Trading Places

Empty chair and table with microphone
Empty chair and table with microphone

I was at a conference recently where we were given the option to start the day having breakfast with one of the more noteworthy conferees. I was tempted to be part of the circle of admirers of a local pastor whose 4,000-person church was planted a mere four years ago. In the end, I chose a different luminary. But if I had gone with the church planter, I would have been tempted to say that a portion of his exciting new church had come from our church. I'm pretty sure that would have been awkward not just for the two of us, but probably for all his well-wishers, too.

During the Eighties I had gone back to Fuller Seminary to get my DMin in Church Growth. Megachurches and their larger-than-life pastors were making headlines and ground zero for all this excitement was Prof. C. Peter Wagner and Fuller. I eagerly learned concepts like the "homogeneous unit principle" (like attracts like) and learned how to chart "decadal growth rates" along with my fellow "Rick Warren wannabes." Our formerly overlooked historically Japanese American Baptist church had been attracting scores of young adult Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans who left their churches to be part of ours. We soon outgrew our modest facility in East LA and relocated to the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, closer to where our target demographic now lived.

In those heady days I was often invited to host a breakfast circle or give workshops for those hoping to duplicate EBCLA's magic. Quite often, though, I'd recognize some of the pastors or leaders as being from churches that had 'lost' significant numbers of people to our church. And given what our church is experiencing currently, I have no doubt that their churches will suffering. Inevitably, one of them would meekly ask, "How do we keep people from leaving our churches?" to which I would smartly reply, "Satisfied sheep can't be stolen." Yeah, I was that pastor.

I still think it might have been fascinating for me to join that church planter's group and to reveal how our church's "loss" has been his church's "gain." If I had shared, my point would have been to add some perspective, not make waves. Our church just celebrated 90 years since it was planted. In that vast span of years, the church has experienced the reality of life being a sequence of bell-shaped curves. Yet when we were experiencing the pinnacle of growth and excitement in the late Eighties and early Nineties, we just assumed that it was because we knew what we were doing and thus this boom would never bust. I wonder if any of the new churches that are drawing people away from other churches have given serious thought to what their churches will be like in fifty years? Or how about in ninety years? Will their model be sustainable? Will they even be around?

I recently announced to the church that I'll be retiring soon from pastoring. Having served continuously at EBCLA since 1978, this will be a significant change for the church and me. Part of me would love to say that I'm leaving after leading the church to even higher heights, but I'm not. In fact, the things that God has put on my heart to emphasize the past several years have contributed to a good number of folks leaving for other churches. But that's the subject for my next blog. It would make for an interesting breakfast conversation.