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)