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Small Church Big Church Myths

I'm assuming that if you're reading this section, it's because you're the leader of a small church. Obviously, your definition of what constitutes small will depend on how you define average. In Australia, the average church size is around 70 people.1 Depending on where you get your statistics, the average size of a church worldwide is between 35 and 50.

Even these figures are a bit misleading since, if you took the mega-churches out of the mix, those figures would be even lower. So let's just say that we're talking about lower than average sized churches, and I'll leave you to figure out if that includes your church.

If this section of HotSermons is going to be of any real value to you, then the first thing we need to do is sort out some of the myths as they relate to small churches versus big churches.

Myth #1: Big Is Better

Chances are, as the leader of a small church, you probably want your church to grow. What I want to ask you is: Exactly why do you want your church to grow?

Let me describe a common experience of many small church leaders. You go to an annual conference, or a ministers' fraternal, or some other gathering of pastors and church leaders. You're new there, so you don't know many people, and you decide to introduce yourself to some of your fellow travellers on the leadership road. Some of them are doing the same, so your conversations run something like this:

"Hi, my name's John. What's yours?" says one friendly fellow.

"I'm Frank," you reply.

"And what church are you pastoring, Frank?"

"The First Church of the Holy Chalice of Saint Freddie," you say.

"Sounds great. How many people in your church?"

I'm not aware if there is any such thing as the First Church of the Holy Chalice of Saint Freddie, but this little conversation reveals an important aspect of church leadership interaction. One of the first questions you will be asked is: "How many people are in your church?"

You will also soon discover that this is the pastoral version of dog-sniffing. Your answer places you in the pecking order. If your answer is 10,000, then you automatically have the respect of those around you, even if you are the biggest rogue under the sun, your marriage is in tatters, and your kids hate you.

If your answer is 30, then your leadership ability is assessed on that basis.

Why am I raising this issue? Because in many denominations, the competitiveness is fierce. Small church pastors are assessed on the size of their churches, and left feeling that they are failing. Even when they diligently fulfil their duties, they develop the sense that they are sub-standard, and maybe they really shouldn't be in pastoral ministry after all. They might even need supervision from a more "successful" pastor.

In this context, successful equals big. And subtly and slowly, the pressure is on for a small church pastor to become a big church pastor, no matter how. The desire to be seen as a "major player", the desire to be respected by your peers as having achieved something worthwhile, the need to feel that others don't think of you as lazy or incompetent, all weave together to become a major force in the drive for a bigger church.

But is bigger necessarily better? Well, if you believe the hype that comes from many big churches, the answer is unequivocally yes! In fact, they may wonder why you're even asking this question. Obviously, it's sour grapes on your part. You're jealous of their success. You need to justify your lack of progress. You're just making excuses for your failures.

But the reality is that bigger isn't always better. Now if you're a big church pastor reading this section, try not to get defensive. Are there positives to having a big church? Of course. Big churches are often able to do things that smaller churches can't do. But it doesn't necessarily follow that it's always better to be big, or that there's no healthy limit to the size of a church. If you're honest, you'll recognise that there are very real challenges in your church too, so everything isn't as perfect as it seems to be to the outsider.

Consider the Biblical analogy of the church as a body. Back in the good old days, one of the most popular ways of building up muscle mass was through the Charles Atlas bodybuilding method. Atlas was America's most famous muscle man through much of the twentieth century. Part of the advertising campaign was a cartoon in which a big bully kicks sand in the face of a scrawny young guy at the beach. Scrawny-Man then decides to bulk up.

No man wants to be regarded as scrawny. A phrase that Atlas coined was "97-pound weakling". No guy wants to be that! A full-grown man of that size has plenty of room to bulk up. But how big can a person's body be and still be healthy? Is 500 pounds (227 kilos) still healthy? Is there a point at which getting bigger is no longer a good thing, and no longer good for the body?

I think so. Here's just one of the advantages of a smaller church. You can't hide.

That's right. You can't hide in a small church. Everyone knows that lots of people go to bigger churches because they have more to offer: electrifying youth groups, groups for singles, exciting Sunday School, counsellors. There's an impressive list of services that big churches offer.

But it's equally true that there is a significant number of people who attend big churches because it's a great place to hide. If you only turn up every few weeks or so, nobody notices, except maybe as a statistic. If you don't make a meaningful contribution, nobody knows. In short, it's a great place to hide if you don't want to be challenged in your personal growth and commitment.

But in a small church, you can't hide. If you don't turn up one Sunday, everyone knows. If you are not involved in an area of active service, everyone knows that too. And if you never invite anyone to church, you don't need a church growth specialist to figure it out.

Everyone can see your level of spiritual maturity, so you can't hide that either.

In many large churches, there's a significant proportion of the congregation who do nothing more than turn up, watch the show, and reap the benefits of someone else's labours. In a small church, it's most, if not all, hands on deck, because many of the same things that have to be done in large churches still have to be done, but by a smaller group of people.

Myth #2: Bigger Churches Give Greater Opportunities

Here's the place to start with this one: Define "greater".

If you're saying that an awesome musician would have a much bigger audience and greater fame in a big church, you're right. They will most likely be able to play with better musicians, and their name will be known among a lot more people.

But since all of heaven is watching on as all musicians in every church round the world worship God, what's a few more thousand in the audience mean? It's not really that important, is it? Or maybe it is. Maybe the size of the crowd can easily play to the ego of a person. The "Wow Factor" when people find out who you really are can be a great temptation. The desire for a response like, "Oh, so you're so-and-so? You play in the band, don't you?", can be enticing.

Reality is though, big churches often become bottlenecks. Imagine a church of 5,000 people. How many people do you think attend that church and have the potential to be a really good church musician? How many would make fine worship leaders or preachers? Probably there are a lot, but most of them are never going to get an opportunity in that church. Because you can only use so many preachers, or worship leaders, or musicians. So week after week, many gifted people sit on their gifts and fail to develop them.

It's very different in a small church. Small churches need all the help they can get. If you can preach, that's great. The pastor needs a break every so often. If you can play an instrument, your gift is needed too, as many small churches are desperate for musicians.

I sometimes wonder how many churches outgrow their ability to effectively release their members into fruitful ministry.

Does that mean it's impossible for large churches to effectively empower their members for active service? Not necessarily. But the more people in a church, the greater the need for effective administrative processes to be able to accommodate the different ministry potentials of the people. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many become spectators.

In a very large church, the administration needs to be superb. And I'm not talking about administering the normal running processes of the church. I'm talking about administrators who simply release others into ministry. In other words, this basically comes down to the administrative abilities of leaders.

Myth #3: Big Church Pressure

Maybe you've experienced something like this. You've got a church of 50 people, and you're talking to the pastor of a church of 500. And you're going through a tough time, so you're offloading your problems on what you think might be a sympathetic ear.

But your assumption is wrong. You finish your complaint only to get a response like, "You think you've got problems? Let me tell you, your problems don't stop when you have a big church. They just get bigger."

The assumption is that if your church is ten times as big, your problems are ten times as big, and therefore the stresses you have to grapple with are ten times as big too. This is not even logical. Let me explain why with a few examples.

First, all humans are designed to cope with a certain amount of pressure. It doesn't matter how tough they are, they can still only take so much. The pastor of a church of 500 is not able to cope with ten times as much pressure as the pastor of a 50-strong church.

If that's the case, then Pastor David Yonggi Cho is a superman. As pastor of the world's largest church, this way of measuring stress levels would put him in the inhuman category. According to Wikipedia, his church had a membership of 830,000 in 2007! Let's think this through. His church is 16,600 times the size of a church of 50. Does this really mean that he is under 16,600 times as much pressure as the pastor of 50?

I don't think so!

It is not possible to measure pressure simply in terms of the number of people in a church. Many big church pastors are under a great deal of pressure. But many small church pastors are too. But for different reasons. They very often lack the resources to even take a break. And if they can find someone to fill in for them while they take a break, their salary is often so low that all they can do is hang around home anyway. This is just one of many situations that big church pastors probably never have to face.

If you're reading this and you're a big church pastor, let me give you a word of advice. Next time you're talking to the leader of a small church and they pour their heart out to you, don't default to the yeah-you-think-you've-got-problems mode.

They may not even want you to do anything but acknowledge that they're a son of God just like you are, and that their ministry is challenging just like yours is.

Just imagine this. You're in a job earning $50,000 a year. And unlikely as it may seem, you're sitting in McDonalds opposite Bill Gates, having a coffee. And you say, "You know what, Bill? My boss wants to cut me back to two days work a week. That means I'll be trying to get by on twenty grand a year!"

Bill looks at you and says, "You think you've got problems? I lost $140 million just in the last quarter because of this recession."

Just imagine how you feel about his response. Is he even on the same planet as you are? Sure he lost $140 million, which is more than your entire lifetime's net worth. But even then, he'll still fly around in his private jet, he can still eat out at the best restaurants every night of the week, he can still fly to Europe for a holiday whenever he wants, and so on.

There is no comparison.

Let me give another illustration. We have a sponsor child in Rwanda. Let's just say that I go and visit her in her tiny village. We're sitting down together chatting and she says, "It's really tough for my mother to try and live on $1 a day."

I say, "Hey, just because I live in a filthy rich Western country doesn't mean it's all peaches and cream, you know. I know I'm earning heaps more than your mother, but think of all the extra pressure I'm under."

If I really believed that, I'd be in a hurry to swap places with her, and I'm not.

The upshot of all this is that pressure is pressure. Big church pastors and small church pastors are all under pressure for different reasons. Just because you're a big church pastor, it doesn't automatically mean you are under more pressure.

Myth #4: Big Church Pastors Understand Small Church Pressures

This is often assumed. The reasoning goes something like this: I'm a big church pastor. You're a small church pastor. Your church is just like mine, only on a much smaller scale. Obviously, I am qualified to speak into your situation.

The problem with this is that it simply isn't true. Many big church pastors have barely seen the inside of a small church, let alone run one. Many leaders of large churches inherited their church when it was already big or average in size.

Sure their church might have grown since then, but that doesn't mean they could have produced the same results in a small church. Critical mass for a church is apparently about 50. In other words, anything under that number and you're struggling just to survive. That makes a difference.

Even those who planted their church and have grown it to a substantial size often know nothing about how to run a small church. Take for instance a pastor who plants a church from scratch. For whatever reason, his church grows to 300 in six months flat. Maybe he's exceptionally gifted. Maybe he rang around a lot of his friends who left their churches and joined his. Maybe he started with enormous backing from somewhere. Maybe the brand name of his original church was so well known and admired that hoards of people came along for a look-see.

Whatever the reason, that kind of growth means that he knows nothing about running a small church. Chances are that his entire experience as a small church pastor is only about two weeks' worth. That does not qualify him as an expert on how to grow a small church.

Often what happens is that big church pastors give advice to small church pastors that simply cannot be implemented and just adds to their stress levels.

For instance, a small church pastor is complaining about the workload in his church. The best response to this is simply to agree that it is a big workload. But what often happens is that the big church leader says something like, "I don't know what your problem is. Just delegate."

Why does he say that? Because in his church, that's what he does. He has at least a hundred people straight off that don't do much and might take over some responsibilities on a volunteer basis. He also has full-time staff he can delegate to.

The small church pastor is often at a loss to explain his situation. Twenty of his fifty are kids, so they aren't available to do much. Out of the remaining thirty, ten are wives of unsaved husbands and unable to offer help beyond just attending the service. That leaves twenty. Five of those are too old or too sick to do anything. Three are hangers-on and not willing to do anything at all. The other twelve are your Leadership Team and their spouses.

This team not only meets together regularly for planning. They also have full-time jobs, they study, they run home group, ladies' group, lead the worship, play in the band, help set up, do the communion messages, and everything else in the church that needs to get done.

Many of the people in the small church are already coping with a high workload as they try to juggle several roles in their small church. These are the same roles that need to be filled in a much larger church, but they have a much smaller number of people to do them.

"Delegate?" the small church pastor thinks to himself. "To whom?"

He already has a much higher percentage of people actively involved than his big church advisor.

Myth #5: A Bigger Church Means A Bigger Reward In Heaven

This is the final insult to a small church pastor. As if anyone knows who will receive the greatest rewards in heaven anyway.

If it's true that the greatest rewards will go to the leaders of the largest churches, we might as well all give up now. After all, we already know who will be sitting at Jesus' right hand. With by far the biggest church in the world, it would have to be David Yonggi Cho for sure. Actually I doubt if even he believes that.

As God looks at things very differently from the way we do, I suspect there are going to be a lot of surprises in heaven. Maybe some of the people we expect to get the greatest rewards will barely get a mention because their motives were so impure. Maybe there will be some people we've never heard of who take out the biggest prizes.

I don't know. But one thing I do know. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that the biggest rewards can't be won by anyone, no matter what their ministry.

Back to the motives thing

So what are your motives for wanting a bigger church? If you can successfully negotiate all the myths that surround the drive for a large church, that's great. But you also have to deal with your own motives. Our motives are very much tied up with how we define success.

If, as mentioned above, you define success as being recognised as a "major player", or being respected by your peers as having achieved something worthwhile, or feeling that others don't think of you as lazy or incompetent, you've got a problem.

You may well get a large church. But is that how God wants it to be? Isn't He interested in our motives? We need to keep in mind what God said to Samuel when he was picking out the next king of Israel: "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Sam 16:7)

We have to learn not to compare our ministry with someone else's ministry. There will always be someone who seems to be better than you are.

One time, Jesus was talking to Peter and prophesying how Peter would glorify God in his death. Peter saw John nearby and said, "And what about him, Lord? What will happen to him?" Jesus answered Peter, "What is that to you? You follow Me." (John 21:22)

In other words, "Mind your own business."

Don't compare yourself with others. Just make sure you're faithful and fruitful doing what God called you to do. That's what the rest of this Small Churches section is all about. Be the best you can be, and leave the growth up to God.

1 National Church Life Survey. See their article entitled What Difference Does Congregational Size Make? At www.ncls.org.au

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