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Learning from each other

By Ken Behr

Most churches in America average less than 100 in attendance on any given Sunday. While there have been lots of attention given to megachurches (2,000 or more in attendance) and gigachurches (greater than 10,000 on a weekend), can we still learn from these average-size churches?

Many large churches provide regular tours, seminars and conferences on their strategy for reaching the lost, attracting the faithful and growing numerically as a result. Yet, most believers this weekend will be heading to a service near them at a church that is small. Small in size also means limited programs, modest worship and few people on staff.

Considering that many, if not most, of the leaders of our mega- and gigachurches were likely nurtured and discipled at a small church, we’ve asked an executive pastor from one of the fastest-growing multisite churches in the country about these questions.

Ken Behr is Executive Director of Ministries at Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. He is one of those increasingly utilized second-career executives, having spent more than 20 years at Ford Motor Company before embracing his executive pastor role the past 10 years.

Why do many pastors seem to have an obsession with numbers, particularly when it comes to the size of their congregations?

I don’t think it’s an obsession. I think there is a combination of three factors that make objective numbers like attendance and numerical growth important. The first is the fact that there are not a lot of measurements that are easily quantifiable. Pastors know that it isn’t just attendance but spiritual growth, personal transformation and becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ that is the real objective. However, while it is easy to measure attendance and activities, like how many people are attending the new believers class or how many people are involved in small groups, it’s more difficult to measure true spiritual growth.

Secondly, there is a strong support for the saying “Healthy things grow.” Bill Hybels may have been one of the first to popularize this saying and those who look to churches like Willow Creek can inadvertently focus on growth opportunities. Numerical growth, however, is a very powerful indicator of doing things right. Along with numerical growth comes things like economies of scale that allow mega- and gigachurches the opportunity to offer powerful worship services and great programs ranging from attractive children’s ministry to recovery programs.

Thirdly and finally, attendance growth changes things, and pastors know that they need to prepare for more growth with extra services, more employees, additional space and even added campuses. A 10 percent growth in a smaller church may fill a pew, but a 10 percent growth in a gigachurch means another megachurch.

What works for large churches in terms of attracting people and growing numerically?

Personally, I think that the most important criteria is having a heart for the lost.  Increasingly, the fastest-growing segment of our society is the unchurched.  If you are really interested in attracting the people that are unchurched, you have to be willing to do things differently. Churches that are growing are often nondenominational or are denominational churches that look more like nondenominational churches. While it can be debated why this is happening, these growing churches are typically nonliturgical. They embraced contemporary worship because they knew it would attract new people, not pacify their members.

One of the biggest trends has been the “simple church” movement where pastors have focused primarily on the weekend worship services and small groups. There have been a lot of reasons for this and one of the big advantages is that church buildings and meeting spaces are no longer limiting factors.  Since people are using homes, restaurants and other nonchurch buildings, the costs of running very successful small-group programs are minimal. Over time, however, many of these simple-church model churches likely will embrace more on-ground classes for the very same reason as given above – they have a heart for the lost and have a passion to see people grow in their faith, and they know that often this requires a more structured approach.

What can large churches learn from smaller churches?

One of the things successful smaller-church pastors know is that limited resources doesn’t limit ministry. Large churches can learn to stretch existing resources and be creative in using space. One of the most utilized resources at a small church is often the one room that functions as a midweek gathering space, a Sunday school room and a place for potlucks and hospitality. Just like the local public school’s CafeGymatorium, these multipurpose rooms are churches’ best bangs for the buck.

When resources are known to be limited, ministry expectations are set appropriately and there is less time spent in budget meetings, administration, maintenance, decorating and set-up, and more time is spent in actual ministry.

Another resource that typically is not wasted in the small church is a willing volunteer. Church choirs are seen as opportunities for people to sing and “make a joyful noise.” It provides a great outlet for both the talented and not-so-talented. Women often find more opportunities to serve in a smaller church where gender stereotypes take a back seat to pragmatic leadership.

While all people are not gifted equally, all should have an equal opportunity to serve and use the talents that the Lord has given them. Just as major league baseball has their farm teams, larger churches need to find opportunities to develop younger and less refined talent from within.

How can large churches create a sense of community?

Large churches always need to think small.  Zechariah 4:10 says, “Do not despise these small beginnings.” Small churches, because of their size, have a distinct advantage in creating easy opportunities for people to connect, serve and grow in their faith. Conversely, larger churches need to make themselves seem small and they do that through encouraging the formation of small groups.

In smaller churches, groups form naturally. They happen when people decide to go out to lunch after the service; when the ladies bring in some food during a “clean-up” Saturday; and when families get together to help another family through a crisis. Small groups also happen when a visiting missionary stops by and shares his or her experiences and the miraculous things that God is doing in a remote part of the world.

These are exactly the same types of gathering and learning experiences that larger churches need to create. When people eat together, when they work together and when they pray together, strong bonds of friendship are formed and God does truly miraculous things. Creating a sense of community happens when the restraints are kicked away and small group leaders are recruited, trained and released.

Community also occurs in volunteer teams, and successful churches know that volunteer team leaders need to be trained to facilitate the natural formation of close friendships and a feeling of family.

It is essential that large churches understand the difference between being friendly and becoming friends. Small churches don’t need enhanced visitor welcoming team, hospitality tents, pre-service greeting videos or weekly guest receptions. These are necessary in a mega- or gigachurch where it’s likely many can’t immediately tell if the person walking through the entrance is one of the founding members or someone that is brand new.

Being able to call people by their first name and knowing them well enough to share a meal is likely the dividing line between being friendly and actually being friends. Large churches seem small when people don’t just shake hands with each other during a 60-second transition between songs, but when they become the kind of neighbors that Jesus encouraged them to be.

How should church leaders define success?

Success should never be defined exclusively by numerical growth. Identifying a strategy, developing objectives towards fulfilling that strategy, and measuring milestones along the way is likely a good start in defining success.

All too often vision statements don’t define the local church as much as they restate the Great Commission. I’ve always appreciated when a pastor knows and can articulate the vision that God has given his church. Churches should define who they are trying to reach, what they are trying to teach and to whom they are called to serve. When a church is focused everywhere, they are focused nowhere. Defining their strategy is a church’s first step to defining metrics that help measure success.

There are many reasons people flock to mega- and gigachurches. These large churches are determined to provide quality sermons and excellent worship experience.  At the same time, learning some lessons from the smaller churches is important. Churches need to provide opportunities for people to grow, get connected, serve and lead. They need to make every effort to not only appear friendly but for people to become friends. All of these will help make a large church seems small in all the right ways.

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