While the outcome isn’t always so bleak, churches across our nation also struggle to thrive in the shadow of their own “Wal-Mart“—the burgeoning regional mega churches that have reshaped our national church landscape. In terms of scale alone, the prospect of cohabitation with these “giants“ is intimidating. Many of these institutes have also become veritable “malls“ of spiritual services, offering hundreds of programs, along with retail stores, restaurants, educational choices and even entertainment options to the thousands of faithful and curious who fill their campuses each week.
This scenario has left many smaller churches wrestling with their role in the community and, ultimately, even with their future. What are the keys to surviving, even thriving, in the shadow of a mega church?
MEET NEEDS. BE NEEDED.
The ministry and impact of mega churches are undeniable, channeling unprecedented resources and ministry to reach people for Christ throughout large populations. However, they are not the only types of churches being used by God in the United States today.
According to Scott George, senior pastor of the 300-member Destiny Church in Orlando, Fla., the key to successfully living in the shadow of a mega church is focusing on your community’s needs. The 8-year-old church flanked by some of the city’s largest churches—including Calvary Assembly (3,000 worshippers), Northland A Church Distributed (7,000 worshippers) and First Baptist Orlando (10,000 worshippers)—discovered a great need and its place in the community soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Only 10 days after opening the 6,000-square-foot food bank on Sept. 1, Destiny was faced with hundreds of needy people. The job market in the nation’s vacation destination city was hit hard and fast as the nation moved into bunker mentality and cancelled travel plans.
“We got bombarded with literally hundreds and hundreds of people,“ George recalled. “We had to move out of our original warehouse.“
Demand continued to escalate. Today, the Destiny Community Assistance Center staffs 22 employees and has more than tripled in size, utilizing the initial 6,000-square-foot building, as well as an additional 22,000-square-foot warehouse. A daughter congregation, Destiny Community Church, was launched last October at the same location.
“That is the outreach arm of our church,“ George said. “We’re seeing a ton of people getting saved, ministered to and counseled. Nobody else is doing it in the city.“ Eighteen months into the project, Destiny is already the second-largest food bank in Central Florida.
“We’re proof that a small church can fill a substantial void,“ George said.
NOT SMALL: AVERAGE
The exciting aspect of a smaller church such as Destiny wielding such a powerful impact is that across the world, congregations of its size are the norm. Multi-staff pastors, each with their own areas of specialty, are the exception. The most likely scenario is one man or woman seeking to care for the entire flock. Multi-million dollar budgets providing pastors with comfortable salaries, benefits and pension plans are the dream. For most pastors, minimum salary and the ongoing search for supplemental income are reality.
According to Barna Research Group, the average congregation had a weekly attendance of 90 last year. Moreover, research by a recent Congregational Life Survey indicates a growing social gap between the many small sanctuaries and the larger ones. Large churches represent just 10 percent of all the 300,000 churches in the United States, but they draw half of all worshippers. Just as in retail and other industries, most people seem naturally drawn toward the full-service programming and regional impact a mega church can offer.
These observations are not lost on the leaders of smaller congregations.And while they may attend conferences led by nationally known pastors, the attitudes of many of these clergy are focused on making a measurable impact with the valuable resources entrusted to their churches.
Most pastors of smaller churches agree: Identifying your uniqueness to set you apart from nearby mega churches is integral to making an impact in the lives of your members and the unchurched community surrounding you.
“You need to know what you want to do,“ said Jerry Smith, pastor of the 150-member Christ Fellowship in Franklin, Tenn. Christ Fellowship sits in the shadow of Christ Community Church, home to many of contemporary Christian music’s biggest names.
According to Smith, “Instead of always looking over the fence saying, ‘How come we don’t … ?’ you need to decide how you’re going to reach people for the Lord, based on the resources He has entrusted to you and the community He has called your church to reach.“
When Christ Fellowship moved into its own building in 1998 in the middle of a Hispanic community, the church’s 120 members at the time decided to focus their outreach efforts on the neighborhood. Over the last five years, the church has implemented an after-school tutoring program for kids in a nearby grade school, annually hosts a summer carnival and offers five-day summer camps where church members, including the youth group, present the relevancy of Christ to kids.
“It’s an excellent way to reach out to kids and provide some good academic assistance,“ Smith said. “It’s our local mission facet.“
One hundred-member Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., honed in on its identity early in the game. With six 2,000-member churches less than a mile away, the small group of people that founded Sardis had to ask, “ ‘Why should we even exist?’ “ said Pastor Tim Moore.
“They decided that there needed to be a place for a small community of faith,“ Moore said. Sardis ministers mostly to young professionals who have felt disillusioned by the Church for whatever reason, Moore said.
“We’re intentionally small and plan to stay that way,“ Moore said, adding that he has come to value the intimacy and flexibility of smaller, “entrepreneurial“ congregations. “If it ever gets too big, beyond 300 members, we would likely plant another church.“
For pastors of smaller churches, the phrase “think big“ takes on new meaning as these pastors said they strive to “think big—as in God—rather than thinking small, as in mere numbers.“
Pastors of smaller churches and students of the dynamics of congregational life note that while there’s not a seemingly endless well of personnel and monetary resources, being a smaller appendage within the larger body of Christ does afford the potential for distinct advantages.
• Being small can cultivate community more rapidly. “Because in a small church, there are fewer people to get to know, smaller churches can often be more aware of visitors and involve them more quickly,“ explained Carol Childress, an information consultant at Leadership Network, a Dallas-based foundation that works to identify, network and provide resources for leaders of innovative churches. “It’s much easier to get lost in a large church.“
Childress noted that developing community, regardless of a church’s size, is more about its DNA or “internal culture.“ “At its core, a church and its leadership has to be intentional about making disciples,“ she said.
While mega churches usually have strong networks of small groups that enable individuals to interact with a good dozen other folks on a consistent and deep basis, those same group members stare across what can feel like acres of worshippers on Saturdays or Sundays.
• Being small can nurture pastor connection. One particular asset of the smaller church in seeking to build such community is offering quick access to the pastor, the spiritual leader who plays a key role in the lives of his or her congregants.
For Deonne Beron, 28 and single, getting to know her pastor Jerry Smith and his wife Diane on a personal level drew her to stay at the small Christ Fellowship in Franklin, Tenn.
“Diane was the first one to greet me when I wound up attending the community group she and Jerry led,“ Beron recalled. “I never imagined that any other relationship could come close to the feeling of actual family. They have me over to their house for dinner, and they’re the ones I call after my parents when something is happening in my life that needs extra prayer. I just can’t imagine finding that in a larger church.“
• Being small can make it easier to plug into ministry. Involvement through volunteer ministry is one of the primary reasons people stay connected to a church. Smaller churches rely on a larger percentage of the congregation to get things done, especially if the staff consists of just one or two pastors and only a handful—if that many—of paid church staff.
People often are looking for a church where they can play “a larger part and make a difference,“ said Pastor Ann Spurgeon of Willow Creek neighbor Barrington Salem United Methodist Church. The church involves all of its members in open houses it hosts three times a year, each one preceded by a strong campaign whereby congregants invite their friends to visit the church.
THE COMPARISON FACTOR
In a perfect world, comparing your church and its activities, growth and community profile to the mega church nearby wouldn’t be a factor. But reality is that comparison is often one of the most challenging aspects about living in the shadow of the giants.
Jeb Airey, whose 60-member, 5-year-old Freedom Assembly of God congregation in Arlington, Texas, sits approximately 10 miles from T.D. Jakes’ The Potter’s House and new plants by evangelists Benny Hinn and Steve Hill, has felt the pressure to make the comparisons. “It’s definitely frustrating,“ Airey said. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s not hard living in their shadow. But you have to just say, ‘They’re there for a reason, and we’re here for a reason.’ “
However, churches, large or small, don’t need to compete for members, notes Chris Howlett, pastor of Lexington, Ky.’s 280-member Christ United Methodist Church located just up the road from the sprawling 6,500-member Southland Christian Church. “Thereare enough lost people for all of us to grow,“ he said. “I hope Southland continues to grow. I hope they baptize 1,000 people down there.“
In fact, many smaller churches find it helpful to have the resources of a mega church close at hand for counseling referrals, specific support ministries, Christian schools or other targeted ministry needs. “Our community ministry is a partnership,“ said Jerry Smith, pastor of Christ Fellowship in Franklin, Tenn.
Whether or not a church runs 100 members in a 1,200-square-foot space or 20,000 regulars on a three-block campus, its potential to equip and enrich the lives of its members, and offer life-giving words, tools and relationships to a world in need of a Savior remains ever-present. Perhaps the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer said it best: “As there are no little people, in God’s sight, there are no little places.“
Pastors and denominational leaders agree that there is no way to measure the global impact of a ministry regardless of its size. “One man or woman can make a huge difference for the kingdom,“ said Tim Moore, pastor of the 100-member Sardis Baptist Church. “And that person may just as easily be sitting in a small church as in a mega church today.“ Billy Graham, arguably the most influential Christian leader of our day, came to know Christ in a church of only 200.
“As church leaders, we need to decide what our ministries are about,“ continued Moore. “Are they about faithfully leading and discipling the people God has brought to our door, or is it just about having a big, high-profile church?
SMALLER CHURCH, BIG DIFFERENCE
Pastors of smaller congregations identify five specific avenues of growth for churches that sense the unlimited potential of a congregation seeking after God’s heart.
- Recognize a need that can be met more effectively by your church than by any other congregation, large or small.
- Consistently tap into the leadership potential of those whom God has already brought within the walls of your church.
- Emphasize hospitality to every visitor, going the extra mile to help him or her feel welcome.
- Frequently organize outreach events and activities that engage unchurched members in your community in ways that share God’s love in practical and helpful ways.
- Seek God’s heart for His emerging vision for the congregation and the surrounding community.
Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.