Predator Churches

Posted: November 5, 2012 by J in Church

From time to time I hear a discouraged pastor lamenting that his efforts to build a healthy local church are being undermined. His flock are being lured away, the unity of the fellowship torn apart. The source of the problem is always the same.

And what is the sinister force preying on our local churches in this way? Predator churches. Churches that live by sucking the life out of other churches.

It works like this. A new church sets up somewhere in Sydney – or perhaps an old one gets a dynamic new leader with connections. It begins to do what it does better than other churches nearby. Maybe it’s music, maybe bible teaching, whatever.

Then it sits and waits, spider-like. It’s waiting for Christians from surrounding churches to come along and say ‘Hey! It’s better here than back home.’ And so they get caught, like a fly in the web. Their local church never sees them again. Any role they had in their neighbourhood is lost.

Of course most predator churches don’t admit they’re doing this. They talk about mission. If we can make our church more attractive, if we can create a ‘vibe’ that appeals, we’ll be able to reach more people for Jesus.

Except it doesn’t work. Not in Sydney. For every convert won to that church, 20 existing Christians are lured in and caught, lost to their local congregation. So for all the hopes to be missional, these churches end up functioning as predators.

All of our churches rely largely on ‘transfer growth’ – we grow by receiving Christians from other churches. There’s only a limited number of Christians to go around! But that means the churches that do the best at attracting transfers, come to function as predators.

As they get bigger, the problem tends to increase. Their very size becomes increasingly attractive to many Christians, who seem to prefer big to small church. And as the local churches become correspondingly smaller, they become more vulnerable, less able to protect their people from the predators.

Some churches, especially ones that have been large for a long time, do this kind of accidentally. They drain nearby local churches without even meaning to. These function more like parasites than  true predators.

But others are very deliberate about it. These are the ‘targetted’ or niche churches. These hope to appeal to Christians of a certain sort, and lure them in.  Sometimes they claim to be about mission. The ‘targetted’ model was invented and promoted as a mission tool. ‘If we can appeal to the X demographic, we’ll win them for Christ.’ They sure do appeal to that demographic – in all the local churches that is. Whatever their target demographic is, that group goes missing from nearby congregations. Others are more open about their predatory aims.

Niche churches don’t often target retirees, or single mums. Sorry mums, they don’t want you. They come in two varieties: those aimed at uni students, and those aimed at young professional adults. And they do it well – when young adults of the right sort go along to visit, it’s like they’ve died and gone to heaven. A whole church set up just for them, full of people just like them. A huge pool of potential marriage partners, of the sort they like best.

The local churches just can’t compete. Back there, there’s only three other young adults, and two of them are fat and spotty. That group of four shrinks to three. Nice work.

And so these are the two groups most frequently missing from local churches: students and young adults. The very groups who would provide much of the energy and enthusiasm and time which would contribute to a vibrant church-life. The predators took them.

So these churches make local mission that much harder.

Worst of all: once one of these churches has grown fat on the flesh of the others, we all rally round to congratulate them. An example and an inspiration – that’s how bill them.

It’s time we woke up and started looking at the whole Diocesan level, and admitted to ourselves that these churches are a scourge. Worse than useless, they do positive harm right across the city. They discourage our older people and make them feel powerless and abandoned. They hamstring our Diocesan local-mission goals. They weaken and destroy our local churches.

And that’s all quite apart from the harm they do to the youngsters who get caught in them – but that’s a blogpost for another day.

If the pastors of these churches want to claim they are behaving responsibly, then as a bare minimum they should be doing this: if a Christian turns up at their church, they should touch base with the pastor of the person’s home-church, then visit the new person and find out why they’re coming. Why do they want to leave their own church? If it’s because they think the grass is greener here, the pastor should encourage them to return to their old church.

More than this needs to be done. But anything less than this, and you’re functioning as a predator.

(I should add as a disclaimer: our church has not yet been bitten by a predator church – this issue is not ‘personal’ for me)

  1. Jonathan, I share your concerns, but an argument can be made for the other side. I don’t necessarily believe the following, but it is worth engaging with (if only for our own edification):

    “Three major Life Points have been noted for an early abandonment of the Christian Faith – Graduating School, Graduating University, and Having Children. Traditional church models have, despite best efforts, been very poor in assisting those that have been nurtured through Children and Youth ministries. Young Adult churches should therefore not be considered predatory, but an alternate pen for young Sheep who otherwise would have strayed off (perhaps permanently) from their Shepherd. The very structure of these churches show that they are not intended to hold onto young Christians permanently, but instead prepare them for life after they move out of Young Urban Professional Friendly areas around the City and rejoin smaller churches in suburban areas or form church-planting teams. The reason that smaller churches haven’t seen many benefits from this ministry is that the model is still very young, but prepare yourselves for a wave of well-trained and well-taught Christians that you otherwise wouldn’t have had to flood into the outer suburbs in the next decade or so.”

    Want to take a swing at any of that?

    • Jonathan says:

      Luke, nice to have you back. It’s been a while.

      Interesting about the 3 life points where people fall away. I guess it’s the logical outcome from the whole ‘kids’ church’ approach – the kiddies have been in a niche environment since they could remember. Makes perfect sense then to have young adults church, etc. The wider church must seem a bit foreign…

      That’s a very nice picture you’ve painted for us, Luke, about ‘a wave of well-trained and well-taught Christians flooding into the outer suburbs’. (And we would like to hear your view of things, btw). Sounds like the local churches are suffering short term pain, but the investment will bear good dividends for everyone in time. Long-term gain. Sounds really good.

      I have a couple of issues with it though. One being that it’s not true. The model is not young, it’s old, been around for a generation now, and we’ve had time to see the results. The youngster that get siphoned off their local churches spend a few years at a uni type church, then graduate on to a young professionals church. They stay there as long as possible. If eventually they return to the suburbs, they take with them the main thing they’ve learned – which is that suburban local churches are pathetic, and western sydney is unliveable. They do whatever it takes to avoid both – including ‘planting’ rival churches in suburbs already well-supplied with local churches.

      Once they leave your local church, most never come back. There’s no good in waiting, the first lot are going grey now, and they still haven’t come back, have they? They’re not coming.

      My other main issue is with the idea that these churches ‘prepare them for life after they move out’ to ordinary suburban life and local church. I’ve seen no evidence of that – quite the opposite. Those years leave them poorly equipped for relating to ordinary people, esp. non-professionals.

      The few that do return to local church, have had a taste of how cool church ‘ought’ to be, and find it very hard to settle into an uninspiring local church scene. They long for the old days in the niche church. They tend to move around searching for something better. They do not make good church members.

      That’s what I’ve seen and heard over and over, in the past twenty years. High cost to local church. And low return.

      Someone tell me it’s better than that really. I’d love to hear some success stories, stop me being such a miserable bastard…

  2. Mike W says:

    As a minister in a church that has seen a large amount of growth from local transfer, all I can say is..Amen.
    We need a new metric for assessing the effectiveness of church, especially churches that promote themselves as ‘missional’ or ‘evangelistic’. I’m thinking something along the lines of ‘Number of people who weren’t in a church 5 years ago/ number in congregation’.
    I think we would find a number of supposedly ‘unhealthy’ congregations that are actually punching way above their weight.
    In my own context the smallest, oldest, (almost) most traditional service would win hands down, though they keep getting told that what they do could never be evangelistically effective.
    The largest, most vibrant, most active, most ‘contemporary’ service. Transfers. Almost exclusively.
    Unfortuanately, what most christians seem to want is a slickly run program that absolves them of the difficult responsibility of getting to know and love their neighbours.
    Another thing to address is the affect on the church that recieves such transfer growth. Often you get a large lump of people who are ‘hurting’/ ‘just don’t feel like they could participate in mission yet’/ ‘just want to settle in’. Since this group is the proof of your success, you can’t risk offending them (and wouldn’t that be pastorally insensitive, since they have had such a hard time at the last church).

    I wonder if this is a ‘city’ problem though. Outside the city, if you are young and keen, you get involved in the ministry of your local church and just get on with it

    • Jonathan says:

      thanks for your insights Mike, that’s really very interesting about your church.

      Re the effect on the receiving church, I think this question deserves more thought. Thanks for kicking it off.

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