Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How big is too big?

Over at Parish Life George Grant, has an excellent post entitled, The Need for Parish. Citing an article from USA Today the mega-church movement appears to be losing steam.

I love the subtitle of this blog, "Gargantuanism and the care of souls cannot coexist." It comes from Thomas Chalmers, a man whom, I must admit, I know very little. The statement proves the obvious -- the bigger your church is the easier it is for people to hide and/or fall through the cracks.

As I've been preaching through II Corinthians what comes through loud and clear is the way the Apostle Paul cared for souls. He was a shepherd first, and foremost. This is lost as churches get larger: the pastor takes on the role of CEO and elders become VPs. I once read (in seminary) a book that advocated discarding the shepherding model of smaller churches and advocated 'ranching' as the preferred model to grow churches. Do you see the difference? In shepherding the shepherd knows the sheep. In ranching the goal is guide the nameless, faceless mob to its destination.


Joe said...

Dave, I don't get this. Why is big necessarily bad? How big is too big to be Biblical? Is there a scriptural basis for this view? Aren't the problems you cite just as likely due to poor shepherding as they are to letting too many people join the church?

To carry the shepherd analogy further, isn't one answer to a bigger flock to add more shepherds? We've done that as we've grown. It seems to me that we need not abandon shepherding in favor of "ranching" if we have qualified shepherds and enough of them.

We shouldn't be surprised that big churches have big problems. Everything is bigger in big churches, including the problems.

Without a solid Biblical reason for favoring small churches, we risk conflating our preferences with scripture. I think the shepherd analogy is illuminating because it is drawn from scripture. I just wonder if we are fully understanding the implications of the Biblical "shepherd" model.


Dave Sarafolean said...


You are correct -- the solution to getting bigger is to add more shepherds and keep the shepherding model first and foremost.

Most large churches get that way by hiring staff (not the same as pastors) and creating programs. I know many churches whose 'pastoral staff' do not have MDiv. degrees and couldn't be ordained in our denomination. That alone undercuts what it means to be a pastor/shepherd.

This is compounded by two things: churches who elect successful business leaders to church leadership (not taking into account the biblical requirements for being an elder) and the tendency of elders to shirk their biblical role of being a shepherd for that of a VP.

Add to this mix churches that minimize church membership and you've got a recipe for consumerism. I think that's what Grant is addressing in his post. You cannot truly shepherd consumers because they don't want to be held accountable. They may have an occasional need for pastoral care but generally they want to leave their options open in case greener pastures show up somewhere else. In that sense they can only be attracted by programs and herded like cattle towards the goals of that particular church. Those goals might be admirable (ie. missions, outreach, etc.) or they might be focused on lesser things -- music and performance, cultural transformation (liberal or conservative), political influence, etc.

I'm speaking in generalities here so cut me some slack. Big isn't necessarily bad or unbiblical. There are things that a church of 500 can do that a church of 100 can only dream about. The same thing is true of a church of 2,000when compared to a church of 500.

The fact of the matter is that it takes a lot of energy, manpower and money to run a large church. Moreover, not every pastor can preach well enough to attract a thousand people or more.

Another ministry model besides getting bigger that ought to be considered is church-planting. When a church reaches a particular size, say 500, it has a choice to make. It can either get bigger or 'hive off' a group to start another like-minded congregation in a nearby community. This does a couple of things: it reduces the overhead of running a larger church, it preserves the shepherding model (which is easier to conduct in small and medium sized congregations), and it enables other people to use their gifts as pastors, elders, deacons, teachers, etc.

Anonymous said...

So maybe it's not the size of the church, but maybe the anti-christian behavior or style(lack of true shepherding, etc) of these churches that make them mega-churches?

Dave Sarafolean said...


Right. Many churches have simply lost all thought of shepherding souls and become a provider of religious services for religious consumers. This is a very complex issue stemming from many things: revivalism, marketing, mis-guided outreach (ie. seeker sensitive), etc. People have written entire books on this topic: Michael Scott Horton wrote "Made in America", Nathan Hatch wrote "The Democratization of American Christianity" to name a couple. David Wells has written three or four volumes on the same general theme.

The White Horse Inn is doing a series on programs that address many of these things. Listen on line for some interesting things.