My friend Derek and I have both served large churches, and we’re constantly looking for the perfect number—the exact size at which a church gets too big and loses its character as a Christian community. We want to know when a church simply becomes a mass of strangers. Is there a time, for example, when it has to “double down” and start a second congregation? And when will we know? Although the specific integer fascinates us, a related question of greater importance has emerged: How can big churches maintain intimacy and nurture healthy relationships among their members?
Life in a variety of congregations has certainly taught me both the benefits and liabilities of large congregations—and by “large” I mean having an average of between 500 and 2,000 people in worship on Sundays. My first experience came as a college student in a church with three Sunday worship services attended by a total of about 1,200 people. Currently, I serve as associate pastor of Bidwell Presbyterian in Chico, California, which sees about 700 on an average Sunday in its sanctuary. In between these chapters of church life, I participated in a church with 60 members in worship on Sundays. A few years later, I served as associate pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, which averaged around 1,200 during my six years there. In my two decades in churches, about 90 percent of my time has been spent in large congregations.
A moment ago, I conceded that big churches often lack intimacy, and I expect many of you nodded your heads, thinking, “This is precisely the problem of a large church—it’s not a real Christian community. Look, Jesus had only 12 disciples. A large congregation becomes just one gigantic exercise in herding sheep and producing mounds of policies and procedures.”
You’re right, it can and often does. A large church can also be a hotbed for pride (“Look how big we are. Look how dynamic we are. Look at how God is moving. Look at us!”). With its jungles of forms and intricate tangle of committees, it can also become a bureaucratic offense to the way of Jesus. And despite the inherent pride of many larger churches, they certainly have no lock on producing the best Christian leaders. Presbyterian churches of about 100 members have produced two of the most dynamic voices in our country, authors Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris.
In light of these contentions, I need to build a case for large churches. Here are four basic reasons:
- They provide resources sufficient for quality programming. For instance, a 50-member choir led by a full-time choir director sounds better than a six-member one staffed by a part-time high school band teacher.
- Their facilities and numbers offer more effective outreach—an important benefit if we want to proclaim the Gospel to people who aren’t yet inside our doors. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian is an example of this. It accounted for 10 percent of the New York City presbytery in terms of members and 25 percent of the growth. The percentages are similar for Bidwell Presbyterian and the Sacramento Presbytery. (Part of large churches’ success at outreach stems from the current desire for anonymity in checking out a church. I’ve heard one too many stories about young people walking into small congregations and having every head turn.)
- Larger congregations achieve efficiency of resources. This is that old Economics 101 “economy of scale” idea. In more biblically grounded terms, we’re talking about stewardship of resources. In other words, one pastor caring for 30 people is not nearly as efficient as one caring for 200. Also, it simply requires an ample number of congregants to afford a church building, the accompanying utility bills, and a pastor’s salary.
- Larger churches offer an assembly of smaller “congregations” in the same stage of life. In other words, there emerges a critical mass in discrete demographics. For example, youth groups consisting of three people simply do not attract participation as well as those with 30 members do. Larger churches therefore offer their members greater opportunities for connecting with others in the same stage of life. And, because of their ability to offer a variety of programming, they tend to attract members of all ages and a variety of other demographics.
So, large congregations are not Satan in ecclesis. But do they fulfill Christ’s call to true koinonia, or Christian fellowship? Here I lean on Jesus’ words in John 13:34 as the final criterion: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Christ’s ultimate work of love is self-sacrifice. But too often we slip into “Fine, how are you’s” during coffee hour as the sole (soul?) form of “fellowship.” Or perhaps—especially for Presbyterians—“community” equals coming together at a committee meeting. But true koinonia is where we ask one another, “How are you?” and truly listen to the answer! If that’s not true, we are not realizing God’s gift of community.
Having offered the advantages for large churches and Christ’s goal for Christian community, it’s time to tackle the big nemesis of large congregations: finding that church members are simply strangers lost in a crowd—with the result that new members come in one door and, in a short time, leave through another. As daunting as this problem may seem, it is entirely surmountable. Below I outline six strategies for creating koinonia.
Small Group Communities
I once engaged George Gallup as a speaker at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. He’s a wonderful Christian. Not only did he challenge our congregation with a call to spiritual nurture, but he also spoke of how critical small groups are for developing Christian community.
A large church must find ways to grow smaller as it grows larger. The concept of building intentional gatherings of three to 12 people who meet regularly for prayer, fellowship, and study is textbook wisdom. Go to your local Christian bookstore and you’ll find abundant material on the subject, but one of my denomination’s own, Roberta Hestenes, realized a couple of decades ago that Presbyterians have a ready-made answer to small group community. They can turn “committees into communities.” In other words, why not see the weekly or monthly gathering of Session, Worship Committee, and even staff as a covenanting small group? Why not take these meetings and set aside time in them to nurture one another’s spiritual lives? By doing this herself, Hestenes discovered that when people are nurtured in fellowship, there isn’t as much pointless babble in the meetings, and the business gets handled more efficiently. At Bidwell Presbyterian, our head of staff, Steve Schibsted, believes this community model starts with senior staff—that if the value of intimate Christian koinonia is a priority at Bidwell, it must start with us. As a result, our senior staff has sought to model this by making sure we include in the weekly agenda time for sharing our lives and for prayer together.
Creative Adult Education
Related to the call for intentional small groups, but often forgotten, is the importance of excellent adult education. If you’re going to get to know your congregation as a pastor, you’ll have to expand beyond greeting members at coffee hour or at the door after the worship service, and making appointments to meet with individuals in your office. Here’s where adult education classes help. I regularly teach at least one class a week in five-week increments. (I describe this model more fully in “Renewing Minds” in the winter 2004 issue of Congregations.) Why the five-week blocks? Fir
st of all, it’s a length of time to which people can commit easily without failing. More importantly for the topic at hand, I’m able in this way to “shuffle the deck” and encounter a variety of members from my congregation throughout the year—at the same time providing opportunities for them to meet one another.
Volunteering and Fellowship
The worst sentence a pastor can hear is, “I’m not needed in this church.” Large congregations with sizable staffs of professionals may offer the illusion of taking care of everything without needing the help of church members. Let’s take this to the extreme: Megachurches like Willow Creek near Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, California continue to attract and retain members because they know the importance of volunteer recruitment. Harvard Business Review has even studied Willow Creek’s methods, and Saddleback has included a means for new members to discover their “ministries,” one of the four “bases” of their assimilation process. At Bidwell, we have constructed a “Gifts and Call” class designed to follow our “New Members” class. It guides our new Bidwellians to discover their gifts and then to see where they can connect with the church.
You Can’t Know Them All
It’s important to realize that, in a church where 500 to 2,000 people come to worship every Sunday, you will not know all of their names. This is primarily a call to psychological health. In other words, “It’s okay, you’re only human.” The recognition of this human limitation is necessary and sometimes painful, such as when a church shifts from being a small congregation to a large one. There used to be a time when the entire congregation of Bidwell Presbyterian Church could gather in our sanctuary. There used to be a time when the senior pastor knew everyone’s name. This day has passed. It needs to be both mourned (because it is definitely a loss) and celebrated. There will always be those who can’t stand me—my personality, the way I preach, my nose ring (actually I don’t have one, but if I did, it might be a problem). The up side of a multiple staff is that these members can connect with another pastor.
The Role of a Multiple Staff
A multiple staff is not just multiple people doing the same thing as a solo pastor. In larger congregations, all the pastors can’t attend any one event. That doesn’t increase your effectiveness at all. According to my reckoning, four pastors engaging in the same event that only one pastor previously attended actually decreases the effective use of your resources by 300 percent. Let’s be honest, congregants like it when all their pastors are at their committee meetings or raffles. But we’ve had to learn to utter sentences such as, “I’m sorry, but all five ministers can’t attend the Presbyterian Women’s Christmas Tea, but Jim will be there.” And, thus, other ministers are freed to take the church’s youth on a retreat, prepare a sermon, or even take a day of Sabbath. In addition, the participation of multiple pastors can move closer to that much-desired pastoral attribute of omnipresence, or at least multi-presence. In other words, there can be pastors in multiple places at the same time.
Keep in Prayer
I’ve heard the story of a pastor visiting a woman from his congregation at an assisted-living facility. He had been told that this woman was suffering from dementia and might not even remember his name. As soon as he arrived at the bedside—and before he even spoke—she exclaimed, “Jeff, it’s so good to see you. I’ve been praying for you.” The pastor knew what kept her mind sharp and her heart active. It was prayer. Prayer life increases care life. Indeed, it increases our ability to connect with our congregations. It even physically sharpens the brain. Studies in the hot field of “neuroplasticity” have verified that using the brain actually strengthens it, just as physical exercise tones muscles.
So, pastors, keep praying! The Apostle Paul is our model here. Check out 1 Thessalonians. It begins, “We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers…” (1.2). In every letter (except Galatians, where he’s so angry he forgets to do it), Paul prays for the communities he loves and to whom he’s writing. It keeps his relationships alive even at a distance. And that practice helps me, too. Physically, I cannot be with most of the members of Bidwell most of the time. In addition, I often feel as if I suffer from declining memory as I look at the sea of faces during the worship service and recall seemingly few names. But I’ve made it my practice to pull out the pictorial directory and pray through a page or two. Or, when I meet a new college student at our church dinner following the Sunday evening service, I jot down his name and intercede the next day. Gradually, I’ve come to know the names of many of the people in my care and, more importantly, I’ve deepened my ministry.
So, in conclusion, Derek and I will stay committed to the viability of pastoral ministry in large congregations—with both its benefits and challenges—while, of course, we keep discussing that optimal number. There is one final element I haven’t yet mentioned: Though I’ve written this article with professional church staff in mind, the experience of pastoring a larger congregation has taught me that not all community is pastor-centered. In large churches, ministry does not equal the minister. This, indeed, may be the most important lesson of all.
Six Paths to Creating Community in Large Churches