I’ve been on staff in a fairly large church for nearly 7 years now. The average weekly attendance is 1200-1300. (By the way the average stay for a youth pastor is 18-24 months.) Before coming on staff at this church, my ministry “backdrop” was in the smaller church setting. I grew up in a church that rarely saw 100 people in attendance at worship services (the average church in America is 70-80 people). When I stepped foot into the lobby/atrium of my current ministry location, I must admit to a rather unspiritual thought: “Wow. I’ve made it. This is the big time.” I actually thought that moving from a medium-sized church (avg. 300-350) to a large church was some type of promotion; some type of message from God that “you’ve been faithful in little, now be faithful in much” kind of thing. I naively thought that stepping into ministry in a large church setting would be an exhilarating joy-filled euphoria. Well, not really all that, but you get the idea. Simply put: I felt great about “moving up”.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned since that first day nearly 7 years ago:
1. A bigger church means a bigger budget.
While that might sound great at first glance, I’ve learned that that’s not the end of the statement. It really goes like this: A bigger church means a bigger budget which means more pressure to meet that budget which means you’ve got to get people in the door to help support that budget which means you need to keep people coming and happy and giving. All this leads naturally to the tendency to rely on gimmicky flash rather than the power of the Holy Spirit. It also leads me to care more about progress charts than I do about people’s hearts.
2. A bigger church means a bigger crowd.
Again, this one sounds nice at first. Few and far between are the pastors/preachers who wouldn’t prefer to speak to a larger crowd than a smaller crowd. Most pastors/preachers are a-ok with a “standing room only” kind of Sunday morning. Most pastors/preachers would prefer full chairs/pews to empty ones. That’s because most pastors/preachers are human beings. But I want to make another gruesome confession to you as a pastor on staff at a larg(ish) church: I have no idea who many of the people in our church are. I mean that literally. Every Sunday I get plenty of greetings from people as I walk through the church building and I must admit that I very often have no idea of the names of those greeting me, despite my desire to know every one of them. This leaves me feeling disconnected and if I’m honest I feel shamed as well. After all, we go to the same local church. Shouldn’t I know them? Their name? Their situation?
Another danger of the larger crowd is the ease in which people can find places to go unnoticed. While our church does do a fantastic job of connecting people in small groups, the nature of the large church gives plenty of opportunity for people to attend the church for weeks, months and even years and never establish good solid relationships with anyone. I realize this has much to do with the desire and determination of the individual, but its still a reality. Have you ever been to a pet store that was selling goldfish or guppies? Go to the crowded fish tank that holds them and try and keep your eye on one particular fish. Pretty tough. Next, spin around one time (this represents the many responsibilities/activities of the pastor) and try and find that one fish again. That’s sometimes the feeling pastors/leaders of large churches have. Despite their deepest desire to gather, connect, identify with, and serve every person who attends, it often seems so very difficult. As a result, some go unnoticed; lost in the crowd. And many of those will leave.
A bigger church can more easily lean toward “corporate” than toward “community”.
Let’s not kid ourselves. When Jesus called His followers to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), He wasn’t calling us to create an organization, an institution, or a manufacturing entity. He called us to “make disciples”. But by nature of the sheer size of the crowds of people, the building(s), the resources, the board, and the budget, we can allow our default setting as a large church to be more corporate than community. And who wants to cuddle up with a corporation? What Jesus meant as organic and organized (the first chapters of Acts show that organization has its place), we have morphed into something organized with little semblance of a living organism. As a pastor on staff, I must constantly repeat in my mind, “People over policy”. After all, its much easier in a church this size to chant “Policy over people” because that keeps things tidy and neat rather than messy and disheveled. But organisms are messy. Even as well-meaning as I am, I can fall into the trap of making what the policy or protocol says outweigh the caring of the person God has entrusted to the ministry I lead and serve. Yikes.
So, what about some principles that might protect the large church from itself? Let me take a crack at it.
1. Spirit-led above all else. We all desire it, but often times our decisions reinforce our yearning for the control that rightly belongs to God.
2. Preach the Word. No gimmick can do what God Himself can do through His Word, the Bible. But when we want/need crowds, we’re tempted to turn the weekly worship into a spectacle of flashiness. Trust that God won’t let His Word down…because He won’t.
3. People. People. People. And not for the sake of tithes, but for the sake of eternity. God and His people are the only things that will live eternally, so it stands to reason that we not become consumed with things that ultimately will not last.
I need to wrap up this post with a declaration that I am pleased, and (can I say it?) proud to be on staff at the church I serve at. It is by no means the perfect church (which doesn’t exist anyway) but what we do is follow the Spirit of the Living God wherever He leads us. That confounds some, unsettles some, and even pushes some away but I’m glad to say though that it exhilarates most. We declare the infallible Word of God to any size crowd that shows up to hear it. And we LOVE PEOPLE. God helping us, we just LOVE PEOPLE. I can tell you that I stand with those on staff in full conviction and surrender to the God who loves me enough to allow me the highest privilege of “Loving all people into a community of Christ-like disciples.”
Here’s to at least 7 more years.