Church building a $5m Bridge [bad.hack]

A bad.hack (read more about it here) is a manipulation of a Christian system either using illicit means to achieve an end, or achieving goals that leave the system worse off and less open than before. Read on for the hack!

Hope you have your tissues handy.  Northpoint Church has a terrible problem of being a mega-church but having only one entrance/exit to their location.  Their pastor Andy Stanley outlines the problem:

Are you tired of sitting in the parking lot for twenty minutes after church?

Do you hesitate to invite friends to church because of the complexity of getting on and off our campus?

Have you ever skipped the closing song to beat the crowds to lunch?
I'm teary.  I wish there was something they could do.

Oh, there is.

Build a $5 million dollar bridge to create a second entrance!
Well, if you answered "Yes" to any of those questions, we have some great news for you. We are about to start construction on a bridge that will connect our campus to Old Milton Parkway.
Really?  $5 million of church dollars for a bridge that will save everyone 20-30 minutes and allow the church to "grow to capacity?"  Really?

While I like to hulk-smash things when I hear of churches spending money on infrastructure rather than helping other people who are dying, we all have different understandings of the gospel and we all have different roles to play.  Fair enough and we trust in God that we are following roles faithfully and thoughtfully, diverse as they are.

But their rationale is that it is a missional value to build this bridge.  What?  Really.
If our mission is to be a church thatʼs perfectly designed for the people who already attend, then we donʼt need a bridge. But if we want to continue to be a church unchurched people love to attend, then yes, itʼs worth it. From my perspective, this is not a “nice to have” option. Honestly, I donʼt want to raise money for, or give money to, something thatʼs not mission critical. I believe creating a second access point allows us to stay on mission. That is why weʼve been working on this for nine years.
Building a bridge for the purposes of allowing more suburban people to get to church cannot be legitimately defended as a missional value.

First, the expansion is for the purposes of allowing more people to worship in their church.  A fine decision, I'm not against creating new and better avenues (in this case, literally!) for people to worship, but look at their rationale (PDF):
Currently, we can seat 4,800 people in one service using both auditoriums. But our infrastructure only allows us to comfortably accommodate around 3,500 people. Once we pass the 3,500 mark, the traffic becomes exponentially unbearable. A second access point will allow us to accommodate 1,000 additional people at 9:00 and 11:00, achieving maximum use of our existing facility.
So the problem isn't getting more people in, it's getting 30% more people into a particular worship service time slot that is convenient.  I would think a truly missional decision would be one of the following:

  • For people in the 9am and 11am service to attend the 12:45pm service (which isn't mentioned so it probably doesn't have the traffic problems) or to begin an evening worship service.  But that would be inconvenient for people to change their schedules, wouldn't it?
  • For the congregation to build and move to another campus.  But a longer commute outside of the suburb would be inconvenient, wouldn't it?  
  • For people to carpool or drive in together (and a suburban megachurch with $5mil to burn probably has a lotta 2-person SUVs).  But asking people to carpool would be inconvenient, wouldn't it?

I realize it is easy to criticize a church decision from an armchair, or even question the idea to build a 4,800 seat capacity with only a 3,500 parking lot from an armchair, but really the above are missional responses that don't involve building a $5 million dollar bridge but do involve, oh, sacrifice.

Second, the "missional" value of bringing in more people is conflicting with the missional cost of building the bridge to the surrounding community.

This bridge will span 1,000 feet of flood plain and wetlands. It will be three lanes wide and include a pedestrian walkway. So, donʼt think cute wooden bridge. Think Haynes Bridge.
They are destroying wetlands to build this bridge.  But environmental stewardship is a real missional value as it betters the community outside the church.
This means their decision helps people get to their attractional worship space, but actually does harm to the surrounding communities.  How is that a missional value?

Finally, I think a commenter at Thomas's Everyday Liturgy blog put it best:
I heard that $1 can provide a 3rd world person clean water for an entire year. So instead of helping 5 million people GET water, they are helping 500 or so people AVOID it?
Well said.

I know there's bleedings of anti-mega-churches in this post and that's stereotypical of me.  Stereotypes are offensive because they lump people into small categories and don't describe the individuals therein.  But if the stereotype of megachurch-goers is that they are individualistic and come for convenience rather than the cost of discipleship, and that megachurch-leaders will bend over backwards to accomodate them...then this project does nothing to shatter that stereotype.




Rob October 19, 2009 at 8:46 AM  

They need to build a bridge to one place: the Bible, and to solid, exegetical teaching.

JAy.,  October 19, 2009 at 9:42 AM  

Admittedly, I don't know the church in question, or the area in which is it located. However, another possible solution in one that several churches in my area have applied - off-site parking! Find a mall or movie theatre nearby, contract the lot for Sunday morning (when it is probably empty anyway), and hire some buses to shuttle people from the lot to the church - takes away the traffic problem as people can now "carpool" into the church proper.

Post signs that "Visitor" parking is still in the church lot so they feel "welcomed".

$5M will fund this operation for a looooong time!

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 19, 2009 at 9:47 AM  

@Jay, that's a great idea, and yer right: $5m would definitely make that run for a loooong time, even with bus drivers and such.

Do they do a police detail? I know of churches in Tulsa that do that on Sundays too.

Matt Algren October 19, 2009 at 9:54 AM  

JAy beat me to it. Why not rent a shopping mall lot for Sunday mornings and buy a five or six shuttle buses? Even with security guards at the lot, it would be relatively cheap.

They could do the shopping mall a favor and reverse the service during the holidays. Have people park at the church and offer free shuttle service to the mall during peak hours. Suddenly the parking lots are more efficiently used and there's little environmental effect.

Heck, they could even get buses that run on renewable fuel and play it up as environmental stewardship. That would attract a whole new crowd to the church.

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 19, 2009 at 10:10 AM  

OFF TOPIC: Matt, you were the 1000th comment at Hacking Christianity. I'll send you a cookie.

Rich Barrett October 19, 2009 at 10:15 AM  

I think it's healthy to evaluate decisions like this. It helps us all be better prepared for the time when our own churches are reaching so many people that we've outgrown our infrastructure.

Let's not allow our limited knowledge of the situation to cause us to overlook a few key points.

1. It seems the point of the bridge (as opposed to a surface road) is to preserve, not destroy, the wetlands.

2. Those familiar with North Point might recall that there are already two other campuses nearby, which also draw thousands each Sunday. Each time a new campus is created, the empty seats and empty parking spaces are filled with more people wanting to connect with God in a new way.

3. Is it possible that larger churches are more efficient with resources than smaller churches? For example, an average church will spend $5Mil over 10 years in operating expenses, yet only see 10-20 new conversions each year. North Point is seeing several hundred conversions every year.

4. Could the money be used overseas? Yes. Are people in the suburbs also dying and going to hell? Yes. What if people in the suburbs could be won to Christ and then taught to give overseas? Wouldn't that be a better way to multiply the investment? More people giving over their lifetime is going to yield a larger return than a one-time gift. And why doesn't our heart break for the guy in the Lexus that's going to hell? Do we, deep down, believe that he deserves hell more than we do?

5. Are we assuming the bridge is for the convenience of the already-saved wanting to attend a cool church? Hmm. Everything in North Point's mission and 14 year-history says they are extremely outsider-focused and exist to reach people no one else is reaching. Like it or not, outsiders won't put up with complicated systems at your church or mine. They'll just quit coming.

6. Shuttle buses and remote parking have been in use at North Point for years, and will continue to be used. Why do we immediately assume that a church of this size doesn't have any smart people to think of things like this?

7. Do we really believe that a church WANTS to spend $5M on a bridge? Seriously, you don't think anyone could come up with something more fun to spend money on or easier to raise money for?? Perhaps it's worth considering that a roomful of smart people have been considering and debating this for years, and that this is the best way to fix the problem.

8. Is it possible that someone could be more informed on the topic, love Jesus, want other to know his love, prayed about this, discussed it with dozens of other people, and come to the conclusion that building a bridge is the best way to honor God and reach the world?

Matt Algren October 19, 2009 at 11:17 AM  

(For the sake of clarity, Rich Barrett's church is a "strategic partner" of North Point.)

#1: You don't think there would be a negative environmental effect from this bridge?

#2: One of those campuses being yours. Which is awesome, but so is full disclosure. But I'm not sure what you're refuting.

#3: Is the point of a church to reach X "conversions" per dollar?

#4: If you're looking for efficiency, throwing everything overseas would give exponentially more "bang for your buck."

#5: That's the way the church's pastor has explained the decision, as Jeremy pointed out. I'm not sure what your last two sentences on this is for; nobody here has suggested that they just give up.

#6: Again, that's not the picture painted by their pastor.

#7: You're contradicting your introduction. Either it's healthy to look at these decisions, or it's bad and we're big meanies.

#8: Of course. Why do you ask?

And Jeremy, I like chocolate chip. No walnuts.

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 19, 2009 at 11:26 AM  

Rich, welcome! I understand you are affiliated with Northpoint, so I'm thankful for your contribution to the conversation. It is helpful to get an insiders' take on things that help nuance the situation.

Persistence is a fault of mine, so please bear with me as I respond to your points, and I hope you will return to continue the conversation.

(1) Building a bridge "preserves" the wetlands. If that is the case, then while I retract most of my outrage at intentional environmental degradation, construction of the bridge would certainly cause more damage to the wetlands than if it were left alone. Especially if the construction company does not maintain a "green" ethos, which is much more expensive (but obtainable for that suburb's $150k average household income demographic).

(2) I'm well aware of the other campuses and I'm sure starting another one is on the table. Again, the focus isn't on what NP isn't already doing successfully, but *why* they consider building this bridge to be a part of their mission.

(3) Contrary to the church report forms I fill out every month, I strongly believe (and assert on this blog) that the efficacy of a church is not defined by the number of conversions. Like I said above, some churches focus their resources on conversions, some on justice, some on charity, some on discipleship. Many gifts, one spirit, remember? There's room around for all of us, so calling small churches inefficient without tabulating their other impact is pretty insulting.

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 19, 2009 at 11:26 AM  

(4) First, the problem isn't that NP reaches out to the suburban outsiders. That's their mission, I respect it and don't call it "inefficient." But if to reach out to the "me" generation they have to emulate individuality and convenience, then what have they sacrificed? Again, we get back to mission: if your mission is to the Lexus-driver, then why reach out to them with the same culture you are drawing them out of...unless the ends (numbers saved) justify the means (building a bridge).

Second, we both look at long term costs and benefits, which is great. The benefit of long-term giving outweighs an individual gift, that is true. In the same way, the cost of perpetuating the long-term stereotype against megachurches outweighs 1000 additional people in worship. In my opinion, and it is clear we will not agree on that point.

(5) Andy's pastoral letter to the insiders makes it clear this is a convenience expense ("waiting in line" and "leaving church early"). It will make church more convenient for both insiders and outsiders. While I rail against the red tape in my church, and I'm sure that visitors are like "gosh, what terrible traffic leaving this place..." to say this is solely a missional expense to reach new people is disingenuous to the message being given to "sell" it to the insiders.

(6) Glad to hear it. As you said in your introduction, conversation is meant to evoke truth out of the situation. This conversation is doing that as you outline the ways how NP is doing a lot of what has been mentioned, and yet clearly considers building a $5m bridge to be the best "missional" approach.

(7 & 8) Again, the question isn't on devotion to God or NP spending money on something frivolous. I'm convinced that NP believes this is mission-critical and have come to that conclusion through prayer, study, and conversation with smart people. Let's not forget I'm a pastor too and have to make hard decisions.

But *as an outsider* who loves God and wants the Church here on earth to emulate the Kingdom of God as I understand it, such a decision is not justifiable from a truly missional call to self-sacrifice and to live out the inconvenient truths of the gospel. Building a $5m bridge for the purposes of convenience and to expand attractional worship is antithetical to that understanding of mission, and indeed reinforces negative stereotypes of megachurches that may drive away more people than NP gets in. NP may not share that understanding, which again is fine (see #3).

I think this bridge costs more than $5 costs the kingdom of God a countless amount of integrity.

Anonymous,  October 19, 2009 at 12:08 PM  

Everyone's a critic when we all should be getting along.

"Is it worth it?" the pastor posed.

"It all depends. If our mission is to be a church that’s perfectly designed for the people who already attend, then we don’t need a bridge. But if we want to continue to be a church unchurched people love to attend, then yes, it’s worth it."

JMS October 19, 2009 at 9:05 PM  

I think this is a Paul and Barnabas situation if there ever was one. Leaders have a vision for how to strategically spread the Gospel and other leaders/bloggers disagree with that strategy (but not the core mission of reaching the lost). It's good to discuss it, but when both are convinced in their own minds then it's time to split and go separate ways with no animosity or belittling of the other. I can't imagine Paul circulating papyri trying to convince other Christians that Mark was a bad choice and Barnabas shouldn't have taken him along with him. Then again, blogs were much harder to maintain in the 1st century I'm sure... ;)

Rev. Jeremy Smith October 19, 2009 at 9:29 PM  

@James, thanks for the interesting comparison. If I may, the flaw with that analogy is that when Paul and Barnabus were separated, their local actions did not always become globally known. So decisions that were questionable only had a local impact on a limited number of people.

Given today's fluidity between local and global, non-believers in my town can search online and point to the actions of Northpoint as indicative of Christianity, and Northpointians can point to my small parish's lack of numerically comparable conversions as "inefficient." What is local is now global, and today's Pauls and Barnabus's are never far from each other. We must learn to live with each other rather than simply ignore those that one believes are doing harm to the body.

While it is impossible to hold every church decision to scrutiny ("policing" is not fun), it is irresponsible to ignore every decision as well (isolationism leads to deadly theologies). So perhaps seeking faithfulness locally while submitting decisions to global critique can be a happy medium?

xmas gifts November 4, 2009 at 1:45 AM  

If its going to help the people then its good but not at the sake of environment. It should avoid any harm to environment around it.

Anonymous,  June 24, 2010 at 9:09 AM  

Here's another example of a church who believes that the money raised belongs to them.
I can't help but reflect on the lady reaching the Pigmy Tribe in the Congo for Jesus Christ. She's there because they are going extinct. Why you may ask? They are being eaten! Not a joke. So far, all 1,200 pigmies have made a public confession of accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. This is what the gospel is all about Andy Stanley. Not about rubbing elbows with the Emergent Church crowd!
If Jesus had approved of such nonsense as building mega churches and bridges, then don't you think that He would have owned the fastest four horse chariot that money could buy? Sure, He could have justified such lavish purchases. After all, He could have saved so much time witnessing from one town to the next. Talk about saving 23 minutes each Sunday.
Andy is nothing more than a Hip, Cool Apostate Church that the Bible warns us about!
Of course, with a Dad flying around on a multi-million dollar lear jet, I guess that it can all be summed up as _ Like father, like son.....

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