The Quality-Quantity Quandry

It’s always nice to connect with your readers.  Here’s an excerpt from an email I got in response to “The Path of Least Resistance Is Paved With Good Intentions,”

You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.  I am lead pastor of an 11,000 member church, and we’re as healthy as any church in existence.  You’re ignorant, you’re biased, and you’re wrong.  Mega-churches are the future of Christianity… More people hear the gospel through our ministry than any other ten local churches combined.

Obviously, no matter how many time and how many ways I say that the size of the church is not the issue, it generally comes across that I am “against” the mega-church.  The point I try to make — based on my own limited experience of a few hundred 8,000+ member churches — is that very few are phenomenally effective, many do excellent work, the vast majority struggle and are only nominally effective at making disciples, and a handful are a total mess.  In essence, they are just like every other size-segment in organized religion — a few stellar successes, many moderately effective, many struggling, and a few failing.

Here’s a simple thought experiment that illustrates the current reality of Christian churches in the United States.  Imagine if you will a barrel full of tennis balls.  How many balls would you take from the barrel that you could comfortably juggle without danger of dropping any?  For some people, they would only take one ball and toss it leisurely in the air.  A significantly larger group — perhaps the largest group — would take two and toss them in a circular motion.  A few brave souls would take three balls, still fewer would take four, even less take five, and only a couple might take six, seven or more.  As the difficulty and demands of the task — juggling — increase, fewer and fewer displaying mastery will emerge.  For most people, moving from two balls to three is a quantum leap forward, but three balls, well juggled, can be mighty impressive.

This exercise is a classic example of the trade-off between quantity and quality.  While a very few exceptional individuals can maintain both quantity and quality, for most people, there is a clear transition point where adding more quantity results in a commensurate decline in quality.  And this is a great parable for our current church situation.

Somewhere along the line, the exceptional few who can maintain the quantity of “seven ball” churches while not losing the quality of authentic spiritual community and discipleship came to set the standard for everyone.  The mega-church became the standard definition of a “successful,” or “growing” church, ignoring the fact that most pastors and Christian leaders are not so gifted to manage such quantity while preserving quality.  For the vast majority of Christian leaders, as the size of the church increases, the quality of the ministry — and particularly their ministry — decreases.

In some cases, the clearest sign of change is in the primary roles of the senior/lead/chief/directing pastor.  One of the most intriguing quotes I have from a meeting with a group of pastors from 10,000+ member churches helps define the nature of the shift in roles:

I am the preacher and the CEO and the director and the tenth trustee of my church, but I am no longer the pastor.  There is no way under the sun to be the shepherd of a flock of nearly 17,000 people.  My vision of ministry when I was called to ministry has virtually nothing to do with my life today.

A simple experiment bears out this observation on a larger scale.  One hundred photographs — 50 generic photos and 50 of their church’s members were presented to pastors of all size churches.  In each of five size segments, here is how accurately the pastors could identify their own members:

  • less than 100 members                                            82-88%
  • 100 to 250 members                                                70-79%
  • 250 to 500 members                                                54-61%
  • 500 to 2,500 members                                            32-37%
  • more than 1,000 members                                     11-24%

I have been told repeatedly by mega-church pastors that it is really not important that they know all their members by face and by name.  I have been told by four-out-of-five former mega-church members that it was very important to them that the pastor know who they were.

Another experiment concerns how many sick, hospitalized, injured, or recovering members pastors can name at any given time.  Without laying out the numbers, it is very similar to the numbers of how many members a pastor can identify.  There is an inverse relationship between the size of the church and the number of people the clergy can remember.  This doesn’t mean that bigger churches are worse than smaller churches (0r vice versa).  What it means is that the nature of “church” is different as size increases, and that where quality of relationships, intimacy, pastoral care, and feeling of connection and engagement are most highly valued, increased quantity of participants results in a decreased quality of ministry.

Pastors and paid staff of large-to-mega-church congregations tend to vehemently disagree with this, and I respect their opinion.  Where confirmation comes for the quantity-quality trade-off is from participants, members, visitors, and the average person-in-the-pew.  But many of them are aware of the trade-offs and make a conscious decision either to stay or walk away based on these factors.  Here are seven different voices who explain why they like going to 7,500 or larger member churches.

  1. I really don’t want anyone prying into my life.  I go to church for me, and it is fine that nobody here knows my name.
  2. I come for the music and the preaching.  This is the best worship service I have ever found.
  3. This church has something for everyone.  For kids, for teenagers, for college kids, for couple and singles and older people.  It has sports and craft groups and it does lots for the community.  I’m not so important that I expect (church leaders) will remember who I am.
  4. I moved here a few months ago and I will probably move again next year.  I just want someplace for while I am around that I like and feel comfortable in.  That’s why I like it here.
  5. Glide (Memorial UMC) is like “super-church.”  When my wife and I moved to San Francisco, we knew we were going here.  We’re very proud of our church, though we don’t get here as often as we should.
  6. We don’t do small groups and we don’t do Sunday school.  We come here to worship.  But if we did want a group, there would be one here for us.  There is something here for anyone who want to find it.  It doesn’t matter that most people don’t know our names; we don’t know the names of more than a dozen people ourselves.
  7. This church is the best thing that ever happened to me.  I am very involved, and I can honestly say that I would not be a good Christian disciple today if I weren’t here.  I realize that most people here don’t take advantage of what this church does, but that’s their choice.  I don’t know most of the people who attend here, but the people I do know?  They are my very best friends.

The bottom line is that one size does not fit all.  Many people find everything they want/need in small membership churches, while others find they prefer the mega-church setting.  I maintain — based on year’s of research, thousands of surveys and hundreds of interviews — that as church membership moves from triple digits to the thousands and tens of thousands the nature of church changes, and it becomes exponentially more challenging to maintain quality of relationships, quality of engagement, and quality of ministry (even while the quality of performance, excellence of presentation, and quality of equipment and facility can actually improve).  This in no way implies that high quality is in any way guaranteed by a smaller congregation.  We ALL know that isn’t true.

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