Many small churches are like the Nishnabotna River: ten yards wide and an inch deep. There are reasons why small churches are small, some of them may have to do with demographics, but, for the most part, small churches are small because they are not healthy.
HG is right, of course. There are potentially many reasons why small churches remain small. Let me pose a few reasons for consideration:
- A lack of vital health. Healthy churches grow. How much they grow depends on many other factors, but it is unfair to suggest that a rural congregation in Central Nebraska is unhealthy merely because its statistics don't suggest growth. At the same time, a lack of health seen in a "control orientation" among leadership, a lack of balance in the "5 purposes of a church," an "inward focus," and so on does hamper growth.
- Demographics. As suggested above, a church may be healthy and struggle to grow only to see those won to Christ leave the community. Upper midwest states are experiencing a "brain drain" as younger people finish their education and leave for "greener grass" and "greener cash." Many boomers, busters, and millennials are baling out of the "rust belt" or the "ag belt" simply because there aren't good jobs for them. I have known healthy churches to labor diligently to fulfill Christ's mission only to watch those won to Christ move. In such places, "breaking even" may be the mark of success. Here in Sun City, First Christian must reach nearly 30 people a year just to "break even." Additions do not come easy when the community is comprised mostly of senior adults although as FCC becomes more healthy we are seeing renewed interest.
- A desire for intimacy. As noted in my prevous blog, many busters and millennials are abandoning the mega-church for smaller congregations. According to Mark Taylor, "George Barna found that many younger adults prefer smaller churches. Suspicious of larger organizations in general, many of them feel they can be better known in a smaller congregation." Other researchers are coming to the same conclusions. Does this mean that the drive to build mega-churches has peaked? Not at all! It just means that there are those who prefer smaller healthy churches to larger healthy churches. The problem is, however, that where demographics are not a problem, the healthy smaller church won't stay small. Those who desire intimacy found in smaller churches will "hive off" a nucleus and start a new congregation.
- A different view of church and its function. Brian Jones's article in the March 20 Christian Standard expresses the view of a growing number of people-oriented leaders. In the last two years several books decrying the CEO mentality necessarily present in the mega-church senior minister. Books like Lynn Anderson's They Smell Like Sheep are calling for a different leadership style. Although it doesn't have to, these concepts almost require a smaller flock. Some mega-churches, especially those with effective small groups (shepherding groups), can and do shepherd their people and minister effectively to individual needs. Others, and I fear this is a majority, don't see the tree for the forest! Mega-church leadership talks about assimilation and shepherding, but there is, in my opinion, a general lack of understanding about what this means.
- A theological aversion to commercialism that often attends a mega-church. In his book on entrepreneurial ministry, Kent Hunter suggests that the growing church must use every avenue at its disposal to attract potential members. While I would agree with this, there are still some things that give me pause. In the 1950s and 1960, Rex Humbard operated a "foundations factory" in conjunction with his Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron. By "foundations factory," I mean the church owned a factory that made and sold bras, girdles, and other "foundation garments." Nearly every mega-church operates a snack bar or coffee shop (some have full-blown restaurants or buffets), a bookstore, a tape ministry, pre-schools, private schools, or operate a golf course. I remember the day when commercial ventures in a church were considered on a par with the money changers in the temple. Some congregations may purposefully avoid constructing larger and more elaborate buildings because it avoids the temptation to finance such things with commercial ventures. Staying small doesn't mean using other means to attract and win people, it just means the congregation prefers avoiding commrcialization and starting new churches.
Smaller churches have some advantages, too. There are oportunities for interaction and involvement in ways mega-churches can't match. The minister, or the ministry staff, knows their sheep far more personally.
It is also true that in many cases, the advantages for both are also the source of their greatest problems.
My concern is that in process of fulfilling the first part of the Great Commission, we don't forget the second part. Neither small churches nor mega-churches have a corner on the market. Neither is necessarily more successful at one than the other. However, it is usually not the smaller congregation that abandons a weekly Bible Class where content can be taught and relationships built. It is not usually the smaller congregation who feels it is necessary to build great halls for worship while failing to invest in facilities and the tools for "making disciples." There is a difference between "making members" and "making disciples."