You’ve heard the phrase bandied about. Especially in the church planting world, it seems to refer to the amount of people you need to sustain a church’s budget. Maybe in a “big Sunday launch” approach, the phrase also means “that moment when the 12 committed people don’t have to do all the set-up, tear-down, lights, camera, and action” for the people who are sitting passively in the chairs. “Critical Mass” sounds like a big sigh of relief, a longed-for moment when the church just might actually ‘make it’ without killing me first.
This is all wrong.
‘Critical Mass’ is when your customers are doing a better job of marketing you than *you* are. – Seth Godin
If your model for planting a church is to put on an expensive dog-and-pony show until you’ve got enough paying customers who say “Indeed, the show must go on!”, then it’s going to take a lot of people to reach that point.
On the other hand, if Seth Godin is right—and if we’re listening carefully—we realize that ‘critical mass’ needn’t be massive.
The Cordial Churchman never paid for an ad (except for one failed Facebook ad experiment I did against Ellie’s better judgment). Its first 25 customers were its marketing team, and right out of the gate, they were marketing our “brand” before we even had a logo, a website, or an e-commerce store. We weren’t on the “information superhighway” so much as we were on the quaint forgotten Main Street 5 miles off the highway. The Cordial Churchman has never needed to go out and look for more customers. Instead, we communicated to our customers and they delightedly told our story for us. We’ve always been just barely able to keep up with demand. We haven’t gone out to generate it.
Hill City Church has never paid for an ad. Our first 25 people decided that we would pursue the kind of genuine Christian community that we longed for. And then we thought of friends, neighbors, and colleagues who ached for a rich communal spirituality, and simply welcomed them to commune with us. We don’t have a website. I lost the password to our Twitter account. We didn’t have signs or a logo for about a year. We don’t meet along the highway where you’re supposed to plant churches; we meet on the quaint, forgotten Main Street of our town (and, more importantly, we meet all over our town). We aren’t hoping to attract people who want to consume a dog-and-pony show, so there’s no need to go looking for customers. The people who’ve needed what God has created in our fellowship have come at the invitation of those who’ve sensed that the Lord is among us. And we’ve simply responded by making room at the table and in our lives.
‘Critical mass’ in the church world isn’t about sustainability. It’s about people who’ve grown in grace showing the hungry where bread can be found. It’s about the joyful showing the joyless where they can find wine.
Critical mass needn’t be massive. If you’ve got a handful of people who are prepared to plant themselves in the midst of one another’s lives in a rhythm of sabbath, neighboring, and vocation, you’ve got ‘critical mass’. Those who dare to hope they might find both sustenance and fullness of joy in Jesus-drenched community will be brought to the table by those who’ve begun to find what they’ve been hungering and thirsting for.