I was digging through my mailbox at church recently; it was more like archaeology.  OK, sometimes I tend to use it as a file instead of a mailbox, and stick things down under the layers to “deal with later.” It’s a problem I have…

Anyway, I found a magazine called “Church Executive,” and pulled it out.  I usually throw most of these kinds of things away, since it’s not something I subscribe to and is usually just a glossy sales pitch for church-related products. But I had a few minutes between appointments and decided to thumb through it, just to see what gadgets and gimmicks the church business marketeers were hawking at present on the media midway.

Page 6 opens with a picture of a youngish mega-church pastor and his Barbie-esque wife, sitting onstage together, obviously engaging their 3,000 plus church attendees in an engaging way, as if they were sitting in their living room with you, their best friends. Their church is just embarking on a $30 Million dollar capital project, and this beautiful, massive facility is certainly impressive. Page 10 says I need a church app so that I can “seize my mobile moment.” Page 12 tells me how a pastor can save money for his kid’s college education. (Wish I’d seen that one 20 or 30 years ago!) Page 14 shows another huge auditorium space, complete with four theaters, jungle gyms, an ice cream parlor and some classrooms—turns out it’s a mega-million dollar kid’s church, that, according to the article, proclaims, “Kid’s matter here!” Page 22 details a church with 13 campuses, and an explanation of the financial engines necessary to fuel it all (some $21 Million this year alone!) and an accompanying article about the “metrics” connected to church success, followed by an article about cyberattacks and a justifiably-concerning one about sex offenders and churches. The mag circles to a close (or as much as I could take) with an article about live-streaming that volunteers can actually run and a last one about pastors finding the right leadership coach.

I’m left after thumbing through this magazine feeling rather inadequate, rather ordinary and unimpressive, rather hopelessly outdated–an un-coached analog pastor in a very digital world. I guess I’m feeling enlightened, too, because I didn’t realize that to be an effective pastor I needed a $30M building or a church app, or a children’s wing that rivals any cinema multiplex, or a corporate lending agreement to maximize my investments and cashflow or a metric system to measure my success. Or a coach! I’m also left feeling kind of old, and wonder what my pastor father who began his ministry in the late 1930s would think about all this stuff it supposedly takes these days to have a church with any impact or that anyone might possibly ever want to attend.

Now, I’m not quite as out of touch as I sound. I use almost-current technology every day, as tethered to my iPhone and iPad and various iAccessories as the next guy. I’m white-haired, but I have a lot more hair than the mega-church dude married to Barbie. We spend multiple thousands of dollars each year to keep our technology current and communicating; we have some really gee-whiz stuff (necessary toys) with which to enhance our worship and work. In this day and time, I know that lighting matters, video matters, wireless and Wi-Fi and other such wonderfully complex but now ubiquitous layers of techstuff—matter. I’m SO thankful that I am surrounded by very smart people who know how to usually make all of this stuff work. And yes, we measure our health as a church with various metrics and we are quite careful about our financial management and debt loading. And we do care about kids! Still, my father, an excellent pastor, would have no idea what it takes to do my job; he wouldn’t recognize most of it. And he would just shake his head at this magazine that is more bewildering to me than helpful.

So what DOES it take to be a “successful” church? I think the answer to that question has to bypass the stuff, the toys, the rockstar personalities, the buildings, the numbers, the productions—as wonderfully helpful and indicative as they may or may not be—and remember that if God isn’t part of it, it’s not a church. It’s just a club, just a religious-themed entertainment venue, just a fancy building with a fancy price tag or a crumbling museum. And the other thing we have to remember is that the church, when it comes down to it, is nothing more or less than the people who circle together and make it up. So, by this bottom line “essentials” list, you can have a church with 3,000 or 10,000 members (or more) that meet in a massive complex, or you can have a church with 10 members, circled around a bush in Turkana. Most churches I know are something in between. There are a lot of very large churches out there doing wonderful ministry. And there are even more—most of them in fact—that may struggle to circle 100 or even a quarter of that number but who still are filled with people who love God and love each other. If I remember correctly, Jesus once said that those two criteria pretty much said all that was needed to be said in measuring a group, or a person, and that we would be known by one metric: how well we love.

What in fact makes a church a church? It has to be filled with devoted followers of Jesus Christ who serve Him as their Lord. It has to acknowledge Father God as creator and sustainer of all things. It has to be filled by and dependent upon the Holy Spirit, the Church’s very breath. It has to be fueled and guided by God’s inspired word and hold beloved the gospel and hold compulsively our responsibility to celebrate and share and spread its good news. And it has to be filled with people who are servants instead of takers, who show a quality of fellowship and unity that mirrors the Holy Trinity itself. All of that, and then it better be led by godly leaders, both men and women in their different roles, who embody the same qualities we’ve just mentioned.

So while the magazine I was reading might almost have made me feel like my medium-sized church in almost middle-America is somehow lacking, somehow “almost” a church—instead, it made me realize that while the modern church and way of “doing church” is certainly not my father’s Oldsmobile, in a lot of ways, perhaps all the ways that count, it really still is. That makes me happy. And I think it would make him happy, too!