There’s a lot of conversation going on about megachurches.
In my context of ministry to small churches, much of the conversation surrounds this question. Are megachurches actually reaching new people for Jesus, or are believers gathering into ever-larger groups, leaving crumbling smaller churches in their wake? (A phenomenon commonly called sheep-stealing or sheep swapping.)
Most of these questions come from a place of frustration and pain. Sometimes that pain has turned to anger.
These questions and concerns will only increase as megachurches keep getting bigger while small churches seem to struggle more than they used to. Since these two phenomena are occurring at the same time, it’s easy to think that one (megachurch growth) is the cause of the other (small church struggles.)
My take is that, while the two are related, it’s not a direct cause-and-effect. (For more research-based info on this, start with Ed Stetzer’s article, Debunking Megachurch Myths: Especially the One About Sheep Swapping.)
The Ever-Widening Church Size Gap
We’re living in a new reality regarding church size.
A generation ago, before megachurches came along, the size difference between the median church and the biggest church in town was often just a few hundred people – even in heavily populated cities. Today that difference can be tens of thousands.
When the size differential was 10X or so, the gap between the amount of ministries a small church or a big church could offer wasn’t huge. The big church had a larger choir, a few more staff members and a couple extra options for Sunday School classes.
But as the size differential has increased from 10X to 1,000X, so has the number and variety of ministry options that big churches can offer.
This creates an attraction to the megachurch that can feel like the gravitational pull of a large planet. If you’re close enough to it, you’ll get drawn in.
This is great for the large church and for those they’re reaching, but it can feel like a challenge – even like competition – for the smaller churches that exist in their shadow (sometimes literally).
Acknowledging A Hard Reality
Small churches and big churches are not in competition with each other. At least we shouldn’t be. But it’s hard not to feel something like that when thousands of people drive past our church doors every weekend to go to a bigger church.
It’s even worse when we regularly see people leave our congregation to go to the nearby megachurch because they offer programs that our small church is 100 to 1,000 sizes away from being able to offer.
This is not a theoretical situation for me. For over 25 years I’ve pastored in Orange County California, within easy driving distance of Saddleback Church, the original Calvary Chapel, the original Vineyard church, the (former) Crystal Cathedral and many other megachurches.
In such an environment, if we try to “compete” by offering a massive array of programs, we will end up frustrated and ineffective.
So what’s a small church to do?
Before I answer that, I’m going to say something that may upset some of my fellow small church pastors. Especially if you’re hurting right now. But I have to say it. Not to cause more hurt, but because we can’t get anywhere until we acknowledge reality.
So here it is, like it or not.
If your small church is struggling, it’s not because of the big church near you.
I know it may feel like it. In my 25-plus years at Cornerstone, I’ve watched as hundreds of people have left our church to attend larger churches nearby – including dozens of musicians, teachers and other leaders who we helped raise up. At times, it’s been hard not to believe that these departures were the reason we struggled while other churches thrived.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve learned a couple things about pastoring a healthy small church in the shadow of giant churches. First, healthy small churches can survive and thrive anywhere, including where I live and minister, in the land of the giants. Second, if people are leaving our church for another church (or no church) we need to step up and do better ministry – not to compete with megachurches, but to provide a healthy alternative for those who want to worship and minister in a smaller setting.
When a church is hurting, it doesn’t help to glare and growl at the big church across town – even if that church is intentionally targeting our church members (a situation that is very rare).
Blaming others makes our own problems worse, not better.
Instead we have to take a serious look at ourselves, and an even longer look to Jesus. He is the answer, not better programs, more volunteers, or a bigger budget. And certainly not blaming another church.
No Excuses Means No Excuses
Over the years, I’ve had to come to this realization myself. No matter how many great programs the nearby megachurch offers, no matter how many people seem to drift away from us toward them, each church has to stand on the ministry God gave them and do it in the best way we can.
Our church may be small, but we know who we are. And we do it really well. Those who want and need the kind of ministry we offer will be drawn here. Those who want and need the kind of ministry the nearby megachurch offers will be drawn there.
And sometimes, people’s needs will change and they’ll leave one church for another. In both directions. For instance, over the last 25 years, Rick Warren and I have traded dozens of church members. They go from Cornerstone to Saddleback and from Saddleback to Cornerstone.
Shift Our Focus To The Real Need
Instead of worrying about which church is attracting or losing existing members, we need to get busy reaching people who attend no church and have no relationship with Jesus.
There are more unchurched people in our communities than all our current churches combined could ever hold. That's where we need to focus our attention.
We’ll never reach the world or our neighborhood for Jesus if we’re keeping track of which church is winning at Christian Musical Chairs. We need to pay attention to how well – or how poorly – the congregation God has placed us in is reaching the lost, the hurting, the lonely, the outcast and the sinner.
There are people the megachurch can reach that our small church can’t reach. Which is why I celebrate big churches.
And there are people small churches like ours can reach that big churches can’t reach. Which is why I celebrate small churches.
If any megachurch is actually stealing people from small churches, God will deal with them. If I’m spending more time worrying about who’s leaving my small church for other churches than reaching people who don’t know Jesus, God will deal with me.
Let’s ditch the excuses, open our doors and our arms, and head out into our neighborhoods.
There’s more than enough need to keep us all busy.
Copyright © 2018 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.