Black History and White Pastors
When Villains Become Heroes

The Truth About Church Competition and "Copy + Paste" Programming

We live in an era of quick fix methodology in life. The church is not immune to this.

As statistics for the American church continue to show decreases in baptisms and consistent attendance, many long-time local churches now find themselves struggling to remain not just relevant to a changing to community, but ultimately alive as a congregation.

The church growth movement of the 1970s and 1980s has left a residue of wrongly placed markers for church health that actually do not reveal health, but just attendance, and when attendance wanes, the church is deemed a failure. The church may be failing, but there are more health indicators than just people in the pews. While some mega-churches and new works have creative footprints online and in their respective communities, there are many other local churches seeking to continue serving the Lord and their community, but find themselves struggling to pay bills, engage those in the community or remain open.

Church Competition

Now, most pastors would never admit they're competitors with other local churches. The sad truth is that over time, churches tend to program, develop, offer ministries, music, and events based not on what may be best long-term, or even with a foundational theological understanding, but more on what seems to be working elsewhere. That’s why so many churches seem to be clones of others (especially of those that market really well).

Have you ever wondered why the new church launch in your city looks suspiciously like the mega-church from North Carolina, Dallas, Southern California, or Australia? 

And while I am as guilty as just about any other pastor in striving to find what “secret sauce” is working now to get people and keep people in church, the fact remains that a short-term fix focused on the latest program, event, staff position, concert, or any other tangible thing will be just that – a short-term fix.

New ministries, new staff members, new leadership, new branding, etc. will not provide that which is most needed. That being said, there are definitely moments where each of the previously listed items, and more, must be addressed. Some things must change. Some ministries need to be shelved. That's a reality and I am for all that. However, what I am saying is that to simply focus on the latest marketed "church fix" would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Things would look good for a season, but that shifting and rearranging would do nothing to keep the ship afloat or moving forward.

Knowing the state of the evangelical church in our nation today, and just observing the data from the evangelical churches (especially the traditionally Baptist ones in my own city) it is clear that the next trendy fix will do little more than delay the inevitable.

While I'm addressing the realities of established churches, church planters and new works should take heed as well. 

Copy + Paste Programming

Anyone who works with computers of software to any degree understands the "copy + paste" illustration. Software allows for the copying of text or images from one document or program to another. All you have to do is "paste" the copied item to the new work and, voila, it's a new creation. Well, it's a new look, but there's really nothing new there. It's the same thing, just replicated. This is not new. Andy Warhol make much by copying and pasting images for his modern artistic works. Ever see the Campbell's soup can or Marilyn Monroe work from Warhol?

When I was a kid in Alabama, a new hamburger restaurant opened. It was headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee and apparently the founder was a disgruntled worker from another famous fast-food restaurant. The name of the new restaurant was Judy's. Judy's sold hamburgers with square meat patties. They had sides like fries and chili and shakes. Their logo was a blond girl that looked much like a redhead many would recognize today.

Judy's
Cedar Rapids, IA - Judy’s Home Style Hamburgers & Fixin’s restaurant is seen under construction at 1854 42nd St. NE. Shortly after completion of the new Judy’s stores in Cedar Rapids, a lawsuit was brought against the franchise by Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant because of close similarities, forcing the closure of the Judy’s restaurants. All Judy’s stores were subsequently absorbed into the Wendy’s chain, including the store in this photo. Gazette photo November 19, 1977.

 

 

The restaurant was not bad. Our family ate there once, but as soon as we went it, it was clear...this was a clone. We were eating in a clone of Wendy's restaurant. The food tasted the same. The building was modeled the same. The only differences were that Judy's was blue where Wendy's was red, the girl was blond instead of a redhead, and they had fruit pies (the good, deep-fried ones like McDonald's used to have) instead of Frostys.

Wendy's took them to court and won a cease and desist case. Judy's closed down. They had to pay Wendy's $10 million. Some of their restaurants became Wendy's and now the copy is just barely found on the internet as a restaurant that "used to be."

I know some Judy-style churches that are little more than clones of other churches.

They have found models that work in certain cities and communities, have sought to copy them exactly and paste them into their systems, expecting healthy results.

It's the easy fix. It's the easy way to launch. Just do what someone else is doing. Makes sense, right?

I've attended some of these churches. Some are wonderfully organized and have moved beyond a simple cloning to develop their own identity and processes. That's been done numerous times and actually can lead to health in the church.

Nevertheless, there are others who have sought to be something they never were supposed to be. Sure, Andy Stanley has a pretty good ministry and maybe you can copy his model, but the fact is - you're not Andy Stanley and you aren't in Alpharetta, you didn't launch with a large group of church attenders decades ago, so just stop. Take advantage of the principles of health and growth perhaps, but stop trying to be Andy.

For some of you, Andy's ministry is far from what you desire, so in your cases, stop trying to be...

  • Matt Chandler
  • John Piper
  • Robby Gallaty
  • Rick Warren
  • J.D. Greear
  • H.B. Charles
  • Eric Mason
  • Or whomever you love to listen to preach

Each of these men, and many others, have great things to offer and their churches do as well. But, you are not them. Even if you live in their cities, you are not in their churches (likely) and God has a calling for you that will differ from theirs.

The copy + paste mentality of church replication may be fueling more of the celebrity church and celebrity pastor growth that we see in our culture today. We should be better than this.

I respect each of the men mentioned above, have read much of what they have respectively written, have talked to some of them personally, listened to most of them preach live and online, and have nothing but respect for them. I have learned from them. I have been blessed by them. But...I am not any of them. And neither are you.

Does this mean that we cannot learn from other local churches? Absolutely not. Pastors continue to meet together, text each other, talk on the telephone, and seek insight into ministries (i.e. programs and events) that prove fruitful.

The warning is to not fall into the trap of believing that simply copying another's contextual ministry model and pasting it in one's church will result in healthy, fruitful, ministry. 

Programs come and go. Styles shift. Methodology changes. Contextual clarity is a must, and is a moving target. Yet, even so, we are reminded that since there's nothing new under the sun, the hope and strength we have as local churches must be founded on the gospel and the greatest commandment.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (ESV) [1]

So, young pastor just starting out, or seasoned pastor struggling to move your church forward - stop looking around for some "secret sauce" of ministry that will fix everything in your congregation and context. Start with your own heart and personal walk. Talk with friends in ministry and seek wise counsel. Will you be led to change things in your church setting? Perhaps, but remember, most disciple-making takes time. In fact, I believe all disciple-making takes time. Leading a healthy church is about leading a disciple-making fellowship - and it will take time. 

Press on. Be encouraged.

Don't pastor a "Judy's Hamburger Church" that is simply a copy of someone else's work. I'm not sure there's such a thing as spiritual plagiarism, but this comes close. 

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 12:29-31). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

comments powered by Disqus