Bigger is Better Attitude Losing Support?

Have you seen those big box buildings lately, the ones that house 1-2 thousands adherents every Sunday? At one point they were the glowing pride of some Christian denominations. Nowadays there is a growing rumbling that big churches aren’t as efficient as the model would presume.

Back in the 80’s all the way into the 2000’s there was a growing focus mostly in evangelical churches to grow by leaps and bounds. That wasn’t anything new, but how they did it was.

Most of the churches catered to an upper-middle class demographic and used similar strategies that worked for profit maximizing industries for the church. That meant organizational structures with boards and CEOs, high value for vision and strategies, a focus on efficiency and development of core self-serving ministries, and most importantly, treating the service/building as the primary focus of community going so far as to call the things ‘church’ and not the people. To sustain this model you required an excellent service production and ministries.

In Restless Churches by Reginald Bibby (2004), the Canadian version of Gallup or Barna, one of the chapters included leaders from larger single churches who were touting BIGGER as the answer to Western Christianity’s existence.

Centre Street Church, the biggest church by attendance in Canada, legitimized a massive capital expansion by suggesting that it was essentially more efficient to be bigger since your resources could be used to minister to more people. They also routinely shut down ministries that do not focus on bringing people to the Sunday service.

Their basic math was 200 member church = 2 full time pastors = 1 million in value; meant 10000 people ministered to would take 50 congregations, 150 staff, and $50 million. (This assumes each person ministers to one other person).

The efficient model suggested in the huge box church was: 10000 people for only a 15 million expansion and less than 150 pastors….. that’s savings of $35 million dollars.

Fair enough, however, if you’re going to play the numbers game for capital campaigns then let’s do the same for their ‘success rate’. Average attendance has grown marginally at Centre Street Church over the past three years. In 2007 average attendance about 5500 (over four services).

(So keeping with the 1 person per 1 person ministered to equation they would hit 10000 people for under 30 million, still cheaper than the 50 million dollar estimate of ‘small churches’.)

What about other numbers? Their total baptisms for 2007? A paltry 97.

I believe baptisms are the most important measurable aspect of a churches capability to draw people into the reign of God versus ‘faith decisions’ or ‘adherents’. Baptising 1.75% of average weekday attendance (by the way, the same 5500 don’t show up every week, the turnover is probably at least 30% so the number of baptisms is even lower) from a church that touts efficiency and the numbers game for capital campaigns is absolutely abysmal. Period.

Is bigger really better?

Let’s take a minute to look at mega-church models. For Centre Street they wanted to establish 700 small groups….they think that it’s better to have one large church made up of many small groups/churches.

I actually like this idea, in fact most evangelical churches have the same goal. But there’s a disconnect The message to ‘get into your community’ differs from the posture inside which is, ‘sit and consume’. ‘Gather the small groups into one place and celebrate,” however, if that celebration consists of 5500 people sitting in a theatre watching a music show then a 40 minute sermon, how conducive is this event to support the purpose of the church of ‘being sent’? It’s difficult to condone the privatization of Christianity on one hand while trying to get people to participate on the other.

But the proof is in the numbers, not just attendance, but transformations. If mega church economies of scale are a success, they should be baptising more than 1.7% of their members?

Times have changed….

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There is renewed realization that a ‘bigger better’ mentality may not be wisest choice. Since the book was written 5 years ago, denominational leaders have acknowledged that bigger may not be better, and attracting white collar suburbanites may not be the extent of God’s redemption mission for the entire city.

Although the model looked efficient, if we use the same measurement rules used to attract donations and apply them to community and spiritual progress there is a big FAIL sign attached.

Perhaps bigger isn’t better after all. Maybe small groups and celebrating together as one community united are crucial, and maybe watching a church show with 2000 people isn’t the best way to communicate an intent to get down and dirty participating and redeeming our communities.