The Path of Least Resistance Is Paved With Good Intentions

In 1995 I had the privilege of meeting Peter Drucker, and he graciously gave me two hours of his valuable time.  We talked about “the church,” and covered dozens of topics.  One of the topics was the then relatively new “mega-church” and I remember well what Drucker had to say: “It will be around for a good long time.”  When I asked him why, he said simply, “Because it’s easier than a traditional church.”  As an expert on non-profits, Drucker realized that the more church resembles a business, the more specialized the roles of leadership, and the more focus on growth and numbers, the more attractive the church.  In many mega-churches, the primary role of the “senior” pastor is to preach and present a public face for the congregation.  Drucker observed that “the mega-church is the perfect church for the United States.”

Some people think that I don’t like the mega-church (or even large churches, for that matter).  This is a misconception.  What I like are faithful, effective, spiritually-focused, churches of all sizes that maintain a balance of inward and outward service and represent with integrity the reputation of Jesus Christ.  Churches that sell out Christian values for cultural values, churches more interested in getting members than making disciples, and churches more enamored with popularity than performance — regardless of size — are the churches I’m not so happy with.

I have made the assertion that the larger a church becomes, the more energy, time, and resources must be given to merely keeping the institution afloat.  Missions give way to maintenance, service to staff salaries, and spiritual formation and development becomes a by-product instead of the point.  I don’t make this assertion blindly, but based on interviews with leaders and members of hundreds of churches (primarily United Methodist — though most mega-churches don’t come from UM circles…)  In my research, there is a law of diminishing returns — the most effective and dynamic churches tend to be in the 300 to 1,500 member range.  Past 1,500 members, churches begin to have “balance” problems.  The very nature of church changes.  Levels of intimacy, participation, and connection are affected negatively.  While churches of 2,000 to 3,000 occasionally overcome such problems, most do not.  The church becomes a service-providing business rather than a community of faith.  (This is also true of poorly run, poorly understood smaller churches as well.  Unfortunately, the hunger and passion for growing big churches leads many small churches to compromise values, mission, and integrity for the pursuit of “more.”)  However, even in the very biggest churches, great good is accomplished and a core of deeply transformed disciples exist.  In the vast majority of 5,000+ member churches, a core of 200-500 active and engaged disciples serve a large number of nominally engaged, primarily worship-service-attending consumers.

The whole concept of “good/bad” doesn’t apply here.  All churches have good to offer, and most churches have some less-than-good stories to tell.  The idea that small churches are good and mega-churches are bad is ridiculous (and vice versa).  Proponents of each tend to play loose and fast with the rules of honest research, however, generally comparing successful churches in one category to poor and struggling congregations in another.  When the playing field is leveled — comparing strong churches of all sizes and types, the reality is simply this: 10 healthy 300 member churches beat 1 healthy 3,000 member church in almost every way except overhead (maintaining ten properties is always more costly than maintaining one, no matter how big it is!)

The problem isn’t size, but self-perception.  A church that focuses on getting members will value growth and attendance very highly.  Participation standards are kept low so that no one will feel alienated.  Names on roles become so important that a person only has to attend once or twice a year to be considered an active member.  Membership vows are merely a formality.  When the focus is on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” all the rules change.  Accountability, discipline (a dirty word in modern society), service, and spiritual formation become the driving values.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the expectations are high, performance will be monitored, and people will be held accountable to their vows, fewer people will be interested.  This is the primary dividing factor between truly healthy congregations, regardless of size: how seriously does everyone involved take discipleship?

No church, and no church leader I have talked to, sets out to be mediocre (or worse).  Every person accepting the mantle of leadership in a congregation brings only the best intentions.  But good intentions are not enough.  A commitment to the very best standards and conduct must rest at the heart of the Christian community.  Our churches must be centers for counter-cultural performance.  Size isn’t as important as service (how many people come to us is not nearly as important as the number of people we serve in the name of Jesus Christ), and popularity should be based on our behaviors not our marketing plans.

Many religious researchers speak only to the pastors and key leaders of our largest and “most successful” churches.  As might be expected, these people tell glorious stories of great programs and popular services.  They talk about everything that is good and right and working well.  (This is actually true of most churches, save those struggling to survive.)  The story changes somewhat when you leave the rarefied air of the leaders and talk instead to the people in the pews.  Here is where the real differences are revealed.  This is where you discover how deeply engaged people are and what it means to be “active church members.”  This is where it is easiest to see that the churches of 300-1,500 members are those experiencing the greatest health, vitality, and impact.

The church we have is not the church we need.  The church we need holds high standards for membership.  The church we need values service to others more highly than attendance at services.  The church we need makes disciples who become the hands, and feet, and voice, and heart of Christ for the world.  The church we need looks very different from the churches many of us see each week — but only because we’re looking in the wrong direction.  If a church is holding “how-to” seminars, if the pastor is writing books and releasing DVDs, if the people mostly spend their time in the church building, and if the majority of “mission” money is spent on building, staff, insurance, parking lots, big screens, and popular music, it isn’t the church we need.

3 replies

  1. In my pastoring career, I have served in very small (35 members), medium (200 members) and large (750 member) churches. I have seen the same findings, that when the focus is on gaining members, the integrity of developing disciples of Jesus Christ tends to diminish. Yet, when the focus is on developing disciples of Jesus Christ, there is a natural growth since the people being affected by the “ministry of the many” see the church as a place that they want to be a part of. I firmly believe that if we can get churches of any size to keep the main purpose of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ, growth takes care of itself and health is maintained.

    • I am in full agreement — authentic discipleship and a passionate commitment to becoming the body of Christ is deeply attractive and transformative. It is an interesting paradox, but when the emphasis is on numeric growth, discipleship suffers, but when the focus is on radical discipleship, healthy growth occurs.

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