January 8, 2015

A Pastor’s Voyage Away from Church Consumerism

[Editor’s note: This interview is a continuation of IRD’s “How Does Your Church Grow?” summer series. Today’s guest is Brian Lee, who is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church, a recently planted mission church meeting one mile north of the White House in Washington, DC.]

CV: Your experience in Washington D.C. begins with politics and ends with the pulpit. But can you tell us what motivated your decision to minister in this transitory city in the first place?

Brian Lee: Sure. I moved to Washington D.C. in 2004 for purposes unrelated to planting Christ Reformed Church. Before that I attended Westminster Seminary and completed a Ph.D. at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At first, I was interested in teaching and pursuing academic jobs. But I was also interested in public policy. So I thought, well, I’ll move to Washington D.C. and work in policy while looking for academic jobs.

But I ended up working in public policy at the Justice Department. Then went to Capitol Hill for a year and then I moved to the National Endowment for the Humanities and worked there for about five years as Director of Communications. During that five year window, I had been a part of what’s called the United Reformed Church. During my seminary work I had been licensed as a preacher, which is not like being ordained. But I had done a fair bit of preaching in ministry and always hoped to become a member in that communion of churches.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any United Reformed Churches in Washington D.C. So I worshiped for a time in a few different places. I had difficulty finding a church home. I also had a number of friends who, when I moved to town, were interested in starting a new Reformed church at that time. So we had very general conversations for a couple of years about starting a church and finally, in about 2007, we started a Bible study with a group of friends to explore whether or not there was sufficient interests. In November 2007, we started worshiping together. This was a very small group of folks—about 25 people.

CV: What did your initial plant strategy look like?

We didn’t have much of a strategy for church planting. Our strategy was focused on a particular order of service, a particular liturgy and philosophy of worship that we wanted to implement and we didn’t do a lot of demographical or sociological approaches that people take to church plant these days.

CV: Can you please briefly outline the theological tenets that Christ Reformed Church upholds?

We are self-consciously confessional and liturgical and come out of the Protestant Reformation and we come out of what’s known as the Dutch Reformed tradition. In England or Scotland this tradition was generally called Presbyterian or Congregationalist. On the European continent they were typically just known as German Reformed, French Reformed or Dutch Reformed. So we are from the Dutch Reformed family and a lot of our sister churches have a heavy ethnic representation.

CV: What did the demographic of your church look like to start off?

At that time, it was a fairly mixed bag. But it consisted of mostly young married folks and single folks. Kind of the typical D.C. demographic that is somewhere between 22-40 years old. I was 35 years old at the time and probably near the oldest. Also—and this wasn’t intentional— I didn’t go out targeting racial diversity, but we had a diverse racial background which is also typically D.C.

Some people are also very strategic in picking their church’s neighborhood. But for us, we had collected a fairly regional group of people and decided to just start centrally in the district. Ideally, somewhere that’s not too difficult to drive to by car if someone is going to commute from Northern Virginia or Maryland was what we were looking for. So we’ve always had a little bit of a bigger footprint but choose to worship downtown.

CV: You mention you are unintentional in strategy, yet you have a young diverse congregation worshiping according to a liturgical tradition. Doesn’t this go against assumptions made by the trending church planting models? Can you speak to this disconnect?

I think a lot of church planting energy leans towards a Willow Creek model of style, music, theatre seating, or what have you. But there has also been a bit of backlash against this model.

I’ve found that people really appreciate authenticity and historic roots. That’s what attracted me to the Reformed tradition. I’m an adult convert to the Reformed tradition. I was baptized and grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, then spent eight years in broadly evangelical churches before gravitating to a more historically grounded faith, not only in terms of the content of our beliefs, but how we worship. I find this also resonates with many other young people as well as old. To say these are traditions we share not only with our parents and grandparents’ generation but also go back hundreds of years is something people find very exciting.

One of the reasons people pursue change toward the novel in worship is because that’s the rhythm of the marketplace. Pastors are convinced that we need to innovate, we need to do something new to get our niche and that’s what will draw our customer base. And so if we think about the Church as competing in a marketplace of ideas, then a lot of churches will succumb to this strategy. But there is a lot of skepticism broadly among young people about the market. There’s a lot of anti-corporate/anti-consumer culture which is also reflective in Church life. Are you following this market mentality for deeply principled reasons or is what your strategy just to draw a bigger crowd?

We had a young post-college 24-year old girl whose brother was a member of our church. She moved to D.C. after graduation and worshiped with us a couple times and then suddenly disappeared. I believe she visited a number of other churches because she was put off by our liturgical dynamic. It wasn’t her background. Things that aren’t familiar can take a learning curve. Then gradually she started ducking back into our services. I sat down to have coffee with her and she said, “It just clicked that everything you do, you do for a reason. The reason isn’t just to get people in the door. The reason is not to attract a crowd. There is a well thought-out rationale and purpose.”

One of the reasons I personally like being traditional or conservative in this sense is that there is always wisdom in many counselors. If we are going to do things for a reason, I’d rather do things that are shared by a lot of other people who have more experience and historical knowledge of the Church than I.

Christ Reformed Church started at a very small size. It’s hard to grow in this town because there is much turnover. But we are growing slowly but steadily and I think that is because we spend a lot of energy preparing thoughtful and structured messages meant to engage people intellectually, not just emotionally. I’m a big believer that there is a lot of flabby preaching out there that doesn’t really engage us at the deepest level.

A lot of Christians enter the workplace in Washington D.C. and really use their brains. Then they go to church to unplug their brains. A new visitor recently told me that she appreciated our message didn’t treat her like a child but really spoke to her by engaging both her heart and her mind, which is what I think preaching should do.

CV: There are a lot of pastors outside of Washington D.C. who may have small church plants in a small town where it is difficult to attract young families. Perhaps they are contemplating the church consumerism model to draw members. What wisdom or encouragement can you offer these church leaders?

One of the factors about the megachurches that are held up as great models for how to grow quickly is that it is not clear that they are planted to grow for the long haul. The biblical model is planting and watering and growing. My church’s motto is I Corinthians 3:7, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” It is God who gives the growth.

Ultimately, you must have a tremendous amount of patience and confidence in the Word of God. A church is must grow strong like an oak tree rather than a flimsy weed that springs up quickly overnight.

Your church is going to grow when the members you have now share the gospel and bring their neighbors with them on Sunday mornings. Don’t try to attract fad-seeking Believers who are shallowly rooted or not rooted at all. Try to convert unbelievers instead.


One Response to A Pastor’s Voyage Away from Church Consumerism

  1. Erik Charter says:

    Nice piece. Well done.

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