Big churches serve many great roles in the body of Christ. And the church growth movement that spawned many of them has been a great blessing to me and so many others in ministry.
But numerical growth, while great, does not come without challenges.
In my last post, 5 Mistakes More Likely To Be Made By Small Churches Than Big Churches, I wrote about some of the challenges that small congregations need to be aware of.
- Holding On To Stale Traditions
- Poor, Or Nonexistent Planning
- Not Enough Assessment Or Evaluation
- Too Much Inward Focus
- Depending On The Pastor Instead Of Making Disciples
In this post, we’ll look at the other side of the numerical bell curve to see what potential missteps big churches need to be aware of falling into.
Just as my previous list was not a criticism of small churches or inevitable for them, this list is not critical of, or inevitable for big churches, either.
The previous list was easier for me to write, since I’ve been pastoring small churches for decades. For this one, though I’ve never pastored a big church, I’ve worked closely with many of them. So consider this a friendly view from the outside looking in.
If this list feels familiar, it should. Each point is a one-for-one parallel to my small church list.
1. Letting Too Many Traditions Go
There’s a lot of talk in church leadership circles about dropping tired traditions. I’ve talked and written a lot about the importance of letting go of stale traditions, myself.
But when we drop good traditions along with bad and outdated ones, we can bring unnecessary instability into people’s lives.
In his book Dirt Matters, Jim Powell talks about how Richwoods Church has established what he calls Stability Zones to help balance an atmosphere of necessary change with the stability of a few essential traditions.
Stability Zones are a practical means of expressing the theological essentials. They’re like the safety net that allows X Games stunt riders the freedom to try daring new feats in practice because there’s something to catch them when they fall.
The more a church is open to change, the more we must emphasize the principles that never change.
Big churches must have strong, dependable systems in place. Without them, things can fall apart fast.
But we must never become so dependent on our systems that we rely more on them than we do on the breath of the Spirit or the creativity of the gathered church.
Planning should do for a church what rehearsal does for a band of musicians. It should help the team stop thinking about the notes and charts, so they can act as a unit. Moving, adapting and growing as they explore new musical vistas together.
It’s the same in churches. Just as I’ve been in (usually) small churches that were so ill-prepared it was embarrassing, I’ve been in (usually) big churches that were so over-programmed and controlled that it felt dry and stale.
It’s been said that good is the enemy of great. In the church, as in art, overplanning can be the enemy of creativity.
3. Judging Success Only By Numerical Increase
I detest using business metaphors for the church, but in this case, they fit.
If the church was a business, our product would be relationships. What we’re selling (I cringe as I write that word) is a relationship with God through Jesus and relationships with each other. It’s the Great Commandment. Love God, love others.
The problem is, we can’t quantify the value of relationships, so we use numbers as a proxy. The most common numbers being attendance and offerings.
To that, we also add measurements of baptism, percentages of people in small groups, and so on.
But what we must never forget is that all these numbers are nothing more than a placeholder for something that cannot really be measured.
So, let’s measure what can be measured. But always remember that even our best numbers, while helpful, are only truth-adjacent.
4. Too Much Outward Focus
A church can never be too missional. But it can pay so much attention to reaching the unchurched that it neglects discipling believers.
No, those two are not mutually exclusive. But it can happen if we’re not careful. And it’s something that numerically growing churches need to be especially aware of.
While reaching the unchurched, we must never forget that the primary mandate of the pastor (along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers) is not to bring in a crowd or to entertain the saints, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12)
This is not about coddling grumpy pew-warmers. It’s a friendly reminder that any healthy church must always keep the delicate balance between providing a welcoming environment for seekers, while using that precious time to worship Christ with all our hearts and equip the believers to live their faith.
A healthy church doesn’t neglect its members while reaching the community. It equips its members to reach the community.
When we do that, no one gets neglected. And it leads to our fifth and final point.
5. Hiring Staff Instead Of Making Disciples
If the church I pastor had grown numerically fast, I would have hired more full-time professional clergy to oversee the ministry departments.
Because our growth has always been three steps forward, two steps back (sometimes five), we’ve had to recruit, train and release our church members into ministry.
It’s one of the many reasons I’m now grateful that my ideas about how to grow Jesus’ church didn’t work. It’s nudged us to do what we should have been doing all along.
Certainly, not every large church has hired staff instead of equipping disciples. Most have had a balanced approach to both. But when you have the budget, buildings and people, it’s tempting to rely more heavily on paid staff to do the work of ministry.
In fact, in the 1990s and 2000s, it was common to hear church growth proponents tell pastors that one great way prepare your church for numerical increase was to hire staff ahead of the growth. The theory being that the staff member would pay for their salary by attracting more people to the church.
Hiring ahead of (nonexistent) growth hurt more churches than it helped. Thankfully, no one is promoting that idea any more.
What I’m Not Saying About Big Churches
Big churches are not the only ones that are susceptible to making these mistakes. Just as small churches are not the only ones that are susceptible to making the mistakes in my previous post.
But it’s hard to find a lot of small churches that
- let too many traditions go
- judge their success only by numerical increase
- have too much outward focus
- hire staff instead of making disciples
So, the larger the church, the more susceptible you may be to these pitfalls. If your big church has avoided these, that’s great!
Every church, of every size, has a role to play in the body of Christ. But, just like a hand will never have glaucoma and an eye will never get carpel tunnel syndrome, every size of church comes with unique challenges, too.
If we’re aware of them, we can correct for them. And the entire body will be better off for it.
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