Creating the Frankenchurch Monster

I sometimes get accused of being negative.  Okay, fine, this post is definitely negative.  However, it is not a blaming or accusing post.  It is merely writing-frankensteindescribing something bizarre and ugly — patchwork bodies of Christ, slapping together bits and pieces (s0me dead) to create a well-intentioned mockery of life.  Harsh?  You bet.  But the Frankenstein monster — as well intentioned as he might have been — was a monster nonetheless.  Many of our patchwork churches — no less well-intentioned — produce some pretty monstrous results as well.

When I travelled as a consultant for congregational revitalization, the number one question I asked was, “Why?”  Why do you offer worship?  Why do you preach a sermon?  Why do you have a Sunday school?  Why do you have a worship committee (when the pastor/music director makes all the decisions?)  Why do you only have one service?  Why do you have more than one service?  Why?  Why?  Why?  I always pushed to have people explain the rationale and justification of everything they were doing as a church.  Want to know something troubling, though?  Most church leaders struggled to answer the “why” question? 

We offer worship because we’re a church and that’s what churches do.

We have Sunday school because the parents expect it.

We have one service because everyone needs to be together.

We have two services so we can reach more people.

We have a worship committee so that someone will change the paraments.

Lots of answers, but no real explanations.  Without clarity about “why” we do something, what we do doesn’t much matter.  And what we don’t do doesn’t much matter, either.  Holy Communion services that discard confession, pardon, invitation and the Great Thanksgiving; baptismal services that allow no congregational response or affirmation; worship services lacking an offering or invitation to discipleship, sanctuaries without crosses, Bibles, and candles; worship services with no scriptures read, no prayers prayed.  Instead, there is a hodge-podge of often unrelated songs, skits, movie/TV colin_cliveclips, or “exercises to open our Spirit wells.”  Crooked projection screens, tangles of wires, drum kits, music stands, and laptop computers compete for space at the chancel, and huge soundboards, projectors, speakers, and lights crowd the sanctuary.  Am I against technology and progress?  By no means.  It’s just that over the crackle and buzz in many sanctuaries I can distinctly hear Colin Clive shriek, “IT’s ALIVE!”

Many of our older facilities resist being upgraded.  It is sad to enter many churches designed for an earlier time modified to handle coffee shops, book stores, video arcades, welcome centers, DVD kiosks, etc.  They end up looking like crazed evangelical Robo-Cops, metal and plastic protruding from old, worn, polished wood.  The intention is to make our outdated facilities more appealing to a modern (post-modern?) crowd, but is that what happens?

In many different surveys with the young, the younger, the spiritual seeker, and those unaffiliated with the church, the overall impact of our best efforts is not impressive.  The following comments represent different responses at different times over a fifteen year period.  They all refer to churches attempts to be modern, appealing, contemporary, or cool:

It’s like when my mom wears my clothes?  I can never wear them again because I can’t get the picture of how gnarly she looks in them out of my head?  This church is like that.  It’s really embarrassing.

My uncle never throws anything away, so his house always looks like a rummage sale about to happen.  Cramming all the instruments in that sanctuary makes me think of my uncle’s house.

The cafe next to the church library and the information desk by the nursery?  It kind of looks like a mall, but not a good mall.  It looks like one of those sad malls.

That little dinky crooked screen and the little projector?  That was just weird.  If you’re going to do it that badly, don’t do it at all.

It didn’t feel like church and it didn’t feel like NOT church.  A guy in our neighborhood bought this really beautiful old house, the he painted it purple and put all this modern sculpture around it.  Everybody that drives by goes, “what the hell?”  All the modern stuff in the old sanctuary reminds me of that guy’s house.

Man, I would love to have those speakers and the big screens, but that was painful.  The acoustics in that room sucked.  That is like the wrong room for that kind of power.

They have all this incredible equipment, but they don’t know how to use it.  They have that awesome projection system and they show these boring slides.  The timing and transitions were way off on the music and it looked like they were just learning how to use it.  It was very distracting.

This is like a place that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I feel like this church is embarrassed to be a church and it really wants to be liked, so it does cool stuff to make people forget it’s a church and like it better.  If it doesn’t want to be a church, it should just be something else, because this is lame.

The poor use of equipment, technology, space, music, media, people, food, and other resources is worse than not using them at all.  In the same way the Frankenstein monster is a mockery of life, Frankenchurch monstrosities are a mockery of spiritual community.  It isn’t that we shouldn’t do these things.  It isn’t that we don’t need both space and grace to learn how to do them.  The point I am making is that too often we simply slap together what everyone else is doing without fully integrating WHY we want to do something with trying to do it.  Almost universally, research shows that a poor use of technology is more off-putting than the non-use of technology.  Some interesting research into technology use in churches shows that most churches overbuy technology — purchasing technology that they don’t need and never use.  For example, I went into a church recently that had a professional soundboard, but they had taped down 80% of the switches and knobs because they didn’t use or need them.  In another church I found “stadium” projectors that actually raised the room temperature because they were so strong.  Having too much or too good or too powerful is no better than having inadequate.

Slapdash, patchwork imitations of well-designed, well-executed, integrated change look bad and do more damage than good.  The desire to have what others have and do what others do is seductive, but unless we can do it well, we probably shouldn’t do it at all.  With many young moderns we are losing all credibility.  They look at cheap imitation and poor attempts to mimic quality and they dismiss the church as a sham.  People don’t need any more excuses to think we don’t know what we’re doing.

Why do we do the kind of worship we do?  How well do we do it?  Why do we offer educational and formational experiences in our churches?  What is required to do them well?  Why do we want to use technology?  How does it enhance (or detract) from what we are trying to convey?  It isn’t that we shouldn’t add new techniques, technologies, and tricks into our worship and learning life, but we should always attempt to do so as seamlessly and with as much integrity as possible.  Otherwise, the monster we create may break from our control and do a lot more damage than we bargain for.

22 replies

  1. Mike,

    I am looking forward to visiting Lockerbie Central for the Emerging UMC Conference in November. Can’t wait to see how you are blending the lines and being Church in your context!

  2. You write on some very interesting topics, but I wish you wouldn’t voice your own opinion so much. This would be a great blog if you wouldn’t bias the posts.

    • Well, uhm, yeah… but that’s what a blog is. The reason I write it is because I want to express my opinions, thinking and beliefs — and hopefully people will respond with their own. I’m sorry my biases keep the blog from being great, but I am afraid they’re here to stay. I hope you keep on reading anyway.

  3. okay here is an experience with a frankenchurch that went wrong. not really a church but a church coffee shop/cafe. some umcs’ in the suburban county south of Indy started a coffee shop ministry. it got some good press and they got 50 grand from the conference to do it.

    food was bad, I couldn’t find the place without driving by five times and looking it up on the iphone a few times. there were fake plants everywhere and of course their worship service there was called “under the son”/ the cafe is called “under the sun.”

    i am normally excited about church projects like this, but i have no desire to go back and don’t see how this space will make an impact on the community or become meaningful to the community.

  4. Context. Context. Context. But what happens when you have bifurcating context? We have a hard time dealing with social evolution in the church. The context of one part of a congregation changes, so the leadership does its best to accommodate – Frankenchurch. We need to learn to incorporate fission into our model of church life. When we send missionaries abroad, we don’t expect them to make a church that looks exactly like ours. What about an in-place mission? At the same time, those congregations in decline need to learn fusion, or at least covalent bonding, with others of similar context.

    • Hey, Rex,
      Integration and patchwork are two different things. I am all for a gracious, intentional integration and evolution. Without change and adaptation, we die. What I am challenging is the monstrosity that occurs when our congregations play “dress up,” wearing masks and costumes that don’t fit, hiding themselves under layers of make-up, getting cheap plastic surgery — whatever metaphor works for you. Being who we are not, and denying what makes us real, is never a healthy or sustainable thing. When we adopt something that helps us become better, we’re in a good place. When we adopt things that make us be something we are not (and that God is not calling us to be), that is seldom good or sustainable.

      • To the original point, what is integration (that it can be bad or good), and why do we do it? By definition, isn’t a liturgy, or any other religious work, composing more than one element an integration?

        P.S. Please don’t take my comments as completely descriptive of my position. I’m trying not to be pedantic while spurring discussion toward clarity. And thanks, Dan, for your opinions!

      • My definition of integrated is “combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious, interrelated whole.” (Dictionary.com) Obviously, integration is in the eye of the beholder, but that which is jarring, discordant, shoddy, embarassing, or inappropriate (without intending to be) lacks integrity. For example, I have witnessed dozens of places where video is woven seamlessly into the service of worship. I also attended a church where a small projector shot a fuzzy image on a torn movie screen and the microphone was placed next to the speaker on the laptop running the DVD. The DVD was not cued up, so there was a long lag while the appropriate clip was found. The picture was fuzzy and all but invisible in the bright sanctuary, the sound was awful, the DVD skipped, and the scene used really didn’t illustrate the point of the sermon well at all. However, the worship leadership was committed to using video. This is a Frankenchurch moment — lacking integration at any level: it wasn’t designed well, the technology wasn’t adequate and it wasn’t used well, it not only didn’t add to the point being made, but detracted from it, and it distracted people from the worship of God. In my travels I have experienced twice as many examples of Frankenchurch as I have churches that do all this well. In those that do it well, they don’t have the latest tech or the most sophisticated delivery — or even ideal space. But the technology flows well, the content is elegantly aligned with the message, the experience is pleasing and positive, and the use of media adds to the overall worshipping experience — integration. Hope this clears things up.

  5. Here is my concern. choices to two problems.

    1 problem – ppl trying to address a concern of the ppl who dont come to church
    1st choice start a cookie cutter chruch – lot of money, use stats to get the right mix of ppl, may lead to fankenchurch
    2nd choice dont do anything and continue doing church the only way it can be done.

    2 problem – ppl trying to address the concerns of ppl who WILL NOT STEP foot in a church.
    1st start a cookie cutter program filled with stats, coffee, camera, lights. which can end up being a Frankenchurch
    2nd continue worring about our own

    these are two huge concerns of the *church. and two solutions that i see being used. and to be honest i think both approaches have merit. the thing that is left out and will progress to a Frankenchurch is the lack og God’s leadership. All of these have human solutions – bright idea (which may be initially started by God) but WE get in front of God and make all of our *churches a shell of what they should be.

    and i love the editorializing – You are a heart beat of a certain segment. Continue to share what is on your heart. Because your fustration about Frankenchurch is the same that i have with just “Doing Church”

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