Podcast Episode 34, 45 min
Technology, Ministry, and Keeping People's Attention, with Rick Hiemstra (Ep 34)
Karl Vaters interviews Rick Hiemstra, a former small church pastor, now serving as the Director of Research at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Rick Hiemstra: I take it as principle of spiritual growth discipleship that what has our attention is really what shapes us.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor, and welcome to this episode of, Can This Work in a Small Church. My guest today is Rick Hiemstra. He's a former small church pastor, and he now serves as the Director of Research at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He took the position because, as he says, he was concerned about why it was so hard for Canadians to hear the gospel. He does research now to help pastors become more effective in trying to reach Canadians, but what he has to say applies in every nation and every culture.

So in this conversation, Rick and I talk about a wide variety of subjects, including the church growth movement, technology, and how it's affected the way we approach pastoring. Some of the helpful insights that we're going to hear include: What has people's attention is what shapes them, and technology has radically altered what has our attention; secondly, how technology has shaped people's expectation of what they hope to get from their church and from their pastor, and how technology has subconsciously changed pastors from being shepherds to being content producers. We also talk about something that I never really considered before, but an important difference between growth and scale and a whole lot more.

So listen to this conversation, it's really an important one. And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question: Can this work in a small church.

Hey, Rick, it is good to have you on the podcast.

Rick Hiemstra: Thanks for having me, Karl.

Karl Vaters: You and I met, of all places, in Newfoundland, Canada. Lewisporte, to be specific, where you and I were both speaking at a leadership conference at a campground that I don't even know if you know this, but it's actually the campground that my grandfather built when he was the general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland & Labrador, yay 50, 60 years ago, or so. I was speaking, you were speaking, and I sat in your conference and you gave so much good stuff that I kept taking notes and then I thought, Okay, I gotta follow up with him on some of these things. And if I'm going to follow up, I might as well bring others in on it because there's such value in what you were talking about.

So it's gonna be far ranging. We're gonna jump around from place to place probably, and we're gonna try to squeeze it all into a single podcast if we can. Okay, I'm gonna jump right into it. You live in Canada. I live in California, I was raised in Canada. So both of us have spent all of our ministry lives in, I think what can safely be called, a post-Christian context. Is that a correct adjective for how Canada is and has been?

Rick Hiemstra: Yes, I think so. And probably more so in Canada than the United States.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, definitely more in Canada than the U.S., although California is probably more post-Christian than a lot of parts of the U.S. are. So when I go to Canada, it feels even a little more post-Christian than California, but certainly a full generation or more post-Christian compared to Bible belt parts of the U.S. That is definitely for sure.

A lot of what you do, it was very statistics heavy, but you had a way of phrasing the statistics by putting them into a narrative about the church and about church leadership that was really, really helpful. So what I'm gonna go through is some of the things that you raised that I had real interest in, passion about, and that I think our listeners will have some passion about as well.

You started by talking about the church growth movement, Donald McGavran, and he's someone whose life and ministry I have a renewed interest in recently. In fact, he's probably going to feature in a chapter or two of my upcoming book. And I think the phrase you used was that Donald McGavran applied a scientific management system to the church, and then you talked about how the church growth movement that came out of his work brought some great things, but you also talked about the blind spots. So I'm just gonna throw those three things at you. Donald McGavran's scientific management system, the positives of the church growth movement, and what do you see as a blind spot of the church growth movement?

Rick Hiemstra: Don McGavran was a missionary in India before he returned to the United States and became the father of the church growth movement, and we remember him for this movement that thought of church growth as essentially applying the scientific management system. So what we would do is we’d get people into the church, and we would try things and then we would refine it and we'd try it again. And what we were trying to do is to move them through different levels of commitment, be it membership, conversion, discipleship in the church, and everything was focused in on the church as a system. And so that wasn't really what Don McGavran had in mind at first, but when it kind of got in the North American context, we were individual. But suffice it to say, we were moving people into a church and we were doing everything there, and some of the language that we used to describe that now is we would call it attractional. And this sort of ties in with the missional church movement, and the missional church movement’s critique of church growth was that you were attracting people into the church and that that really wasn't enough.

Karl Vaters: As an aside to this, for those of you who are a little more interested in Donald McGavran and the origins of the church growth movement, I recently interviewed Gary McIntosh who wrote McGavran's biography in the last couple of years. That’s Episode 27, if anybody wants to go back a little bit more to that. And a lot of what we talk about there is that a lot of what the church growth movement became was not what Donald McGavran intended for it to be, and in fact, he kind of saw a lot of the distortion of it potentially coming when it was brought to the North American, but particularly the American church. And a lot of what it became is not what he intended, including you said there's a significant blind spot that both the church growth movement and the missional church movement had, and what was that blind spot?

Rick Hiemstra: That blind spot is that we're not really paying attention to what has our people's attention. So in the church growth movement, we're concentrated on what happens in our church building or in our immediate ministry, but people's lives are much bigger than what goes on in the church, and for most of the week, their attention is elsewhere. When the missional church movement came along, they said we need to expand our ministry focus out to the neighborhood, which is good and fine. But again, people actually don't spend a lot of their lives in their neighborhoods anymore. We make jokes about not knowing our neighbors right next door because we are online, and the people that we interact with and the programming content that we interact with is on Netflix or on social media or around the world. I take it as principle of spiritual growth discipleship that what has our attention is really what shapes us.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's really… For generations, what had our attention was based on geography, wasn't it? So we would live in a neighborhood and especially before television or radio, it was completely about our immediate geography because you had no access to anything beyond what you could physically see and hear in your immediate vicinity. And so we were formed by our family, by our neighborhoods, by the people around us. Radio came in and expanded that, television even further, and now the internet has completely exploded that, so that even as we're having a conversation with another human being physically in the room with us, the second that our phone buzzes our attention now is diverted, Not once but constantly, by things happening nowhere near our geographical vicinity. But a lot of our churches are paying attention to just the geographical vicinity. Is that part of the challenge that we've got right now is that we, you said earlier, we're not paying attention to what has people's attention. It used to be geographical and most of our churches are designed that way, but now that their attention is diverted, we're not catching up? Is that what's happening?

Rick Hiemstra: Yeah. So a lot of our churches, we have a physical plant, we have a building. And historically when a lot of these buildings were built, we were thinking about a geography. And I think that even as we recognize that people drive in from all over the place to our churches now, there is still almost a romantic view that we are going to do parish ministry, and many pastors will talk about doing that. But the reality is that a parish was defined geographically, but where people live their lives is just so much bigger. And you had people like John Wesley who said, The world is my parish. But John Wesley was talking about something a little bit different and not all of us have the stamina of John Wesley.

Karl Vaters: I don't know anybody who does. If anybody hasn't done it, take a look at John Wesley's daily schedule and it was almost superhuman, and I don't recommend it for anybody else because I don't know how you do it without completely burning out. It was insane what he pulled off.

Rick Hiemstra: And even still with John Wesley, his parish was where his horse could get to on his circuit riding.

Karl Vaters: And yet when you take a look at the amount of travel he did on that very slow horseback, it's again, astonishing at what he was able to pull off. The world has shifted around us. From what you call parish ministry, that means your physical geographical area. We've built physical churches under that paradigm, under a paradigm, first of all, of close enough to be walking distance. And then as automobiles came in, we built suburbs because…In fact, I read somewhere recently that I think it was a German sociologist a hundred years or so ago said that people will basically go on a regular basis to anywhere that they can get to in 30 minutes. And so it used to be a 30- minute walk, and then it was a 30-minute horse ride, and then it was 30 minutes on the cart, and then now it's 30 minutes in an automobile basically. And so where churches can draw from physically got wider and wider, the suburbs came in and then people were driving past a hundred churches to get to the church that they preferred because they could get there in 30 minutes. But now it's really beyond the 30-minute thing, because it's not about geography anymore. Especially when you talk about, I think how you put it was, what has our attention is what shapes us.

Rick Hiemstra: Yeah.

Karl Vaters: How do we respond better to that? If what has our attention shapes us, and if what we're paying attention to is increasingly online and not physically in front of us, what can and should churches be doing in order to be more within the attention of people that are around us? What are we missing and how do we catch up with that?

Rick Hiemstra: Well, I think first what we have to do is we have to think about technology a little bit differently. Often we think about technology in terms of the content that it delivers, and we think that the important thing is either the podcast, like the one we're doing now, or it's the sermon or whatever. When we were doing televangelism, it was the televangelist broadcast. But there's a Canadian media theorist, Marshall McCluhan,and he says that the important thing to pay attention to about technology is how it changes the scale and nature of human relationships. So you mentioned earlier about automobiles. That was, at least in the way that we presented it, was about travel, it was about getting us from A to B. But that completely reconfigured our churches. Here in Ontario where I live, there are many small country churches that just closed when the automobile came in, because people would drive right by them. And so that was a massive reconfiguration in ministry.

Another example of this that I gave is when we started short-term missions, that started in the early 1980s. And short term missions coincided with a dramatic drop in the price of air travel. And so prior to that, short term missions meant two years. That completely reconfigured the kind of relationship that we had with the mission field, because you train and you have a different kind of relationship with the mission field if you're going for two years versus two weeks.

And so along come phones, and again, they changed the scale. And this idea of scale is really important and we kind of feel this when we're talking about small churches. I'm sure that you've talked about this on your podcast before with size dynamics. It's just a realization that there are some things that churches of particular sizes are really well suited for. So small churches do relationship really well. Large churches, if they're going to do relationships well, they do it in terms of small groups, not with the large group, because you just can't do that kind of thing in testimony time in a large church in the way that you can, for example, in a small church.

And so technology changes the scale at which we live. But there's this mismatch between what is a human scale and the scale that we're encouraged to live at. There's a fellow named Miller, George Miller, and he has what's called Miller's Law. And what it basically says is that in any conversation, you can have a conversation with about seven people, and if you get in a group that's larger than seven, everybody else will watch. And that's just a recognition of how groups work. And we recognize this in the sizes of our small groups. Usually there's seven, plus or minus two, and if you get bigger then that changes things. But what we've done with social media, for example, is now we have communities online that could be a thousand people. And you know that not everybody's going to be able to participate. But what you have on social media is you have a screen and a frame, and the only way that you know that you exist in that community is if you're constantly getting feedback. It could be in terms of likes, it could be in terms of reposts, comments. And these are all quantifications and that's part of what makes social media, social media. And so we're always fighting to get into that frame, because once we're out of that frame, once our feed flips up, you have to get back in in order to establish that you're still there.

And so we all become attention seekers in one way or another. This is part of why we're having such culture wars today and why our society is going apart, because it's really changed the way that we're in community. And this is what we sometimes fail to realize is that we didn't just move our communities online. When we had this new technology, it fundamentally restructured how we relate with each other. Now we're attention seekers, and as any teacher will tell you, the kid that acts out in class is looking for attention because bad attention is better than no attention.

Karl Vaters: So do we fight against that? Do we lean into it? Do we counter program to that? How do we acknowledge that without giving in to the spirit of that, and provide something better?

Rick Hiemstra: I think part of it goes back to a question of what we're trying to do in our churches. We were talking about Don McGavran and church growth, and we have this idea of growth. What does growth mean? Inside of a scientific management model, right, your growth is really all about scale. So there's a difference between growth and scale. The Bible uses different metaphors for growth, but there's agricultural ones, and there's one's natural ones about growing from a child to an adult. But this is very different than mere scaling. So with agriculture, you get the cycles where you plant and harvest, and then the growth goes so far and then we wort of start again. When you're talking about physical growth, we grow to an adult and then what we have to really think about is scaling would just keep on going, right? You wouldn't just become an adult, you would go on to become a giant. At some point, people have said that we can't actually become giants because our bone structure, if we just keep scaling, getting bigger, wouldn't be able to take the weight. So at some point you're done growing. And then we still talk about growth. And it's interesting when you talk with small church pastors, they will use a language of growth, but what they mean is they go on to talk about the spiritual growth of their churches, more than the numerical growth, more than the scaling growth.

There's an essay in a book called “The HTML of Cruciform Love, which by the way, it's a collection of essays and the first essay by Ben Myers and Scott Stephens is just worth the price of the book. It's called “The Discipline of the Eyes.” And what they were doing is talking about how the church fathers understood spiritual growth. Tertullian, I believe, and Chrysostom, they understood the eyes and the ears as the servants of the soul, and what the eyes and the ears brought to the soul - they imagined it as food - that would become what would nourish the soul. And so at some point, our growth is more about maintaining health. And so I think we have to stop and think about the difference between scale and growth that includes growth from a child to an adult, includes the agricultural metaphors, but then takes seriously what we actually see in our lives.

And, pastors too, when we're talking about growth and we've got those annual reports that we send into our denominations, and some years you're up and some years you're down, and growth doesn't go in a straight line, but scaling tends to. And there's some of the tension that we all feel comes from that mismatch between the metaphors that are biblical and natural, and those that are technological.

Karl Vaters: I'm fascinated the way you've contrasted the words, growth and scale, because I had perceived them as more… The Venn diagram between those two words I had perceived of as having more overlap than it does. So I'm going to see if I can rephrase it to see if I've captured it.

So when you're talking about like the farm, if you're talking about a farm that's a healthy farm, that's growing, they're going to be planting, harvesting, and then replanting season after season after season, and that is growth. Scale would be adding more acres, taking over more farms. And then so you're scaling up. But you can have a perfectly healthy growing farm that doesn't increase in acres. The increase in acres is scale. Am I close to the difference there?

Rick Hiemstra: Yeah, I think that's good. And some of this goes back to just our culture here in North America, this idea of what we've meant by progress has usually meant a growth in scale. That's part of the way that we think about things, and often that's what the church growth movement was trying to encourage people to do is to grow in scale.

Karl Vaters: So if I, as a pastor, say I feel that I'm called to produce regular growth within this acreage, this is where God has called me, and I don't feel called by God to increase in scale, that is to add acreage to, or for churches it would be necessarily planting other churches or whatever, that is not what my call is. Quite often when I hear that spoken or when I speak that to others, especially who come from a church growth background, quite often you'll get some pushback of, okay, if you just want to settle for that. Like there's something lesser to that. How do you respond to that kind of a thought process?

Rick Hiemstra: I think some of the criticism of that is that you're settling, and church growth people will say you want to see more people coming into the kingdom and that may be true. Now, there are ways to grow even numerically and still maintain the way of doing church, where you could plant a church, you could get to a certain size and you could plant another church, and then the growth takes place on a certain scale. There's different things that you can do in a small church that you can't do in a large church. We're doing some research right now on small churches, and small church pastors, when we interview them, will talk about being interested in the spiritual growth of their people. And I was doing some reflection on this. Denominational leaders will usually want to know about the numbers, but in many ways you measure what you can measure. Denominational leaders, it's not that they're not interested in the spiritual growth of people, but they don't have any direct way to measure that. And when you're comparing things, naturally, you have to standardize your units in order to do comparison. And what denominational leaders are trying to do is they're trying to compare church A, B, and C and see how they're doing.

And so sometimes we make these unnatural standardized measurements for churches, and that works really well for some churches that are very good at producing the kind of standardized numbers the denomination is looking for, and it works against other churches.

Karl Vaters: When I talk to small church pastors on that level, like the denominational report numbers, what I try to encourage them to do is this. It's about the law of large numbers, and as someone who works with statistics, you're obviously very well aware of that. Real quick, generalize what it means is the bigger sample size you have, the more accurate your statistics are gonna be, and the smaller sample size you have, the less accurate and less helpful the statistics are gonna be. So from a denominational standpoint, getting the numbers from all of their churches helps because they're dealing then with thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands or millions of people, and hundreds and maybe thousands of churches. And so on that scale, the numbers give them a greater understanding of what's going on. But in the typical church of 50, 60, 75 people or fewer, our numbers don't tell the story of our health as accurately from year to year as they do when you're dealing with larger numbers.

Rick Hiemstra: Right. And another way to say it is denominations deal on averages, but nobody is an average.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. But from their perspective, it does make sense for them to pay attention, statistically, because of the size of things. You can't deal with personalities when you're dealing with hundreds or thousands of churches and thousands or millions of people. So the statistics become greater value there. The personalities have a greater impact when you're boots on the ground in a smaller congregation. So we're really looking at very different places in order to gain an understanding of the kind of ministry we have, depending on the scale of the ministry we're dealing with.

And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.

Rick Hiemstra: To go back to the, your question that I don't think I addressed very directly, what do we do with social media and everything. I think it goes back now to the question of how do you create the kinds of communities in which God can have their attention, which other Christians can have their attention. Like, how do we create cultures within our churches?

It's a little bit like this, to use a network model. On the internet, when you set up a router in your home, you don't just leave that open to everybody to access your computer. You have what's called a firewall that prevents certain people from calling in and talking to your computer. And you do this because there may be malicious people that want to do this. But even if there's just too many, it will quickly overwhelm your router and your internet won't be any of use to you. And in our approach to technology, we try scaling things up on social media, we get a thousand friends or whatever, and then it's usefulness starts to bog down, but it also starts to eclipse anything outside of that network.

I was reading a Jewish philosopher named Philip Rieff, and Philip Rieff has this idea that cultures are made by what communities say no to. And he pointed out that the 10 commandments are a bunch of thou shall nots. And I've heard over the years many people criticize the prohibitions in scripture as being lifeless and limiting, but Philip Rieff really kind of changed the way that I think about this. Because it's not that you have these rules, it's rather that the rules create a space in which a community and a culture can flourish. In Canada, for instance - may apply in the United States - but in 1985, there was a Supreme Court case that struck down our Sunday shopping laws. Prior to that, most businesses had to close on Sunday. And by the mid 1990s in Canada, about a decade later, in a lot of our evangelical churches, the Sunday evening services had stopped. And people may say, Well, your decision about Sunday shopping is a personal decision, and you're going to make that decision, and you should just have the strength of your faith and your convictions to do this. But I was listening to a podcast. It was Andy Crouch and Jonathan Haidt, and they were talking about the Sabbath. At one point they said something I think is really profound. They said, It's very difficult to keep the Sabbath if you're the only one doing it. And so if you're going to - we're just using this as an example for the Sabbath - if a community is going to be defined by its Sabbath keeping, it's something that the whole community has to say no to. And at some point, I think we're going to have to find the will as a community to put some limits on the ways that we use social media.

There's an another, Justin Earley, he wrote a book called “The Common Rule” and it's all about how do we live with technology in this modern age? And he kind of models it after a monastic rule. But I read this book and he's saying that his rule includes things like turning your phone off for an hour a day, and I'm thinking, big deal, I'm sleeping for some of that time, or eat a meal once a day with somebody else. And these things seem really easy. And what I realized, and he may have said this specifically, but it's not that you set a very hard aesthetic limit, it's that technology has to have some limit. Then its spell breaks because then you're saying, No, there is a limit to how much this will scale in our lives. And once you do that, you start to create a space where God can have your attention, where your brothers and sisters in Christ can have your attention, where the Bible can have your attention. But first you have to kind of break the ability of technology to scale into your life and into the lives of your churches.

Karl Vaters: And I think we as pastors really need to lead in that. There's a lot of stories popping up now about employees who have quit their job or are frustrated with their job because even when they're on vacation, because they can be found, they're expected to respond. Oh, I know you're on vacation, but all I need is this, right? I think we as pastors really need to set those boundaries, first of all for ourselves and for our families, that when we are on vacation, we are, and then honor that for others as well, that we're not expecting that.

A couple years ago, we were having a preschool board meeting on a particular day and our preschool director - - it was during COVID - logged in and I noticed she was at the beach. And I was like, Oh, I didn't realize you were at the beach today. And she says, Yeah, I had a few days off so we took with the kids, we can get outside, it's one of the few places we can actually go. She says, Isn't it great that I can be at the board meeting while we're on the beach, and it's a great place to have a board meeting. I says, Or it's a lousy way to ruin the beach for you. And I said, I didn't realize you were gone. She said, Yeah, I didn't tell you. So I said, You know what, let's just do it later, you don't have that much chance to be with the kids at the beach. We're all stuck at home, we can zoom it later. And by setting that boundary up, I think it helped the leadership of our preschool board, as well as her, to understand these are things that are really important for us to honor. Otherwise everything just leaks on over and everything becomes work hours.

Rick Hiemstra: And that's a really great example of the way that technology changes the scale and the nature of our relationships. We think of this as, I can connect in, I can dial in by zoom or whatever and be part of this meeting, but now it's changed the meaning of work. It's not about the content that's going on across that bandwidth, it's changed the meaning of work. It's changed your possibility of Sabbath and rest and being restored.

One of the things about every new technology is that - this is what McLuhan says as well - that we're sort of blind to how it affects us. We can easily look back at the history of the automobile and see how it's affected us, because we've got the benefit of time and we're a little bit more clear-eyed about how that's changed our society. But we're pretty blind to what social media is doing to us. Although if you watch the news now and the polarization in our cultures, maybe we're starting to realize what it's actually doing to us.

Karl Vaters: Yeah I think you're right. At first it was, you know, we built the suburbs because we could get to places. We can now build it a little cheaper out at a distance and still get back to our jobs in the cities, and now a generation or two into that, people are understanding the value of living and working in an environment where I can walk to work and walk back home again and be in a neighborhood. And so the millennials and Gen Z are actually beginning to reestablish themselves inside cities where that kind of healthy work/life environment can happen without simply cutting it off so completely in suburbs. And I think we are probably at least half a generation, things are moving faster now, but maybe a full generation, but probably half a generation away from looking at our internet and seeing what we did. Like we're seeing the suburbs in the inner city today and looking back, it's gonna take us a while to look back and see it a little more clearer than we're currently seeing it.

There are a couple things that you said in this talk I want to get to before we get to the lightning round, because I think they're really important. I think we can maybe tackle them in just a couple minutes each. You talked about how evangelicals have a reputation for being really behind the curve, but in fact that we have actually been early adopters of technology from radio to television and more. But you also in talking about that said, I think the phrase you used was, We thought we were changing TV, but it turns out that TV was changing us. Let's talk about that.

Rick Hiemstra: So television, when we went online. Neil Postman, another media theorist talks about television. He says that what television does really well is entertainment and television's at its best when it's entertaining. But he also says that television takes anything that it touches and it turns into entertainment. Famously his great example is that the evening news is a morality play. You come in with music, you go out with music. The news items are what happens to you if you're a bad person, so your house burns down or you get killed in a gun battle. And the commercials are what happens to you if you're a good person, you get beer and deodorant. But significantly what happened is it also turned our religious services into entertainment. And it's not just about that though. These televangelist, they were unaccountable, there's a different structure for this. When they fell, they took our reputations with them. But then in our local churches - this is what we don't realize. In our local churches, our local church pastors were suddenly competing against celebrity preachers. It undermined their authority and it changed how they were able to lead and disciple their churches. Because if they had a different opinion than celebrity preacher X, they were simply discounted. So television enabled a broadcast to go out, but it also changed the effectiveness of our local church and the discipleship that we could accomplish.

Karl Vaters: Not to mention the expectations that people have from their local church. And now that we multiply that into the internet, One of the conversations every pastor dreads is something that begins with, I was just listening to such and such a podcast, or I was just watching such and such a preacher. And I don't know that a conversation that’s at the end of that sentence has ever gone well for a local pastor, because there's an expectation built up that simply isn't supposed to be and cannot be met in an in-person service.

Rick Hiemstra: And just think about the way that we talk about digital technology. We produce content. Especially during COVID, our pastors all had to become content creators. And content is part of what goes on in a local church. But the people who are delivering content do not have the relationships with people, they do not know about your dad who just had quadruple bypass surgery, they don't know about the conflict that you're having in your marriage, they don't know about your illnesses. And when we expect our pastors to become content creators, something that we miss here is that while they're creating content, they're not doing these other pastoral functions. They're not looking after the congregation in the way that they were before, and online there are just some people out there that are just incredibly gifted at creating content, and you're never going to keep up with them. But those content creators are never going to minister to your people. They're never going to pastor your people. And what we have to realize is as we create content, we're actually changing what it means to be a pastor. And what we have to ask ourselves is is that a good thing.

Karl Vaters: How then do we help our church members understand that? It's one thing for the pastor to come to a realization of that, it's another for us to help the average person in the pew change that expectation.

Rick Hiemstra: I think we need to talk about it in the way that we're talking about it here. Ironically, in Acts chapter six, when we split off the preaching of the word from the function of the deacon, what we were doing is we were saying that, No, there is a role for specialization in ministry, and that allows people to be more effective in their respective roles. But too often, what we do to pastors is we say, No, you need to do, especially in small churches, you need to be a content creator, you need to be a plumber, you need to be a pastor, you need to be a preacher and all of those things. And then we're surprised when it doesn't reach what we consider to be this professional elite level on all of these things, which it just isn't possible. And just to have sort of a mature conversation about what is it that a pastor is really called to do, and what is it that the other saints in the church are called to do. So when I talk about that, I'm not saying that a church shouldn't produce content, but should a pastor be the one producing that content, or is there someone else in your congregation that is called to produce that content. And if you don't have those people, is your church really called to produce that content if there isn't someone to raise up to do it.

Karl Vaters: That goes back to the original purpose that Jesus did when he established His church. We're called to be disciples who make disciples, and content is a part of disciple making, but the core of discipleship is relationship. If the content isn't happening within relationship, you can't call it discipleship, you can only call it education. And education is valuable, but it's not discipleship.

Rick Hiemstra: And one of the things about producing content is when we put it online, we can watch how many views it gets and it's immediate feedback, and that can actually be more gratifying than sometimes the hard, lonely pastoral work, where you're ministering to someone and you think things are going good and then all of a sudden people- I used to say they just spiritually vomit all over you, and you're sitting around saying, I thought this was a core person in my church and this happened. A lot of pastors just can't see the fruit of their work, but if you make content, you can see those numbers go up. And there's a real temptation to go to the place where you get that positive feedback.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Like teachers say, we're teaching to the test. The way we measure it changes what we produce, and I think we're doing that in subconscious ways, far more often than we realize.

One other thing you mentioned - before I get to the lightning round questions - you mentioned in your talk and if I've got this incorrectly, you can correct me. Statistically, what you found is that the more often people attended church before COVID, the more likely they were to switch churches after COVID, that it's opposite to what you would think it was true. Did I get that correct? And if so, what implications does that have?

Rick Hiemstra: I think that's absolutely correct, and that's what our data shows. And I think that during COVID, because everyone was producing content, you've got this market for content, and it was easy to shop around. You didn't actually have to drive across town to another church, you could go on YouTube and find their live stream and watch it later, and it gave you a chance to compare and contrast. But again, what people are doing then as they do this is they're comparing content, they're not comparing community. And it turns our churches into something else. And I think that I am grieved by this because just at a time when what people need more than anything is community. And I even don't like community, what they need is the church. The church is a particular kind of community formed by Christ. When they make that, our attention is being taken off the ball, so to speak, and I'm just worried that we're going to become content producers at the time when we need to be the church.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's so important. Wow. So many other places we could go, but I want to get to the lightning round questions. Let's see what some of that comes up.

First of all, what are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years, and how have you adapted to it?

Rick Hiemstra: So I'm a researcher and I need to find people to talk to and people to survey, and the biggest change is that it's become much harder to find evangelical Christians to talk to and to survey. How we've adapted is that we've had to do our research in ministry partnerships, where we partner with other organizations that can help give us access to their constituents for our research.

Karl Vaters: Alright, that little segment in the middle struck me. It's harder and harder to find evangelicals to talk to.

Rick Hiemstra: Yeah.

Karl Vaters: Wow. All right, let's get to the second question, as we sit with the weight of that. What free resource, like an app or a website or so on, has helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?

Rick Hiemstra: Well, this isn't exactly free. There are a couple books that relate to the topics that we've been talking about that I think are really good. One is Andy Crouch's “Tech-Wise Family,” and the other is “The Common Rule” by Justin Earley. They'd probably be about $20 books. But they are really good accessible places to start to think about technology and why it's important to put some limits, any limit, on technology as a way to sort of be free of it dominating our lives.

Karl Vaters: Got it. We will put links to those in the show notes, including links to previous resources that you've mentioned throughout this interview.

Third question, what's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Rick Hiemstra: When I was a small church pastor, I was told that you go and you visit everybody, and you don't make changes until you've earned the chips to spend them. This was from a senior pastor that I had sort of a mentor of mine. And what he's basically saying, chips were his way of talking about you, you earn the trust and the ability to to speak into your congregation. Because if you spend chips before you have them, you're bankrupt and gone.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. And the smaller the church is, the more true that is. In a larger church. If you walk into a church of a couple thousand people and you're the brand new pastor, by the fact that you are the new pastor, you have a certain credibility with them because people don't have that direct relationship. But in a smaller church, you’ve really got to earn that trust first. The smaller it is, the more important that is. Yep.

And then the last one, what's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church.

Rick Hiemstra: When I was a small church pastor in Cornell, Ontario, we had a garden shed at the back of the church lot where we stored the lawnmower and things like that. One day I went out to the back and there were about 15 guys there and some of them were jumping off the garden shed onto each other, and others were pile driving each other's heads into the ground. And I went out, said, what are you guys doing? And he said, Oh, we're starting a WWF style wrestling school here. I'm thinking they're gonna break their necks cause they're pile driving. So I had to say, You really can't do that here. Oh, we’ll be careful. I'm sorry. So that was one of the strangest things, just a squatting WWF style wrestling school on the church ground property.

Karl Vaters: That completely ruins the stereotype of Canadians for every American who is currently listening, unless they've watched a hockey game. Rick, how can people find you online if they'd like more information or a follow up in any way?

Rick Hiemstra: They could contact me by email at Rick.hiemstra@theefc.ca. They can find our work on the Evangelical Fellowship's website, which is evangelicalfellowship.ca.

Karl Vaters: Terrific. We will put all that in the show notes. Thank you so much for your help with all of these disparate ideas today, but you bring a real clarity to it and some real food for thought, and I really appreciate it. Thanks, Rick.

Rick Hiemstra: Thank you.

Karl Vaters: Okay, that was a lot. As a Canadian, Rick's approach is different than what most listeners in the U.S. are experiencing, but it's not so different that we can't learn from it, whatever country or whatever context we're in. In fact, that similar but slightly different perspective that he has from Canada is really where a lot of the value is going to lie for many of us. My biggest takeaway is that the changes we are experiencing due to technology is actually rewiring how we experience the world in a profound way. So now the people that we're in the room with have less of our attention ,and people on screens that can live thousands of miles away from us have more of our attention. And if, as Rick says, what has our attention is what shapes us, which I think is profoundly true, then as he also says, paying attention to what has people’s attention is something that we need to pay more attention to. Yeah, that's interesting but I think is really true. Paying attention to what has people's attention is what we need to pay more attention to.

So can this work in a small church? Absolutely. First of all, small churches are uniquely suited to pay more attention to the in-person experience than our big church friends are. Secondly, we need to do online well, but we need to concentrate on creating a great in-real-life experience, and it has to be far more than creating and distributing content. This is one of the strengths of the healthy small church. Third and finally, because of our relational closeness to church members and attenders in a smaller congregation, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to be an example of how to live a life that sets proper priorities. If you'd like to support this ministry with a one-time gift or monthly donation and help put these resources into the hands of ministries that need them the most, check out our support link in the show notes. Would you like a transcript of this episode? It will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com/karlvaters. You can find the link in the show notes.

This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of jackwilkinsmusic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.

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