Forgive the annoying “back when I was a boy…” beginning to this reflection, but, back when I was a boy a Lego kit consisted of a box of white, black, yellow, blue and red bricks that came in eight different sizes. You could make anything your imagination could conceive of, as long as it had sharp, square corners. The directions consisted of three cartoons that showed how the round part on top of one brick stuck to the opening on the bottom of another brick. Simplicity itself. Just the other week, I came across Lego Architecture sets recommended for ages 16+ that are scale replicas of famous structures from around the world. Intricately colored and crafted, these sets allow for no improvisation — each piece is carefully crafted to fit its appropriate mates. This is the Lego equivalent of the old paint-by-number kits — deviate from the directions at your own peril! Creativity be damned — there is ONE RIGHT WAY to do it.
This is a compelling metaphor for approaches to new church starts as viewed by United Methodists. I look at some of the most compelling and innovative ministries across the country, and I am impressed by their “simple Lego” feel. They take what they have, figure out ways to put the pieces together, and they come up with something creative and functional. Then I go attend a workshop on “new church starts” and am dismayed by the cookie-cutter, do-this-exactly-as-I-tell-you (“I’ve been doing this for x years — I know what I am talking about…), don’t deviate from the directions, formulaic and reductionist approaches being offered. I sat through a presentation on how each context is unique where the presenter ironically proceeded to lay out the ten things everyone should do in every situation. We were reminded regularly NOT to cut steps or adapt any of the instructions.
I’ve noted before a wonderful paradox in The United Methodist Church — those who teach prescriptive formulas for church growth and church planting are the first to confess that they didn’t follow a prescription to get where they are now. In fact, they will proudly state that there is NO WAY they could have achieved their success by copying what someone else already did. (But, buy our book and you too can be as great as we are!!!) Unique context and chemistry are too powerful to ignore. The variables are more influential than the constants. Yet, we still look for an expert to tell us what to do.
The sophisticated Lego sets (Star Wars, Ninjago, Lord of the Rings, etc.) are very cool and enjoyable — in the same way a jigsaw puzzle is enjoyable — but they eliminate one of the greatest values from the experience: creativity. There is a power to the simplicity of the “basic” Lego set. Watching nieces and nephews play with both kinds of Legos, I notice that with the sophisticated sets, they put them together once, but with the simple sets, they play with them again and again. It is almost as if the “dedicated” kits can’t be used any other way. It reminds me of two church visits I made in the Buffalo/Rochester, New York area in the late 1990s. Both were smaller program sized churches — about 500 members with 350 active each week. What was striking about the two churches was the difference in energy. One church was vibrant and joyous. The people present were all connected and engaged. They had many ministries and programs, big and small, new and long-standing, and everyone was excited about something. The contrast was the church that was taking things very seriously and was pursuing church growth. Their leadership had its ministry plan all laid out, and they had been to Willow Creek and Church of the Resurrection to learn “how to do it.” The people present seemed anxious, confused and disengaged. Lots of programs were aimed AT them, and everyone was supposedly attached to a “small group,” but the energy was anything but joyous. One church unleashed the energy, the other tried to constrain it through careful prescription.
Don’t get me wrong — you can put together some pretty cool Lego kits that allow zero creativity. You can copy someone else’s successful church plant and get a reasonable facsimile. But, I want to question, is this really what we want? More churches is a guiding value of the modern UMC. And more healthy churches is even better. But derivative copies rarely rise to the level of the original. Every community of faith is unique. Each “church kit” is an odd jumble of different shapes and sizes (gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, vision, interests, aspirations, talents, aptitudes, proficiencies, resources…) that can fit together in a million different ways. Jamming the uniqueness of one group into the uniformity of another boggles the mind. In what way does this honor God? I continue to be more impressed by the messy churches with a bunch of rough edges than I am the American-Idolesque wannabes that many church growth experts are trying to foist off on us. If the best we can do is “paint-by-number” mindlessness, then we cannot be surprised when the world fails to flock to us in droves. If all we can offer is more of what they’ve seen a thousand times before, then we will be thought of as a cheap knock-off. If we want to send a message that we are gifted people using what we’ve got to do a new and creative thing, people might be inspired to join us — and who knows, they might just be the brick we need to do something brilliant.