Church Within a Church, Does it Work?


I believe it was Chris Sheay (sp?) who was quoted at some point saying, "The church within a church model is doomed to inevitably fail."  For the most part, he’s probably right.

The "church within a church" concept refers the decade-long (or so) rage to add a "relevant" and "authenthic" worship service (often on Sunday nights, but not limited to it) geared towards the missing demographic in churches … the 18-35 year-olds.  Willow Creek, McLean Bible, Graceland (not that name now) and countless others have implemented this model for their church.  It’s not youth ministry, which is geared toward 11-18 year-olds.  Rather, the desire is that it goes far deeper.  And it’s not the Sunday morning service the church also runs regularly each week.  It’s unique and draws a crowd and has few limits.  Often times darker, more intimate, and desiring a "give-all-of-yourself" mentality … and out of that, many good things have emerged from this model.

Our church started their Sunday evening service about 6 years ago after an alarming demographic study of our congregation.  At the time, our attendance was roughly 1300 people … not bad.  But when you counted up the young-adults category, they made up less than 30 of the 1300!  What is that, 2.5%?  Yikes.  So that little group banded together and spent about 6 months developing a service geared to reach that age group.

And it worked.

After 5 years, when I eventually departed, the new demographic studies of the church had that same age group making up roughly 20% of the 2000 who were now attending the church!  It was a stunningly effective way to reach out to a missing demographic.

But this model is also potentially wrought with problems.

For all the hoopla that comes with a new "edgier" service, so also comes the issue of a worship service that inevitably distinguishes itself from the rest, or mother, church.  And worst of all, that is often the fuel that drives the distinguishment.  It usually sounds something like … "Our service is more authentic."  Or, "We have a level of worship that the rest of the church doesn’t understand or reach to."  Etc.  There is, then, an escalating undercurrent that communicates an "us versus them" mentality.

And, to repeat myself, it actually becomes the fuel for growth and independence from the very part of the church that is often times providing the majority of the funding, the facility, and the many items needed to run a service (i.e the microphones, speakers, projectors, etc.).

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Anyone ever experienced or witnessed something like this?

I’ve seen this too often … and there are different results.  One church within a church I know received the "heavy from the top" approach as the mother church exerted continued and far-reaching control … resulting in a stagnant and suffocated congregation.  Another church within a church actually grew larger than the mother church congregation.  After much prayer and consideration, they decided to leave the mother church and plant themselves independently (a common approach, or at least the desire of many church within a church models).  The result was great for the church plant, but it devastated the mother church in potentially incurable ways.  From a distance (I was not part of the planting process in any way) it looked like the church plant simply shrugged as they walked away.  Very sad.  Finally, and most commonly, I sat with a pastor the other day who was stuck in "a pickle."  He was sure that because their service was so distinct and so much more authentic, etc.  that God was calling them to leave and plant.  But the mother church was concerned.  And so was he.  For they didn’t really know what to do.

I think I know what to do … I’ve done it and it works.

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