How Do We Make Church Simple Again?

Ordering a coffee used to mean answering two questions: “Regular or decaf?” and “Black or cream and sugar?” Today, Starbucks offers over 87,000 different drink combinations. For decades, marketing gurus have said people want choices because customization empowers the individual, but when facing a menu with thousands of drink choices some feel overwhelmed rather than empowered. Psychologists call this the “tyranny of choice,” and it explains why the value of simplicity is on the rise.

As our society becomes more complex, people are drawn to the simple.  We see it in the success of Apple devices with their simple design and ease of use. A new generation of fast food has emerged rejecting McDonalds’ “something for everyone” menu. The austere “urban prairie” architecture of Chipotle restaurants, for example, matches the simplicity of its menu. 

It appears the call to simplify has been heard by church leaders as well. There has been a parade of ministry books published celebrating the virtues of “lean,” “small,” “simple,” and “nimble” church, and the construction of larger church buildings is at an all-time low in the U.S.—a trend that started well before the Great Recession.

The glamor of the mega-ministry and its ability to offer greater choices appears to be fading —at least in some regions. But is this shift anything more than a reflection of social trends?

I suspect changing social values play a part. Millennials, research shows, are suspicious of large institutions, unlike Baby Boomers who equate largeness with legitimacy. Still, I wonder if we’re also witnessing a theological shift that is eroding the foundation of very large ministries (VLMs), while providing validation for leaner ones. 

Part of what makes VLMs emerge is the belief in a sacred/secular divide. This view holds that the world is split into that which God cares about (sacred) and that which is ultimately unimportant (secular). Accounting, for example, is secular work without any eternal value, but doing accounting for a church—well, now you’re counting beans for the kingdom of God. Rather than affirming the work of Christians serving as counselors, mechanics, or fitness trainers out in the community, these activities are incorporated into ministries where they can find validation. Over time, this desire to sanctify our work results in VLMs housing restaurants, auto repair shops, fitness centers, retail stores, clinics, and a plethora of programs for volunteers to staff.

The sacred/secular divide that dominated the Middle Ages is what led, in part, to the massive institutional expansion of the Roman church. Every sphere of the culture—government, the arts, education, commerce, etc.—was sanctified by being brought within the church’s control. It wasn’t until the Reformation, and it’s dismantling of the wall between sacred and secular, that things began to change. Luther, Calvin, and their spiritual descendants affirmed a theology of vocation that said all of life and all work, was sacred. Accounting mattered and brought glory to God even when done outside the church. This allowed the institutional church to shrink its footprint and simplify its ministry to preaching the Scriptures and administering the sacraments. It also empowered the laity to carry Christ’s presence into the various channels of the culture through their vocations, rather than forcing the entire culture into the church.

I suspect something similar is taking hold in the North American church today. After living with an assumed sacred/secular divide for decades and the resulting proliferation of VLMs, many are now questioning the divide.

A new generation of church leaders and laity are restoring a vision for cultural participation and a renewed theology of vocation. They’re coming to see the value of their lives, work, and social engagement without the need to be a “ministry” or under the banner of an institutional church. 

The side-effect is a new freedom for ministers to be pastors again rather than CEOs. When the laity is empowered and their vocations in the world are validated, those called to shepherd God’s people can abandon the pressure to grow and manage a VLM, and instead focus on their call to teach the word and administer the sacraments. That is a simple vision of the church many of us are ready for. 


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  • February 20, 2015

    Chris Gensheer

    Hey there, first time here on the blog and got to say that I like what you’re doing. But this post was a little disappointing only in that I’m not sure what you’re advocating for making church “simple again”. I love the insight into trends hitting culture and churches alike, and the observation of simplicity in places outside of the church. But what would/does this look like for a church, and for a pastor (not Church CEO) to lead/pastor/shepherd a recovery of simplicity for the church? Still left with these questions.

  • February 21, 2015

    Anna 'Gerskovich' Mercer

    loves this! one of my church’s ‘pillars’ is simplicity and it has been a guiding principle for pretty much every aspect of it since it was started – teaching (gospel centered), programs, staffing, and even limiting our use of paper (we are portland 😉 ). when our pastor josh was just starting it, he met with tim keller – and tim questioned josh on the simplicity pillar – asking how this could be maintained when the church grew? it certainly has become more complicated with growth – we’ve gone from 400 to 1200 in 4 years – and on top of the general need to provide greater structure for fostering community with that many people, we also now have 1200 voices desiring the church to provide or create different ministries. the church is pretty selective in how/when they get involved with new a project/program – but! they regularly encourage those that desire to start a ‘ministry’ and feel gifted in doing it, to just do it! we don’t need permission from the church to start ministering to people we have a heart for- I like how Skye says that this “empowers the laity to carry Christ’s presence into the various channels of the culture through their vocations, rather than forcing the entire culture into the church.”

    -our simplicity pillar: ‘WE BELIEVE IN SIMPLE CHURCH. Buildings, programs and methods do not define church. We are the church as we deepen our commitment and connection to Christ. Therefore, our growth as a church is the result of knowing Jesus through immersion in His word, prayer, communion, fellowship and song. Our emphasis is growth that results from people hearing and being changed by the gospel, not simply growth from attracting spectators or attendees.’

    -older sermon on simplicity (before we started busting at he seams)

  • February 24, 2015

    Phil Baker

    This reminds me of “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz. Sometimes too much equals a lack of focus.