By Eddie Pipkin
October 20, 2017
Bigger is not always better. I am a fan of the so-called second tier attractions here in Orlando where I work and live. We are famous for our theme parks and their multimillion dollar tributes to princesses and wizards, but there are lots of mom-and-pop tourist attractions out there, offering opportunities to enjoy go carts and gators with an intimacy you will never get to experience in a $100-dollar-a-day theme park. And as much as I enjoy the entertainment offerings provided by the corporate behemoths, I am a big fan of small businesses. I cheer on these smaller scale attractions that have found their happy niche in the shadow of the major players.
Likewise, I am a fan of small churches, whether little country churches that are managing to stay relevant or tight-knit urban congregations that are finding revitalized missions in changing communities. We, here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, are sensitive to the tension between megachurches and modest churches (50% of all churches in America average less than 100 people in worship attendance, and only 10% average more than 350). Yet, much of the information you can find online and in books about church growth, leadership, and creativity in worship and ministry stems from the megachurch movement, as noted by Roger Crosby in an excerpt from “Big Churches Getting Bigger”:
In their book on megachurches, [Scott] Thumma and [Dave] Travis write that “megachurches, their practices, and their leaders are the most influential contemporary dynamic in American religion”; quite a claim. They go on to say that this influence has now superseded that of denominations, seminaries, and religious publishing. These older and established institutions are, no doubt, wrestling today with these new realities.
Whether or not these claims are overstated, the influence of megachurches undoubtedly continues to grow. Among the evangelical church world today, these megachurches are the prime influencers of leadership development, worship styles, and ministry innovation. The pastors who lead them are writing the books most pastors are reading and keynoting the conferences most of them are attending.
Leaders from medium-sized and smaller churches are acutely aware that lots of this megachurch-oriented advice is not applicable to their situations. You can’t afford a multitude of paid staff or high-tech production software. You’re out there doing God’s work on a shoestring budget with a ragtag group of volunteers. That’s why we at EMC3 try to focus on providing you with ideas and insights that are applicable for any size congregation. There is no biblical mandate to establish giant congregations with college-sized campuses. The Holy Spirit has, since the days of Acts, worked to change the world through intimate gatherings of believers, and that continues to be true today. There are plenty of fans out there for the strengths of small churches to be vibrant homes for close faith communities. Here’s the Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware, writing about the pressure to live up to “big church” growth strategies, and celebrating instead the vibrant spiritual life of her “small church”:
I know, some of you groaned inwardly, and thought “that is the mentality of all dying churches.” But we are not dying—far from it. We are quirky (here is an awesome post celebrating quirky churches) and joyful and complicated and diverse and alive. All this with only a worship attendance of 80-90. Say it ain’t so! We are small and we are growing.
We always have new faces in worship. And it isn’t because of a church growth program or a marketing campaign. It is not because we have a special social media strategy. It is not because we have the latest and greatest A/V equipment or an awe-inspiring sanctuary with dark wooden paneling (we sit in folding chairs and our sound system is 25 years old). I would love to say it’s the pastor, but this was happening long before I showed up four years ago. It is because we were transformed when we walked into this community, and we want others to experience transformation. It is genuine and real, and new people feel that, and most return again and again.
You can read her full blog post to see the list of metrics her Michigan-based United Church of Christ congregation uses to measure vitality—they turn out to be pretty different from the usual metrics of church growth and vitality.
Here is the key: Find your niche and live into it.
This is exactly the mindset that has guided the second-tier tour attractions I mentioned earlier. Gatorland has been around south of Orlando since 1949, long before Disney ever showed up, but it has had to adjust over time, remember its core attributes, and lean into its identity as historic, kitschy, hands-on, half-day spot. Not everybody wants to see gator wrestling, but if you do, you are definitely not going find it at EPCOT. Similarly, Fun Spot America, has earned a reputation as a home to old-school fair rides, excellent go-karting, and affordable half-day fun. They understand who they are (and who they are not) and they aren’t wasting time and effort directly competing in areas where such competition would be untenable. (For fun, here’s a link to 10 similar roadside tourist spots you may have missed—and here’s a comprehensive map of such spots throughout the wacky state of Florida.) You can utilize super fancy supercomputers to calculate your odds of succeeding as a small business, just like Yelp has started doing, or you can have a heart-to-heart about who you really are and the centrality of your mission within your given context.
Megachurches are awesome, but they are a little like Cracker Barrels in their familiarity—I love the pancakes at Cracker Barrel, but I know exactly what I am going to get in Jacksonville or Kansas City—that’s part of why it is sometimes just the thing I need. Meanwhile, there are thousands of cozy congregations that are more like mom-and-pop diners: familiar comfort food, yes, but individualized menus that are products of their unique community contexts. Each is an adventure in discovery. Celebrate that. Sometimes it means expanding our ministries and mindset to adapt to the changing neighborhood around us; sometimes it means getting back to the basics of what made us who we are; and sometimes it means changing our focus altogether (as happened with this Methodist congregation in Kentucky that has turned itself completely over to kids). Figure out who God has called you to be, and live into that calling the best that you can. This is our path: not to keep up with the Joneses (if the Joneses were our megachurch friends), but in being empowered in who God has called us uniquely to be. This turns out to be true for ministries in the same way it is true for people.
Are you part of a megachurch, or a modest church? What sets your church apart as unique within your community context? What frustrates you the most about the ways in which your ministry is expected to function in the same ways that large budget, high attendance churches function? What aspects of our ministries are universal in nature regardless of size? And what kinds of tools would you most like to see translated from “big church” speak to a language more useful for smaller congregations (technology, worship arts, management, organizational strategies)? Let the comments and the questions begin!