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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