There’s a man in Denver named Gene Cisneros who runs a health club. He was recently interviewed in the Denver Post. I was very impressed by his business philosophy because it mirrored what I feel is a biblical philosophy of ministry.
One of the main frustrations in pastoral ministry is the constant pressure – both from the world and the church – to base local church ministry on programs, products, and performances. In other words, we as pastors are judged to be successes or failures based on our ability to build and lead an organization that offers excellent programs, products, and performances to an ever-increasing customer base (or market share). People don’t use those words, of course. The “customers” would, instead, use phrases such as, “my kids love it there!” or “I’m just not being fed by the teaching ministry,” or “I really love their music,” or “our church just doesn’t have much of a youth group right now,” or “I like that they offer a Saturday night service so we can use Sunday for family stuff.”
Gene Cisneros began his little health club thirty years ago. He named it Kinetic Fitness Studio. His club is located in the north Cherry Creek area of Denver and is described by the interviewer as a “quite simple, small, and even shabby little gym hidden down a back alley.” Nearby are several popular top-of-the-line gyms with all the bells and whistles, packed with customers. Gene and his little gym, however, have somehow managed to help all kinds of folks get in shape while, at the same time, training Denver’s boldest, biggest names in the civic and financial worlds. So, Gene was asked, “what’s your secret?” His answer was fascinating:
I just wanted to open a place to work out. I didn’t want all that foo-foo stuff. It’s pretty primitive in terms of the facility. It’s only 3,000 square feet; we have some TV’s. I didn’t even have a drinking fountain for eight years. To this day, there are no showers. No lockers. No steam. No sauna. This is bare bones. But if people want to get in shape and they’re serious about it, they come to my club. We do have state-of-the-art equipment. But we have no membership director; we don’t have a contract. I had every reason to fail. But people just come in and we go, “let’s get to work."
I would sum up Gene’s philosophy this way: they major on the essentials: knowing what they’re doing, getting in shape, and establishing genuine relationships. Gene said, “Oh, yes. I can’t tell you how many members have gotten married. Dozens. In a club this size, everybody knows everybody.”
Every summer for twenty years, I’ve provided tennis lessons for children in my neighborhood. For better or worse, my philosophy is similar to Gene’s. After coming across this interview, I told my wife, “his approach is the same as my approach with the tennis lessons! I have no bells, no whistles, no gadgets, no contracts, no fancy marketing tools. I have no assistants. I really don’t have a single fancy thing to offer these kids. But I have tons of kids who are dying to come back every summer and who bring all their friends. Why? Because I know what I’m doing, the kids will learn to love and play tennis, and they will become good friends with me and each other. I just plain love working with kids.” I then told my wife, “can’t you see how all of this relates to our church and to my philosophy of ministry? This is exactly how I do church as well.”
My wife is a member of a large, professional, polished, popular health club with all the bells and whistles. I said to her, “the problem with a club that’s based on the programs, products, and performances that it offers, is that it doesn’t necessarily care about you as a person. In fact, by its very nature, it can’t. In a program/product/performance based organization, people are simply numbers - “units” to be used to further the organization.” I said to her, “honey, if you leave and someone takes your place, the organization will continue to function just as well and its leaders will be just as happy. If you never actually use the club or get in shape, neither the organization nor its administrators really care. As long as you sign a contract and pay your money, they’re satisfied.”
I then when on to make the comparison with churches. If you base a church on offering programs, products, and performances to “religious customers,” then your highest value and commitment must be in attracting enough people to the programs at any given point. As long as there are enough people and money coming through the system – at any given point in time (hopefully an ever-increasing amount of people and money – “growth” is the Christian word for that) – then the organization is happy. Whether it’s the same people or different ones, it doesn’t necessarily have to matter to the board of directors. Whether the individual people are growing or not, building life-long relationships or not, doesn’t necessarily have to matter to the church’s leaders. As long as more people and money are coming through the front door compared to those exiting the back door, the organization can survive (and maybe even thrive) in the eyes of the world and the church.
So, my five part question: What if, on the other hand, we were committed to (1) helping people grow “healthy in God, robust in love,” (2) helping people build life-long, multi-generational relationships in a committed community that is going through life together, (3) creating a sacred space to meet together for prayer, the word of God, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, singing, fellowship, and common meals (4) holding to a model of “pastor” as someone who knows the flock, cares for the flock, and loves the flock? And (5) being a “family on a mission” and into making disciples – one at a time???