Monday, April 11, 2011

Anonymity Is The Key to Growth

Most churches think that the key to church growth is growing friendlier. So, in an attempt to be "super friendly", churches bend over backwards to make their places of worship more interconnected, more intermingled, more "shiny happy people holding hands (to quote the rock band REM)." To this end, churches will build beautifully constructed name tag boards, they will post extra friendly greeters on the street outside the church, they will ask new visitors to stand and introduce themselves, they will offer first time visitors a flower to wear (as if to draw a circular target around the person's heart, for all established members to aim at and to shoot). I have even been to church growth seminars that actually taught people how to be friendlier to one another on Sunday mornings - make sure to smile like this....and not this.

Unfortunately, friendliness (in a clingy, "insiderish", enmeshed kind of way) is actually the opposite feeling that a church wants to engender for outsiders, if growth is the goal.

The key to church growth is actually - Anonymity!

Think about it this way. If you were slightly interested in buying a new car (I don't mean fully interested - as in you have to buy a car this weekend because your Ford Focus just died), what would be your course of action? Would you personally go visit a car dealership and say, "Hi, I'm Joe, I'd love to buy a new car." No way!. You would drive by the car lot 16, maybe 20 times first. You would scan the lot from the safety of your own car, before you stopped to ask for more assistance. You would want the necessary distance to be able to process the decision to buy a new car. You would want to be able to compare the styles, colors, interior designs, price tags in your own way, on your own time, through your own anonymity!

When we first started Highlands Church, way back in the movie theater days, our biggest asset was the darkened room in which we met. Every week when we would begin worship at 8:30, 9:00 or 11:00, there would inevitably be a whole section of chairs (in the darkened section) that would be vacant and empty. You could hardly see these seats or anything around them, they were so dark. Then, sometime before the first and second song, the silhouette of a single individual could be seen, sitting in the darkened section of the movie theater. Before the end of the service, the silhouette was gone, removed from the space as if never to have occupied it at all.

In those early years, more people came to Christ and were baptized in that movie theater than at any time in my entire ministry. I can never be certain, but I could swear there was one man who simply came to sit and cry, in that darkened space. One of the main factors in our ability to grow was the extent to which we allowed people to remain anonymous, for as long as they felt comfortable remaining anonymous.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is of Jesus' arrest at the garden of Gethsemane. The book of Mark describes the scene of Jesus' arrest in the same ways the other two gospels do. However, in Mark's version there is an extra figure. He is unknown. He isn't given a name. He is anonymous; "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." Unfortunately, we will never know for sure who this young man was exactly. Some have said that he was the "rich man" described in the incident of the rich man who came to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. No one will ever know. He seems similar to many of the silhouetted figures that I have encountered. Maybe all he wanted was to remain anonymous for a little while...

All for Now,

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