C.J. Mahaney’s New Church

September 21, 2012 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

It appears that C.J. Mahaney and all the people who followed him to Louisville, Kentucky are just about ready to launch their new church, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.  You can view a video of a pre-launch Sunday meeting here.

We’ve already been discussing Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville in the comments of the previous post, where I started to say this:

It strikes me that there’s something especially “off” about SGM’s/CJ’s decision to plant an SGM church in Louisville in the way they have gone about it. Once again, I don’t understand why it feels like so many in the larger Christian world aren’t seeing this.

I mean, in the rest of non-SGM Christianity, new churches typically do not spring up whole and already completely functioning with a core of old-timers transplanted from another geographical location. No. Most of the time, a new church will start with a small group of people who are already part of the community where the church is to be located. They may or may not start out with a pastor who is in charge. Often they won’t have a full-time dedicated paid staff pastor for quite some time.

SGM’s approach to church-planting is unusual in many respects. This is a piece of a post from 2009, but it’s still true for the Louisville church:

From time to time, folks have come around here and made statements about how being part of a Sovereign Grace Ministries congregation is the closest thing you can get to experiencing the ”New Testament church.” I’m not sure if that’s because they believe that C.J. Mahaney is a true apostle (many SGM members do think so), or if they “have all things in common,” or what, exactly, but SGM seems to have done a good job of convincing folks that their “family of churches” is run in a way that most closely aligns with the churches of the Bible.

But really, it seems to me that SGM is run much more like a big corporation than the church at Corinth…more like McDonald’s than Macedonia.

SGM has a franchise approach to building churches. And I believe this approach is deliberate, or, as they’d say in SGMville, intentional. I mean, think about how a church plant works. SGM does not just send out a pastor or two to a new location, where they start from the ground up, gathering people from the new community to form the congregation.

No, it’s my understanding that they find several willing families who are already completely sold out to the SGM way of doing things. These families have been conditioned to view church planting as missionary work. Nevermind that SGM church plants typically take place in already-church-saturated whitebread suburbs – SGM teaches that planting more SGM churches is how they “spread the Gospel.”

So from the “sending” church, leaders find families who are so totally sold out to SGM that they have bought into the idea of promoting SGM as “missions work.” These families then endure a pretty stringent “vetting” process to determine if they are up to the task. The group of church planting families bond together in planning meetings, through the shared hardships of selling homes, quitting or switching jobs, and leaving all their other friends and family in the area.

By the time the new church opens its doors for its first meeting, the group of “sent” families is already a tight little community, with a shared history, the knowledge that they were considered “good enough” for the high privilege of being sent in the first place, and the shared experiences of the relocation process. Moreover, as strangers in a strange land, so to speak, they’ve become even more dependent on their SGM circle of friends for community.

Their loyalty to the SGM brand is as high as it could get. They see the new church as “spreading the Gospel.” They simply cannot risk alienating anyone IN the new church, since those folks are basically all they have. So even if there would be problems, they can’t acknowledge them in the slightest. Then their loyalty is affirmed through the natural satisfaction that comes from working hard on something with a group, and watching that thing succeed and grow.

And then…what does an outsider, a visitor, see, when he arrives at the new church plant?

He doesn’t see what is typical of a non-SGM new church. If someone attends a “normal” non-SGM new church, he will see a bunch of other strangers, possibly some folks that he already knows from the community, many of whom are still basically strangers to one another.

But if he goes to a new SGM church, he’ll walk into the midst of an extremely tight, VERY bonded community, a community from another geographical location, typically with no real connections to the city (suburb) where they are now.

If this hypothetical visitor likes what he sees at the new SGM church, what is he going to do?

Well, because of the nature of human psychology, he will work at fitting in to the status quo. He will look to the church’s established members and model himself, his behavior and his attitudes, after them. He will take on the group’s values. Frequently within SGM, visitors are already somewhat sold out to the SGM way, having researched the “family of churches” ahead of time or having been ministered to by CJ’s or Josh’s writings, or an SGM conference or SGM music. So they’ll be even more primed to want to fit in and assimilate.

In an SGM church plant, there is almost NO WAY for the new SGM church to reflect anything but SGM culture. The group of founding families has brought with them all the cultural mores from their previous location, and the visitors who get added to the group are simply prone to mimic and copy what’s aleady going on in the group that they want to join. If you trace back all the church plants around the country, they all have roots in CLC. Members from CLC got sent to other church plants, which in turn sent their own people out to other locations…and so on, and so on.

So with the way that SGM plants churches, they are assured of strong brand identity. The families who are “sent” will have extremely high brand loyalty, particularly for practical reasons – because of the bonding experiences of having gone through the same relocation pains as the others in the group, and because they NEED the group, since otherwise they’d be total strangers in a brand-new place. These families will then influence any NEW families far more strongly than the visitors would influence the “sent” group. In other words, the people in the new community become assimilated and absorb SGM’s culture, rather than the other way around.

This is why SGM is so homogenous. This is why SGM is so much more of a denomination than actual denominations. Actually, this is why SGM is more like a franchise than a “family of churches.”

Brand development…brand loyalty…all in the name of the supposed “gospel.” The “gospel” of SGM.

When you factor in the glossed-over but nonetheless acrimonious circumstances of CJ’s exit from CLC, the Louisville church plant really seems like it ought to turn off the very people it is aiming to attract. Yeah, sure, maybe there’s the CJ Mahaney celebrity draw. But is CJ really ready to come down from the lofty perch where he has resided for so many years and actually roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty to interact with the unwashed masses the way he’ll need to in order to be a true pastor to people? Will CJ even be able to keep up the pace of a weekly preaching schedule? Will his occasional appearances, where he’ll probably just recycle some of his Golden Oldies, be enough of a lure?  Will the people of Kentucky be ready for what CJ really believes about pastoral authority?

And are the people who’d go just to hear CJ the sort of people who can be transitioned into the loyal paying customers tithing members that this SGM church is going to very quickly need in order to sustain the sort of payroll expenditures that the likes of CJ and Bob K and the Mahaney sons-in-law will require to maintain the beachfront vacation/Pinterest lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed?

Is the SGM brand still that viable after all that has transpired over the past year or so?

It’s going to be interesting to find out.

© 2012, Kris. All rights reserved.