One of the most damaging aspects of consumer Christianity is big churches telling smaller churches they’re mediocre because they don’t have a stunning Sunday service. It’s crippling to the majority of churches. Don’t believe the hype.

The majority of churches in North America have around 100 congregants. Some pastors of these churches may have lofty dreams to grow into the mega variety, but almost none will  achieve the status. This revelation doesn’t stop many from consuming their leadership and development materials authored by celebrity/mega church pastors. 

There’s one problem. One massive and significant problem: listening to megachurch pastors will kill your church.

Carey Nieuwhof is a mega church leader. One of the rare breeds because he leads a mega church in Canada where there are few. I don’t know anything about the man, but I will say this about his ideas–they’re only for him and his mega church buddies. The ideas are out of touch with small churches, prevailing post-Christian culture, and are a reflection of a deep association with consumer Christian culture. His latest blog post is, to be blunt, pure trash. It’s entitled, “7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly…Mediocre.

Everything that’s wrong with contemporary consumer Christian culture, and by association contemporary evangelicalism, is summed up masterfully in his potshot to average churches. Here’s why his ideas are bunk and what we can really do about mediocrity. First,

Stop Listening to Mega Church Pastors

When your church is mediocre, it should be no surprise unchurched people aren’t lining up to join you and that you’re not attracting and keeping the amazing leaders who might attend your church but don’t want to get involved because things are so sub-par.

And don’t be discouraged. Every leader and every church can be great at something, regardless of size, budget or location.

This excerpt from Nieuwhof reveals the substance behind his measurement of mediocrity. “Church” is the service and that service is the engine to pour resource into. His call to fix mediocrity in an age of post-Christianity is to chase “greatness” (my word) measured in a level of excellence in the service. This is problematic (and unbiblical) for so many reasons. Chief among them, it demands expenditure to elevate production value at the expense of community.

The center of the church is not its service and certainly not in its production value, unless of course you’re trying to appeal to the heart of consumer Christianity. It speaks nothing about the people (the church), rather it only describes how to attract spectators into the fold to raise the headcount.

Thank God there’s something deeper than stage lights and professional bands.

The Exception, Not the Rule

Pastors should ignore mega-church leaders. Now, there’s a lot wrong with consumer Christianity, but I prefer to note its value. It’s OK for some churches to appeal to Christian switchers looking to be entertained, while building a foundation on the seeker sensitive paradigm. It certainly works for some. The problem becomes when the exception  becomes the desired outcome for ALL other churches. To put it in another way, EVERY church can’t and shouldn’t emulate the brightest and richest churches from consumer Christianity. It’s simply not reproducible. In fact, following mega consumer Christianity is a road to burn out as a leader, or to, ironically, get stuck in mediocrity.

Church exceptionalism (or what Eugene Peterson calls “ministry pornography”) sees smaller churches trying to emulate the strategies of the exception in an attempt to become exceptional. The process actually leaves the church worse off. Appealing to consumer traits like production quality in services can only be done well by those with the deepest pockets. Ironically, small churches trying to accomplish this task can’t, and wind up losing their parishioners to the very model they’re trying to emulate. Copying mega will kill your church! I talk about this in my book, “Thrive“,

There’s a danger when smaller churches look to their larger counterparts for inspiration. To use business terminology, the small mom-and-pop outfit can’t use strategies employed by the national corporation. Large churches ask different questions than small ones, such as: strategies needed to scale, organizational efficiency, governance, staff management, individual experience, budgets, vision, and strategic implementation. Conversely, smaller churches can ask questions like: how to respond faster to local needs, may value moving slow, how to decentralize leadership, increase participation in mission, and hopefully spend more time in depth of relationship…In our desperation to find a solution, a level of cognitive dissonance emerges where leaders fail to ask one simple question: do those exceptional churches actually grow? The short answer is, not really.

Growth by addition sure, but large churches typically struggle with growth by conversion just like any church. They may win the consumer Christian variety, but lack depth in relationship, and isn’t that the point of it all?

What Should We Chase Instead?

Mike Frost has some ideas that’s worth checking out. I’d ask, given the choice between a mediocre service with great community versus a great service with mediocre community, which would you choose? I hope it’s the former. Mediocrity as a culture isn’t OK, I agree with. But the answer to mediocrity isn’t excellence. It’s depth in community. That could (and why not) reducing the focus on Sunday services to something with greater appeal in post-Christendom. Deeper relationships define churches. Leadership development mills do not.

Recently, in my church plant Cypher Church, we came to a cross roads 1.5 years in. We had a choice. In order to proceed in the way we were gathering with the same number of people, we recognized we’d have to up the production value to keep people coming. Nieuwhof would tell us to do it. Maybe he’d even give us some cash to! We certainly could increase what is already a cool and pro event, into something even bigger and grander in spectacle, but it would come at a cost. We would be appealing to consumer Christians, and our focus would be drawn to running a service rather than building a core of disciples.

Discipleship. Something you don’t hear much about from megachurches. Maybe it’s because they can’t figure it out either? I’m not saying any church in the West is winning at producing discipleship making movements, but it is a place smaller churches should excel in. Small, at least in theory, but it is the choice we have which I Tweeted about last week.