the work. We join the mission of God as we find it or they help us see it. This is way easier than figuring out all kinds of strategies and target groups and all that marketing jazz. And cheaper, too.

    Until we start doing it. That’s when the expense and the knowledge and the wisdom and expertise will be needed. We don’t get to plan for what that will be– but it will become apparent if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    The key problem with a lot of our middle class (or whatever label you want to put on it) assumptions about mission is that we want to frontload planning– we want to know what the cost is up front. We’ve misread that parable about counting the cost and thought Jesus was talking about us. So we’ve gotten good at cost-counting. But he wasn’t talking about us. He was talking about himself. He’d counted the cost. And he’d determined that indeed his investment in these rather bumbling disciples of his was sufficient to withstand armies and to complete towers. Jesus was crazy that way. But it was a good kind of crazy– crazy right.

    Here’s why I think the revolution of the gospel works anywhere. Even the most uptight manager types, and even the most uncritical boomer “let’s wow ‘em with our worship” types are doing something, somehow that puts them out there in mission. When they’re out there, they get it all wrong usually. They keep trying to get people “in,” as if church is what happens on Sunday rather than who we are as we’re out being church, watching for the kingdom, coming alongside it where we can. But they’re still out there somehow. I believe it’s just a matter of coming alongside these folks and helping them see what might happen if they understood out there rather than just in here to be where church is. I think good missional leadership is about pushing some of these folks out of the nest a bit– get the air under the wings, trust the Spirit, see what God might do.

    It’s scary not to have any control at first. That’s what’s so offputting to folks used to having control everywhere. But they get to use those managerial can-do gifts later when they discover what God might be up to with some of the folks they meet. Management has a place here– once we get some clarity about the scope of what the project might be, how the gospel is already coming to life among some people and institutions, and how that life might be nurtured and released.

    Young urbanites can do this, rich or poor. So can older farm families. We need the patience and perseverance to teach folks how, wherever they are.

    Peace in Christ…

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