Short-run Church for the Long-run

A close friend I have known since I was 11 years old now runs one of the finest fusion restaurants in Gainesville, Florida, named Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company. When he started the restaurant in his mid-20s, it was a huge risk (and risk is such a small word for how great and terrifying it can feel) and the restaurant was of enormous personal and professional cost to him and his partner as he started it.

I don’t think we had much of a chance to speak for the first two years he had the restaurant. He was married to his work through that time working on every facet of food, ambience, management, seeking out capital — forsaking evenings, weekends, family vacations, personal relationships, literally everything it seemed. When we did get the chance to speak, my heart welled up with admiration for this friend, and I could tell that he was really becoming quite the savant when it came to the restaurant business, business in general, and in many ways, life.

When I told him of my concern for his life and the way the restaurant seemed to dictate every hour of every day, including holidays and most especially his evenings. He replied, “This may not last that long. Restaurants don’t usually tend to have a long life cycle — 7 years is usually the window of opportunity.”

“So you’re going to do this for 7 years?”

“We’ll see. We’ll see what happens, everything is just working out the way it is and if another opportunity opens, we’ll see when we get there, but we don’t ever want to assume we will last 7 years, most likely we will have to reinvent ourselves.”

Reinvention is not seen as a terrible thing to my friend, it is seen as an opportunity, whether driven by the market or his capabilities, it is an inevitability.

In a recent conference at Northpoint Church, Andy Stanley makes the remark that many churches have little incentive to change and do not plan to do so. They simply open the doors and keep everything the same for as long as they can. They can actually resist change if what works for them in the beginning seems to work well. In other words, they presume a static environment for the long-run, which implies that they are reactive, but never institutions to instigate change.

This is counterintuitive to our contemporary lives and while businesses have to adjust or phase out, churches can go as long as they have a supportive constituency, er… I mean community. But think about it, we don’t stay at the same companies like we used to. We are much mobile than in past generations, and being children of immigrants and entrpreneurs, we don’t stay in the same cities. Seasons of our lives can be tied to specific periods, i.e. high school = 4 years, college = 4 years, first job = 4 years, dating = 4 years, seminary=3 years … if churches are to be places of growth, perhaps it would be good to define those seasons as well. Otherwise, we assume that church is the constant from cradle to the grave, but the reality is that we see our parents far less than we used to and we are more willing to leave for opportunities that will improve our personal circumstances than ever. The average tenure at a job is below 5 years now and for positions of ministry, I hear that it’s even lower than that.

What if we had short-run churches to begin with? Short-run churches could play a specific role with a specified target audience for a life cycle of say, 7 years. I think playing for the short run increases the focus of a ministry, allows for the development of specific skillsets, and addresses specific concerns for an audience, while equipping them with the understanding that this church will not be there forever as a crutch, but is going to be proactive in sending them back out into the world or into other churches, where they can grow in other areas.

It could be akin to a parachurch in focus and people churn, but be a place that isn’t outside the sphere of the traditional “local church.” Instead of wondering why churches are losing ground in the long-term, why couldn’t they operate with a short-term mentality? Wouldn’t we be more daring by doing so? Wouldn’t the standard of excellence be higher, because from the outset, a defined timetable places a constraint on our goals and measurement for growth with a full anticipation that we are doing this in order to send the members back out into the larger community? Isn’t that what the first disciples were? Could this kind of community be what Bonhoeffer was involved in when he wrote “Life Together”?

I think this is a great auspice for the Asian American church: to address the wounds, dysfunctions, unique giftings and twilight people mentality of the 2nd generation. The perspective however, would be to launch them into the greater circle of the church and to not get bogged down in long-run, tossed-by-the-waves-of-the-market type of church.

By the way, if you’re ever in Gainesville, try the Dragonfly.

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Comments

  1. elderj says:

    ummm … this is the advantage of parachurch, but also our great disadvantage. the things baout your example is that it fragments an already fragmented group even more and lends itself people hearing only those who agree with them, or who are in their “stage of life” or whatever. This is already happening, but that doesn’t mean we should encourage it. After all I don’t want to hear from someone my own age how to stay married; I’d appreciate the wisdom of some ajossis and ajummas

  2. David Park says:

    Right, this would have to work in conjunction with the premise that church is only one component of Christian growth.

  3. djchuang says:

    This is a novel idea, and I’d love to see people do this. Now, I’m not a typical institution-building organization-developing kind of person by nature, but from what I hear from those who are disciplined about building something that lasts, they talk about things like sustainability, infrastructure, succession planning, leveraging human resources to rally around a mission and vision that will last decades and centuries, and so on. Both churches and parachurches tend to think about building lasting institutions. A small part of that thinking may be to account for the brevity of life, and if you’ve got a good thing, let’s build something that’ll outlast you or me.

    That seems to suggest that a concept like a short-run church, while perhaps permissible in the theological and ecclesiological sense, it may not be very good use of resources, people or financial wise. But, this thought just crossed my mind, if you’ve got an institution backing short-run churches, then you could pull it off with better follow-thru, and pass along lessons learned from previous iterations to subsequent short-runs.

  4. David Park says:

    Good point DJ. I wonder if Northpoint had this type of thing in mind when they did 722 (www.722.org)? It’s got a limited focus and demographic, but doesn’t pretend to be a local church, although is backed by one. And the two reinforce one another well. Why don’t more churches do that?

  5. Anna Lee says:

    To add to the complexities of eschatology: the Church exists as individuals maturing in differing life stages, as a corporate Church body living in shifting organizational seasons, and finally as a group living in culture and history that is constantly moving. All these moving parts!

    The beauty of parachurch (as a person who works for one), is that we serve a specific deographic usually in the same life stage (university ministry: undergrad 18-22 yrs old. graduate 20-35, doctorate 25-40, facutly 35-60), or asking the same questions of and industry culture (a Christian business association or Models for Christ, for example). In Church, the least common denominator is the Triune God.

    I hear your thoughts about the Church’s need to shift with the seasons it’s been called to serve in, David. I wonder what it looks like too.

  6. elderj says:

    Hi Anna… I think we work for the same parachurch 🙂

    Anyway, one of the things that strikes me is that the church is not a mission-business as much as it is a family-organism with business trappings. Thus many of the problem we have in church are the same ones we have in families, except on a larger scale. Families cannot run like businesses, they are not designed to be short term, and they don’t necessarily adapt well to outside pressures.

  7. David Park says:

    Perhaps this would be a good time to bring up the local church versus the CHURCH. If your local church is you real community hub, then I think you’re absolutely right Josh, then it is like a family. The problem is an increasing amount of people experience community, vulnerability, and intimacy in a setting apart from the local church. Hence both you and Anna perhaps feel more tightly knit in your parachurch circles where the act of ministry is not as tightly centralized. That should reinforce the local church, but again, that is to say that it’s not as tightly knit as we used to think. Therefore, I bring up the notion that it could be conceived as a objective-minded “business” model.

    I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but perhaps as DJ suggested, one could support the other?

  8. djchuang says:

    I think the notion of a short-run church is a whole ‘nother category that’s different from parachurches as we know it today. So I hope we can explore that some more..

    I (want to) believe that 722 in Atlanta is similar to a number of other young adults weekly inter-church Bible teaching ministry generically called “Metro” in other metropolitan areas like Dallas, and I recall some organizers (ministry leaders) trying to get one going in DC. This kind of a ministry usually takes a strong Bible teacher & great communicator to pull off, and we know how few great communicators there are.

    Why don’t more churches try this kind of a thing? I have a hunch that most churches are having a hard enough time keeping up with their normally scheduled programs, events, and such, to try anything else that’d also be resource-intensive.

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