The fun problems to solve

This is day 10 of 11 consecutive days of speaking for me. I have been in some fine churches, seen some good things happening.  I was also able to get re-acquainted with some old friends.

One of the highlights of this trip was speaking at Fielder Road Baptist in Arlington, TX. At 2600 in Sunday School attendance, this church is getting into the top single digits of Sunday Schools across the country. But, not only is it one of the largest, it is also still growing. They have a 19 million dollar building program under construction. They have increased by about 1000 in attendance in the time that my host, Jerry, has been there.

Doubling churches are having more fun. There is a spark of enthusiasm and energy and spiritual vibrancy in a church like this that does not exist in the plateaued churches.

Some see a tension between between being an evangelistic church and being a discipling church. John Ortberg tells of a conversation he had with someone in the atrium at Willowcreek. "It seems you can either go hard after the lost, or you can go deep in discipleship, but you just can't do both." John Ortberg responds, and I agree, that not only is this false, it is categorically impossible. It is impossible to draw close to God and not have a heart for people who are far from Him. In my experience, doubling churches tend to have more vibrant disciples than do plateaued churches. It is both a cause and affect of growth.

But, on to the main topic.

Doubling churches have problems too. Their problems are different than the problems of plateaued churches, but they have problems still. The big problem is space: where to put all the people. These are the fun problems to solve.

But, even though they are fun, they have to be solved or they will surely kill the growth of the church. It is what I call the law of the pickle jar. Question: how many pickles can you fit in a ten-pickle jar? Question #2: how many pickles can you fit in a ten-pickle jar if you pray about it? We need not over spiritualize here. We need to pray well, preach well, teach well, and provide enough parking and preschool space. Any one of these can kill the growth of our church. Providing space is imperative.

My first book dealt with this subject and it has been a point of fascination of mine for years. It all started when I read Chaney and Lewis's book Design for Church Growth. They mentioned that most of the time when churches build buildings, the process of building the building will kill the growth they are trying to provide for. If we don't solve this problem skillfully, it can kill us.

Just how much space do we need? Well, Ten Best Practices will give you a detailed table for preschoolers, children, youth and adults. Look at the table carefully and you will discover adults and youth require 10 - 12 square foot per person. This is the same number required in an auditorium. Which means, if you follow last week's suggestion of having chairs in a circle you will need a good deal more. You can actually make it a little more simple, however. Just set up the chairs around in a circle and that is how many people can fit.

One other simple rule of thumb. When every classroom in the building is occupied, the building is full. Every classroom will never be full. When every classroom is occupied, the building is full. You will not grow beyond that. Why? We grow a Sunday School by creating new groups. When every classroom is occupied, you can't start any new groups and thus the building is full.

If you have multiple Sunday School times, excess capacity at one hour does not help you in another. When any one of the Sunday School hours is full, that is creating a bottleneck. The fact that you have empty rooms at another hour doesn't help. Bill Hybels calls this extra seats at optimum meeting times. It is why they are building again at Willowcreek. They have plenty of seats on Saturday night. Doesn't matter. They need to have extra seats at optimum meetings times. Thus, they are building a building at Willowcreek.

The first solution is to go to dual Sunday Schools. In the case of Fielder Road, they are already doing this, in fact, they are in three Sunday Schools. As it turns out, however, three Sunday Schools provides zero more seats than two because of the bottlenecking in the middle hour. I was in multiple services for years before I realized this. Three services provides an early and late choice, but the middle hour in both Sunday School and Worship will be fed by the outer two hours. The outer two hours are constrained by the attendance of the middle hour and thus, you could always fit both of the outer two hours into one. Thus, in Sunday School, three services and three Sunday Schools is no better than two. It provides zero extra seats.

This leads to one of my favorite solutions: Saturday night. Let me be honest about my bias. I flat like Saturday night church. Probably because I like to sleep in and am not a morning person, I love Saturday night church. When we had Saturday night church when I served on staff, we used to do Worship at 6.00 and Bible Study at 7:15. Afterwards, we would often go out to a restaurant or someone's house. Because it was not a working day the next day, the group would often stay out late fellowshipping together. I have great memories of those years.

Saturday night does have its complications. There is a price to be paid for the staff--especially if the staff have school-aged kids. You no longer have a day off when the kids are out of school. For the staff, it is not just Saturday night. By mid-afternoon you will have to shut down the lawn mower and clean up so you can get ready for Saturday night. By 2:00 in the afternoon, your day off is over. And here is another thing. This is not a short term solution. Once you start it, people will like it and will not want it cancelled. The solution to this is radical new paradigm discussed in my book Double Services/Double Sunday Schools.

Doubling churches of the future will not only have multiple services and multiple music styles, they will also have multiple preaching pastors meeting at multiple and sometimes competing meeting times. This is what I call the multi-congregation paradigm. In Double Sunday Schools/Double Services I argue that it is the paradigm of the early church and the only paradigm that will make sense in a world that is increasingly crowded in our cities, causing the cost of land and buildings to skyrocket.

This is exactly what is happening at churches like Willowcreek. They have Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday Services. On Saturday and Sunday, they have multiple and competing services. They have an Axis service for X-ers, a Spanish service, and the regular service. They also have three off campus satellites: Wheaton, North Shore, and McHenry County. Their web page currently lists 6 preaching pastors. This is the church of the future.

Saddleback has four worship venues. In addition to the main service, they have Saddleback Unplugged, Saddleback PRAISE! and Saddleback Instant Replay. They also 6 worship times and multiple preaching pastors.

In Sunday School churches, moving to multiple services, with multiple meeting times and styles and leadership is even more important because Sunday School requires, on average, about 4 times as much space as does worship. The Doubling church of the future will provide multiple services with multiple styles and multiple preaching pastors.

One other thing Fielder Road is doing is aggressively moving toward some off campus groups. While continuing to provide Sunday School on Sunday morning, they are starting dozens, and soon hundreds of groups in homes during the week. Doing so requires a totally different type of thinking. We are accustomed to thinking, "How can we get more people in our buildings?" Once you fill them up you need to start thinking the opposite: "How can we create more space in our buildings? Can we move people off campus? Can we use home groups? Can we do a Saturday night service? Perhaps we can do a singles' metro service." These are the fun problems to solve and they require a whole new level of thinking. The thinking that got you to this point will not get you to the next level.

The multi-congregation paradigm offers a whole new  level of thinking. In my opinion, it was a bit ahead of its time and is more relevant today than when it was first released.