Lego Church

lutherk03Forgive 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.

16 replies

  1. It isn’t just the United Methodist Church; it is the whole society. If it worked there then it must work here. But no one ever looks at the reason why it worked there. I appreciate the fact that you pointed out that some churches know how to do it right.

    But it worked because someone looked at what was there and how to best answer/respond to those specific needs. That’s where we fail; we don’t encourage churches to see what is around them. We just assume that because it is a United Methodist Church, it will work for us.

    We saw this in the very early church with the battles between Peter and Paul. We haven’t learned how to deal with the differences.

  2. I have bought those same “prescriptive” sets for my children, but those types of sets were usually iven to them by cruel grandparents and aunts and uncles that simply wanted to see Dad drive himself crazy on Christmas morning. The first few times, after mush gnashing of teeth and pulling of my hair, I would come to a finished product, only to see it destroyed within minutes. What came after, through the imagination of my children’s minds usually resulted in more fun and more imagination than the formula I followed. My temporary success always seemed to end in my sons going in a different direction that lead them to a place they needed to be. They became the teachers and I, the student. Thank you for this posting Dan.

  3. Dan,

    Any thoughts on systemic dysfunction that may be occurring when our publishers offer book contracts for these “cookie-cutter” approaches to successful churches?

    • I forever endeared myself to leadership at our publishing house by comparing church leadership publishing to diet book publishing — the only way you guarantee a future market is to publish books that don’t actually work. A truly successful and effective book on evangelism, stewardship, preaching, etc. would preclude the need for any sequels. What are wanted are books that sound good and tell a good story, but that don’t actually have the power to make a difference. The best church leadership books aren’t “7 Keys, 10 Steps, 12 Best Practices, 40 Days of Purpose” prescriptions, but are focused on the processes and principles that others have discovered in context. Church publishers are not in business to help buyers achieve results — they are trying to make a profit. In our denomination, we look for the newest “pop star” — a Lyle Schaller, Bill Easum, Adam Hamilton is money in the bank. Popularity is much more important than performance and celebrity trumps integrity every time. Most of the writers of these books have the very best intentions — authors have a good idea or two they want to share, but often what is shared has much more to do with luck than with real wisdom or talent. There ARE good ideas and wonderful stories in even the most superficial resource — which makes them all the more insidious. Who doesn’t have a pile of “we did it, you can do it too” books in their leadership library? We all look for ways to be effective — but we also confuse leadership with copying what others have already done, which is a recipe for poor results. I believe it is one of the reasons that most of the truly helpful and insightful books for church leaders come from the secular culture rather than from church publishers.

      • Great post, Dan. Building off of your “when I was a boy” beginning, when I was a young pastor, I read a number of Lyle Schaller books and articles (he was featured in our monthly Conference mailing at the time) and found his approach to be a bit different. He was prescriptive in terms of what data to look at and how to gather it, but focused more on options and decisions that a local church needed to make in any given set of circumstances. I think he wanted to open up the questions to ask and the possible consequences of each choice, in order to empower leaders to make considered and prayerful decisions about strategy and direction. I think he was more along the lines of what you suggest. FWIW.

      • I want to reiterate — I think all authors of Christian leadership books (myself included, if I am completely honest…) do so with the very best of intentions. There is a fundamental belief that “we” have something of value to share with others. But, in the case of my own books, I moved from a “here are some things you should try” message to a “here’s what others have learned in context that might be of interest/help to you” approach. I have a full library of Schaller books and even worked with Lyle on a couple occasions, but I find him to be part of the “here is what you need to do in order to be successful” crowd. Much of his research was done to support the ideas he was promoting. I worked with a couple people in Nashville that took a decidedly different approach to research and consultation. I am of the sociological school — I want to gather data, comb through to see what patterns emerge, cultivate useful information, then offer insights and reflections on potential meaning. Those of a marketing bent formulate a thesis, then seek confirming data and information to validate the thesis. This second approach dominated the past forty plus years of church leadership writing and consultation — and it really hasn’t helped us much. This prescriptive approach has done virtually nothing to slow the decline, and its impotency is proof that it is deeply flawed and essentially worthless. If it were effective, we would be experiencing significantly different results. (IMHO)

  4. Great analogy here! The title and picture caught my attention. My daughter has been a lego lover for life (starting with the mega blocks as an infant). She is now 12. She prefers the boxes with many bricks because she can be creative. She also enjoys the sets. What I have noticed with her is that she takes the pieces from the sets and weaves them into her own creation. The majority of her entire dresser top is dedicated to her lego creation, complete with set pieces, people, and pieces she has made. To apply what she has done to the church situation, maybe we can break through the cookie cutter mold if we will take the pieces that work in our situation and use them along with the unique pieces that we have created. This may be too idealistic…. a blending of the best of both worlds?!?! But, if we unleash our creativity and let it control, who knows?!?!

    Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post!!

    Debra

  5. Everybody else has said it well. UM’s so cookbook well. One of the hardest things is if you take the princple and applied to your context with innovation you get labelled as ‘doesn’t play well with other(s) (bureaucrats). The saddest thing I heard when our congregation actually got thinking creatively was has anyone else done this? Sad moment for this MIT gal who enjoys thinking, schemeing and innovation.

  6. “In the beginning God . . . . .
    God what?
    God created.
    God created what?
    Creation and creatures.
    We are the highest of God’s creativity, created in God’s very own image.
    So we should be known for what?
    Those communities closest to the Creator should be known and celebrated for being what?” ~ Leonard Sweet

  7. Do you offer the instructions for this church you built. While I understand the creative side of things, I don’t have the time anymore as a dad and husband. Thank you for such a wonderful MOC….

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