This is the introduction to "Blue Ocean Churches" the manual.
Introduction: You Either Believe This or You Don’t
On the passion behind this book
My now-wife, Grace, and I were having a rocky time trying to get to know each other. On the one hand, whenever we got together it was nothing but fun. But I was pushing some deep buttons in her, which led her to—let’s be blunt—shun me whenever she saw me in a public setting, which led me to freak out, which made for an unhappy time for all.
Nonetheless, we were having dinner one night when she shared something she didn’t share with most people, and it cemented that I was going to hang in with this relationship until it made it or it blew up. She shared that pretty much every day she prayed that God would let her participate in what folks several centuries back would call an “awakening” and that some folks today might call a revival. She wanted it to happen and she wanted to be in the thick of it.
This got my attention because I secretly, regularly prayed the same thing for myself. And I hadn’t yet met anyone who prayed for this in this way—or who was bold enough to tell me. If this was really the passion burning in Grace, she was worth holding out for, despite all.
It’s seemed to me that this passion has in fact motivated both of us ever since. Among her passions was to send a multitude of people to the Arab Muslim world to see if they could participate in something great for God that would help all of us on earth—as clearly this clash between the West and the Middle East has pretty big stakes these days. She had no pull, no money, no status, just that dream. But she didn’t drop it and she recently sent out a team of eight people who have moved to the Middle East for just that reason, one of the few teams like them in that part of the world. And quite possibly she has more folks where those came from.
My passion along those lines has centered elsewhere. I want an awakening in the most-secular cities and towns of the West (as does Grace). I love places that fit this description. I’ve always lived in them and can’t imagine living elsewhere. Most of what I’ve done with my life since that fateful conversation with Grace has pushed this direction. In the next chapter I’ll pull out all sorts of statistics about why this is, in fact, the single most important question facing the West for anyone who believes that God can play a helpful role in human affairs…but one could make a case that it’s just something I want, whatever rationale I try to build for why it’s something everyone should want.
With my own atheistic background, I still feel like an unlikely churchman, but the fact is I do lead a church, and one that’s not subtle about it, much as we’d like to be. We don’t meet, say, in a converted warehouse, as many of my friends in churches do, or in a school gym, as we ourselves once did. We meet in a vast cathedral-like space. Our offices used to be a convent.
And yet we’re one of a large handful of American churches that have grown quickly in very secular settings—and to a great extent among secular people rather than uniquely among church transfers or the small number of churchgoers in the area looking to try something new. By “very secular,” in our case our community, before we arrived, was said to be 2% churchgoing as compared to 35% nationwide. (A pastor friend in Manhattan estimates a rate of 0.5% churchgoing in his section of town.) These are numbers along the lines of the most secular places on Earth. European countries report churchgoing rates, by and large, under 5%. Japan checks in at 1%, China, estimates hazard, has maybe 2% after the upsurge in the underground church there.
This book will shamelessly use Vineyard Christian Fellowship—Greater Boston, my church, as a case study of an approach towards creating a thriving faith community in such a place. It’s by no means the only such example! It’s by no means the biggest such example! Its growth has surged and then stalled at times! While we have some bursts of real creativity and artfulness, we’re not remotely as creative as many churches I’ve aware of. While we’re one of the few very large churches in Greater Boston, in my wife’s hometown of Houston, I doubt we’d crack the top two hundred.
And it’s by no means clear that the most-promising path to the sort of awakening Grace and I have talked and prayed about for so many years will come through churches. There may well be direct conversations in secular settings themselves that prove far more helpful.
But churches have carried the weight for this sort of thing for millennia. So perhaps they’re not an entirely promise-free place to start.
And perhaps all of the limitations of our own fumbling attempt at church nonetheless underscore some encouragements some might find worth a second glance. In the newly crowned least-churched region of America[i], in a city where the average church size, I kid you not, is 35 participants, in our first seven years we grew to about a thousand people each Sunday, about double the size of the next largest church in town. According to statistics from a regional organization that studies growing churches in New England[ii], the percentage of folks we draw each Sunday who weren’t previously churchgoing is twelve times more than that in the average strong and growing church in our part of the country. Our average giver—and we’re full of young people on their first jobs—gives more than three times more money than the national average (for churches our size)[iii]. We’ve helped a number of new churches get started. And most things we’ve done have centered around engaging secular people (who live in a very secular place) with faith.
And yet I’ve found that, even if folks are sold by the case I’ll try to build, perhaps they’re not sold that the issue isn’t just building better, more effective churches in secular settings the way we would anywhere else.
Clearly that would be a great thing to do…yet I’ll be pitching that that won’t be sufficient, that we’re in the middle of a sea change of how faith is seen and experienced by people who live in these very secular settings. To my mind, it seems clear that something new and fresh at a very basic level is needed if we hope to see this awakening. A good part of my week is spent in conversation with a growing number of people and organizations that do.
Or maybe, as some friends of mine believe, we need to travel to places where churches are booming—South Korea or sub-Saharan Africa or parts of Latin America—and import whatever they’re doing to the secular west. I’m confident there would be all sorts of benefits to that—an increased focus on fervent prayer, for one thing. But I’m persuaded that the issues they’ve overcome there are not transferable as is to very secular western settings. The circumstances and populations that bred these booming churches are very different than we see in cities like Cambridge. And, thus far, attempts to apply their principles to these settings have disappointed.
But this, nonetheless, will be the question for you. Does, in fact, Grace’s and my prayer capture something deep and passionate in you? And, if so, do you believe that, together, we need to find some new models of what a community of faith might look like in the most secular settings in the West? Or is it more a matter of honing and improving the sorts of churches that thrive in other areas where churches are doing just fine?
I wrote a book called Not The Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist that tried to detail the sort of mindset that I and an increasing number of others have found useful in places like these. The response to the book was terrific, but the question I most heard from faith leaders who liked it was along the lines of: yes, but how? Presuming this way of thinking and relating to God was great and pushing us forward in these very secular settings, surely there were concrete implications from it about how exactly to craft a community of faith in these sorts of places.
This book will do its best to provide a holistic picture of how to go about this. Again, there are other dynamite books about how to structure thriving communities of faith that, I’m sure, have more to recommend them on those terms than anything I’ll propose here—with the small difference of where we’ve seen these good things happen. Many people believe that’s a big difference indeed. But that is the point of divide about whether this book is for you. In my experience, you either believe this or you don’t.