A Rube Goldberg machine is a device that accomplishes a simple task by complex means. Think of the board game Mousetrap, or just watch this video.
For the last week or so, I have been mulling over a statement made by J.D Payne at this year’s Reaching the Nations in North America summit. J.D. was speaking on church planting methods and made this claim: if church planting was as complex in the first century as today in the U.S., the gospel would have never left the Middle East. You can catch the whole address here.
Now that is a fairly provocative claim, but I think he may be correct.
Of course, J.D.’s intent is not to disparage all of the good gospel ministry that is occurring across the United States and Canada. I’m certain he would be one of the first to celebrate all that is happening for the sake of the Great Commission and the spread of God’s glory here. Instead, his statement in the context was meant to challenge some of our assumptions about church planting methods. He was essentially making one very important point: there is an inverse relationship between complexity and reproducibility.
Ministry Methods Matter
I am going to assume that if you are reading this, you agree that local church ministry should be multiplicative as opposed to merely additional. For any ministry to be multiplicative, it needs to be reproducible. And the more complex it is, the less reproducible it becomes.
So these two ideas, reproducibility and complexity, exist in an inverse relationship. The more complex we make a particular ministry method, the less likely it is that others will be able to take what we are doing and reproduce it in other places. Additionally, I believe complexity increases the likelihood that our method is context dependent. In other words, if it is overly complex there is little chance of it being able to work in another setting even if someone was able to reproduce it.
In short, our ministry methods matter. We need to be cognizant not just of what we are trying to accomplish, but how we are trying to accomplish it. Furthermore, I think it is fair to say our rule of thumb must be that simpler is better. Regardless of the particular ministry, if we can accomplish the same quality with a simpler method, then we should default to this mode. After all simple is reproducible, which means it is multiplicative.
Complexity Creates Barriers
If we drill to the heart of the matter, a Rube Goldberg machine is not usually created for the purpose of accomplishing the simple task it does, but demonstrating the engineering acumen of the one who designed it. Almost always, complex systems like this are about reflecting the ingenuity of the designer, not accomplishing their mission with effectiveness. That should be a warning for us concerning complex ministry methods. While Rube Goldberg machines are certainly impressive to watch, their sheer complexity creates barriers to others replicating their method.
These barriers show up in a number of places. When we over complicate corporate musical worship, we create talent barriers. When the performance aspect of worship drives the ministry method, it can actually keep church members from being able to participate. If we over complicate discipleship by insisting on degreed teachers or certain curriculums and programs, we create a supply barrier. Only select people in the church feel qualified to serve in these overly professionalized leadership roles, and we are tempted to overlook potential leaders. Finally, a whole swath of church planting methods today create financial barriers to starting new churches. When we insist on over complicated planting methods that rely on a truckload of technical equipment, renting or purchasing certain kinds of worship space, and mass advertising models, we set the financial bar so high on planting that it creates an entry barrier. The expectation is set that only people who can raise $100,000 dollars are capable of planting a church in North America.
An Exhortation to Evaluate Our Assumptions
Here is my exhortation: Let’s evaluate our own assumptions about ministry methods in our context. I am in a lot of conversations with church and denominational leaders concerned about multiplying churches across the country, and these conversations often have certain assumptions built in about what churches are supposed to look like. What if planting churches in America is not actually outstandingly expensive, but planting big-box churches with full, professional worship bands and seminary-degreed staff (complete with lighting equipment) is?
In order to reveal our assumptions, we must first stake down our core purposes. For instance, making new disciples is a non-negotiable for a healthy church, as is leadership development, and missional sending. The same can be said for genuine corporate worship, where the congregation participates through song and sermon, communion and baptism. Are our methods leading to these outcomes? If not, then our first concern must be ensuring that our priorities in ministry align with those given the church in the Bible.
Yet even when we are accomplishing these core purposes, the manner in which we accomplish them is often assumed. This is, of course, the result of cultural blinders. We assume the only way to have excellence in corporate worship is to replicate what we have seen in churches we label as successful in our context. But I am not convinced excellence in musical worship equals professional performance. What is more excellent in musical worship, a polished band on stage or a room full of believers all actually singing with joy regardless of how they sound? We must be able to separate the core purpose from the method. We want to ensure the purpose and scrutinize the method.
I am not saying we need to sacrifice on excellence in corporate worship or discipleship. We must pursue excellence, but it must be excellence in the right things. Take time in your local church ministry to articulate your core purposes and your methodological assumptions. You may find your ministry could be simplified, and if so, it will assuredly make it easier to pass on to others.
Photo Credit: Alex Eylar