How to Grow Your Church By 3 Inches

I get a lot of spam that is direct marketed to me since I’m both a man and a pastor. Recently, I imagined what would happen if the two collided in cyber-space. This is the headline I came up with: “Church grows by three inches.”

I think we are in the age of “church extenze.”

Marketing people are super smart. They know the fastest way to get my money is to strike at my deepest insecurities. I will do most almost anything to drive away the resident thought that I am less than I should be, and, except for my waist size, I cannot think of anything that makes me feel better when it’s smaller.

While bigger might make me feel better, is it really better? I have asked this question of church professionals many times: What is better for the gospel — 100 churches of 100 people or one church of 10,000 people? (These are just some general numbers, I don’t really empirically know that 100 is an “ideal” number.) So far, the response has been unanimous — 100 churches of 100 is better.

Makes sense, right? Less people would equal more involvement, more opportunity to be noticed, more chances for members to tell their story and be known.

I can recall standing on the stage in a room filled with thousands, saying, “Real-life change happens in small groups. You need to join a small group.” I was thinking even as I was saying it, Then (a) Why are we doing this big-event production if we want them to do that? and (b) Why are we budgeting millions to pay for this building and staff and great video for something that is better done for almost free?

Ok, here is what I think happens. A very well-intentioned charismatic white guy who is athletic decides to start a church in a middle-class white neighborhood. He shaves his head and recruits his friend who is a semi-pro musician with tattoos and they are off and running. At the start, they believe that relationships are what matter. They promise you can come and be known and loved. But word gets out that these guys have amazing ability and it begins to grow. As the church grows larger, the smaller churches around it, run by average, humble people, begin to close shop. That’s right, the smaller churches that are small enough so that everyone can be known go belly up. Once the new church buys its first spotlight and mega screen it is all over. The allure of feeling the bass drum and the incredible inspirational tingle is too much. A mass exodus from neighboring churches occurs almost overnight and a megachurch is born. The vortex of awesomeness sucks in all of the people who used to belong to smaller churches.

Then, a bit later on, the megachurch starts a “small-group emphasis,” so that you can be known and loved. Crazy.

Here is a thought: when you reach 300, start a new church. You will not need to borrow millions, you will not need to worry about how to “plug folks in,” and you avoid raiding the congregations around you.

Imagine, if we could be happy with small. I think Jesus would thank us, even if spammers wouldn’t.

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19 Responses to How to Grow Your Church By 3 Inches

  1. Karl: It’s been many years since we connected but it seems God has had us on parallel paths. Great blog!

    I fell off the mega-church wagon, bruised and broken a few years back. Maybe ready to drop out of ministry. We started the church I am now co-pastoring with the vision of being relational–no matter what–among other things, and starting other similar churches at around 250, if God gets us there. We have already spun off two planters, one in Arvada and one in Argenta, AR.

    Let’s get together. I’d love to hear how God got you to this place.

    P.S. I returned from the doctor yesterday having discovered over the years I have gone from 5’9″ to 5’7.5″ tall. I am not as enthused by that as by my love for pastoring a relational church.

    • karlw says:

      Yes! for sure, that would be so fun- i am pretty flexible and i we are always looking for companions for the way.
      i say kathy e. could run an e-harmony for churches, trying to lonely folks together. our number is legion.
      my email is karlwheeler@therefugeonline.org, lets get something on the calendar soon.
      peace

  2. Excellent. I completely agree! 1 year ago, I started a job with a church-marketing company. I talked to pastors ALL DAY LONG. My job was to tell them how to help their church grow. But all I wanted to do was listen to their stories of how God called them to ministry and what He had been doing around them since them. The happiest pastors I talked to were leading small faith communities. They didn’t buy my “schpiel” because they were committed to serving the people that God intersected them with, not growing the size of their church through a cool website, social marketing, or direct mail. It makes me think of the farmer, the seed, and the soil. Is the soil much, much more rich in a small community? I think yes.

    • karlw says:

      i remember when you told me about the job, i did not say anything but i wondered if that was a good fit.
      I have rarely found a person who experienced deep healing while sitting alone in a dark room listening to sermons. and as you know, i am a person who loves to preach! oy!

  3. Laura Sealey says:

    Karl, I am finding your posts interesting. I am a member of one of “those” churches…yes the mega church. Before you throw me under the bus, I do believe it was by Gods design my family was drawn to this church. My husband was very bitter at his small church, that was often filled with the politics of who the pastor and deacons liked best. He had vowed, while he still loved God and believed in him, he would not go back to church or if he did he would never get involved, because it hurt too much. God had a different plan. We began going to our church, and we were just one in a sea of many. For him, that brought comfort. He could go and worship, pray and grow in his walk, almost undetected. I on the other hand, have always been someone who has not shied away from conversations on faith or doctrine or what was on sale at the grocery store that week. I was eager to get involved in the whole small group experience. Eventually, after about a year, we did join a small group, it was great. Over time, my hubs became more comfortable with the church, and the folks in it. He found a new level of acceptance, he became more confident because the folks in our church really lived the love they were preaching. He has grown immensely in his faith, he has also become a leader in the church. He is serving and loving every minute of it. Does being in such a huge place have it’s downsides? Oh yes it does, I will be the first to admit it. But so does being in a small place at times too, sometimes it’s an “us four and no more” environment. Cliques exist in churches as well. My long winded point in all of this is, the heart of the church is important and the heart of those people in it. God looks on the hearts of His people and doesn’t demand perfection, but love and a willingness go where He is leading. My son, who doesn’t claim to be a believer, comes on Sundays to sit in the coffee shop, yes we have one of those too, with the other folks who don’t feel comfortable in the sanctuary. At first I thought he was just enjoying the coffee and paying more attention to his laptop, yes we also have wi-fi, then he was to the sermons, until he started asking questions or telling me he was actually excited to go the following week to hear the rest of the sermon on a particular topic. Sometimes big is good, there is a time and place to get intimate, and we offer that too. We many groups that minister people with sexual addictions, drug and alcohol issues, we go out into the community when we have had disasters from tornado’s and hurricanes. Our small groups go into our community to homeless shelters, womens shelters, peoples homes or basically anyone who needs us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Our size may be an issue for some, and as I said, we do have issues from being so large, but we love our community. We send folks around the world on mission trips, we collect food, water, clothing, food, school supplies, whatever is needed, for folks who are in need. I am sorry that there are folks out there who don’t like the mega churches, but I would hope those of us who attend, wouldn’t be judged because someone doesn’t like big churches. I love all my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I love those who haven’t met Him yet even more. Keep writing Karl, dialogue is always good.

    • karlw says:

      thank you so much, you are so right. God is certainly not limited to how i think He should do things! I know as a i write, that an exception always exist, and for that i am actually grateful. i don’t hate the mega-church, what i hate is that what we call church can more easily resembles the values of G.E. in the corporate culture of church.

      in simplest terms i would say when you describe your small group you describe church.

      please, help me keep me learning. i want to create unity and safety. in my life i have found i am usually right about 6% of the time. this will be no different.

  4. As I read this, I thought, “This is just what happens when Walmart comes to town.” The small mom and pop businesses close shop. Small businesses have a small payroll and often form a “famly” of employees. People in the community know the owners and employees, and visa versa. The small business also makes a product or provides a service with a sense of pride and quality. Much of this is lost with the Walmart model. The family atmosphere and quality products are sacrificed. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

  5. karlw says:

    that is so crazy, i have in my “blogs to come file” the “costco church”- the analogies are similar to anything healthy, we tend to go with what makes us feel better faster. thanks for the input!

  6. kathyescobar says:

    karl, i am so glad you are blogging. seriously. so good. being more honest about just how much we have equated big with success & value is really required for change to happen. egos & charisma & power & all kinds of nutty things really have become woven into the fabric of “church” in a way that makes me so sad. i know so many pastors of little amazing communities feel like losers all the time when the sticks that get used to measure success are worldly measures. think of the question that comes up almost all of the time when people ask about the refuge–“so how big is the refuge?” i can think of 100 more important questions than that about christian community but that’s usually the first one out of the chute in many circles. that’s jacked up!

    • karlw says:

      well dear friend, you have paved the way for me! i love that line, “100 more important questions”
      brilliant! i have watched you so humbly do what is important, and not what is popular. it is high honor to do this with you. blessings

  7. ricbmw says:

    Karl,
    I had this exact experience recently with a former pastor of a local small plant. Where, for years, the pastor attempted to do exactly what you have wrote about…trying to make “church” something more about themselves then about contemplating and serving alongside the others that God called together. It’s just impossible to get through to this type of leader since if you disagree with them you become one of the very people God called us to reach, an alien. I also think there is a big confusion in the identity of the type of pastor you’re talking about, “one who actually confuses loving being around people with actually loving people”. The former is the type of empty leader you spoke of, like an empty man who uses extenze to fill that emptiness. I’m just tired of church leaders who misuse power, either at a big mega church or in the small church plant. It’s the heart that needs transformation not our masks that need manipulation. First time listener…Cheers!
    -ricb

    • karlw says:

      i am haunted by your statement of confusing “love being around people with actually loving people”. profound! i admit that has been me for so much of my life. here is my thought: you can be big and live out the values of Jesus, but you cannot WANT to be big and live out the values of Jesus. thanks so much for your input, there are many of us who have these pains.

      • ricbmw says:

        Right on Karl… I can own that I have wanted lots of things in life but then did nothing to move after them. And I have been given grace through missing the mark from at least some of those times. I just get mad with Christians who pretend to be “big and live out the values of Jesus” when in reality they are just living an empty fearful life and blaming others for not following the way they think they should. I have committed my life to live, as much as possible, not out of just intention. Life lived is about graciously walking the talk, not contemptuously talking the talk. Life active not just thinking about being active…life in dialogue not in silence. That’s why I strongly believe that the only way to truly deny God is to be silent and the redemptive way to give Him glory is to obey Him through our freedom in Christ. In some, my love toward them may sound like a gonging artificial noise but that noise may be beautifully sweet in God’s ears. And the interplay of these perceptual noises are what makes the body so wonderfully beautiful.

      • karlw says:

        to deny God is to be silent- that is strong. i have often said “you can be big and live out the values of Jesus, but you cannot WANT to big and live out the ways of Jesus”

  8. Karl, thanks for the safe place to dare to speak our hearts, and minds. For not shutting down voices that are different than yours. For actually encouraging a variety of POVs on any given topic. I have a hard time reading anything that boils down to Them v Us, and I’m grateful that in the not too distant future it will be a resounding We, and that God has given us this day to practice being the We He intended. I think you know that my story involves connecting with God’s heart in the big church and the small, in the traditional and the progressive. I was surprised when I visited my mother-in-law’s Lutheran church that she (and her fellow parisheners) were able to find Him even there. In visiting many churches I’ve found a lot that aren’t a good fit for me and a few that have been, and I thank God for them all, because despite the human messiness that mares them all, He can use a remnant in each to reach those that He came and died for, the very same self-loathing, marginalized that everyone who share’s His heart longs to reach as well.

    In this life, in these times, the church has started to resemble Congress, with an ever widening aisle. I don’t want to chose a side. I don’t like that there are sides. There won’t be in eternity. If our focus is on Jesus and loving far beyond whatever walls we call our “faith community” we won’t have time to either focus on the splitters in our brother’s eye or worry about defending our own. We’ve all got them. We all fall short of the mark. No perfect Christian, no perfect church.

    I’d love to see “We” attempt for a time to stay away from using the word church as if it tasted bad, and plug in “Bride of Christ” in its place. If we place our faith in Him, that’s what we are. So then, the church is no longer something outside ourselves, but it is ourselves. When we talk about it, we’re talking about ourselves. I want to be shaped and molded by His Holy Spirit, changed from the inside out by His word, and compelled to love the masses (one at a a time) by His love for me, through His death on a cross, as He saw me in His mind’s eye, and asked the Creator of this whole beautifugly world, to forgive me.

    Polyanna? Rodney King? Maybe. But I’m reaching my hands out to both sides of the aisle and looking forward to entering in as part of One Body, One Church, with all y’all!
    Much love!! ~Deb

    • karlw says:

      so great to hear from you, and thanks for your reminder. no doubt, it is brothers and sister who i love and who are my family that i am in “conflict” with. i tend to overstate, i admit, but there are so relatively few voices that are presenting a different way. in my opinion, a better way.
      these may seem a bit much, but
      ! corinthians 5 “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.”
      lets keep the dialogue going!

  9. Anonymous says:

    *chirp chirp

    OK I feel like Buzz McKillian for shutting down this string. I’ve re-read to see just how hall-monitorish I may have come across, or if I was hurtful in my quest for the big fat kumbaya. I’d feel really bad if I knew that my “sugar” was more like salt on your owies.

    More than anything Karl, I respect your vulnerability in sharing the many stepping stones you’ve traversed along your way, so I sure don’t want to be throwing any!

    I love you brother so I’ll keep my peace-love-dove to a minimum and continue to listen, and learn from you.

    xo~Deb

    ps – Rest in peace Rodney King

  10. Debbie Massey says:

    *chirp chirp

    OK I feel like Buzz McKillian for shutting down this string. I’ve re-read to see just how hall-monitorish I may have come across, or if I was hurtful in my quest for the big fat kumbaya. I’d feel really bad if I knew that my “sugar” was more like salt on your owies.

    More than anything Karl, I respect your vulnerability in sharing the many stepping stones you’ve traversed along your way, so I sure don’t want to be throwing any!

    I love you brother so I’ll keep my peace-love-dove to a minimum and continue to listen, and learn from you.

    xo~Deb

    ps – Rest in peace Rodney King

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