Friday, July 09, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Rightsizing the Church

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

On his blog, Karl Vaters considers new strategies for church planting and concludes the body of Christ might well function as effectively or even more effectively with 50 smaller churches than a single megachurch.

Tom: Interesting post, IC. He says a lot of things I agree with that not too many other evangelical pastors are saying, and also makes a few statements I find a little naïve or maybe misinformed. First off, it sounds as if he believes megachurches are planted like regular churches, and grow more or less naturally to their colossal size.

How Megachurches Grow

The case has been made — and I think it’s true — that megachurches are primarily a consequence of urbanization and the family car. Christians have choices today that they didn’t have 100 years ago. So these megachurches are often made up of believers from other, less healthy congregations looking for something better organized, more vibrant and more successful than their current church experience, rather than something that started organically around a bunch of people who got saved in a home Bible study. Of course megachurches produce new converts too, but primarily they grow by poaching people who are already saved from smaller churches in their regions, if I can put it that way.

What do you think about all that?

Immanuel Can: Well, I don’t think the “poaching”, as you call it, is necessarily deliberate. But when one creates a destination point or hub with a big plant, more people, and lots of programs and entertainments, it becomes easier to go there. It’s like the mall: all the “stores” and “services” in one place. You get “professional” service, and you get to go, sit and listen, participate or serve only if you wish, and leave without anyone requiring your commitment, or perhaps even knowing you were there. In a consumerist society, people are bound to be attracted to that offer.

Tom: Oh, I quite agree. But my point is mainly that with new megachurches, the potential size they can grow to is very much a function of the number of weaker existing churches within driving distance, plus a few new converts. So in a well-populated urban setting they can get very large very fast. Organic works that start through small Bible studies in houses or schools often initially lack numbers, leadership, formal organization and/or an attractive venue. They cannot be expected to grow in the same way or be judged by the same metrics. Still, they have some features that may be more enduring than those of the megachurches.

Hybrid Theory

IC: A great many of the megachurches are working on a sort of hybrid approach: big congregations on Sunday morning, but also satellite groups (or “life groups”, or “home groups”) that meet at other times during the week. A difficulty I’ve observed with this, though, is that on the average, they would have to consider themselves unusually successful if they were able to get 60% of their Sunday congregants to sign up and attend these.

Tom: Right. So for now let’s just say that when we’re talking about the differences between smaller gatherings and mega-gatherings, these differences are not merely differences of scope or quantity, they are quality differences as well. The two types of churches grow differently, they utilize people differently, they attract different sorts of people in the first place, and so on.

Now, in this article, Karl Vaters highlights a number of positives related to smaller groups. I wondered what you thought of his insights, good and bad.

Parsing the Subtext

IC: What’s most interesting to me is not just his arguments, but the subtext. I don’t know if you noticed this, Tom, but his reasons have mostly to do with the advantages for clergy and clerical activities. #2, 4, 5, 7 and 11 are explicitly about “pastors”: but the others also mostly deal with issues which, in megachurches, are usually handled but either the senior or administrative clergymen — resources, leadership, responsibility for failure and “success”, and church planting among them.

Tom: Okay, I’ll bite. What do you take from that?

IC: Well, two things I get from this: firstly, that if Mr. Vaters’ angle is common, then people in megachurches are expecting strong, charismatic individuals (“pastors”) to manage their spiritual lives for them, rather than thinking of failure and success as whole-congregational issues; but then also, in several important ways, the “pastor” system is failing them — for example, Vaters believes people are not being adequately cared for (#7), churches aren’t spreading out (#1), and the gospel isn’t getting out as well as it should (#8, #10); leaders are overburdened (#3) and yet are not getting enough chance to use their gifts (#2), so they are quitting (#4) or not even wanting to be “pastors” (#11), and megachurches are in special danger of “fatal” failure (#9) …

Tom: That’s a truckload of problems he’s identifying there.

IC: If half of this is a real concern, then the “pastor” idea isn’t really working, and the megachurches are really struggling, drifting perilously, gassing out or going down. But that’s quite surprising, isn’t it? After all, aren’t the megachurches all about being big and “successful” relative to smaller groups?

Pointing Out Systemic Failure

Tom: To be fair to Mr. Vaters, I don’t think he can be unaware of this systemic failure you’re identifying. After all, he’s the one pointing out all the real-world problems with huge churches here, though being part of the current system himself, he’s not quite ready to give up on the idea of what he calls “seminary-trained theological giants”. But I like the way he neatly puts his finger on the bureaucratic skill set required by the megachurch pastor:

“Most pastors don’t go into ministry because they feel called to manage resources, raise funds, build facilities, or utilize most of the skills needed for big churches.”

This is what he believes is required of the megachurch pastor. Contrast that with his job description of a smaller-church pastor, who, due to the size of his congregation, is probably — again in his words — “bi-vocational”:

“Most pastors are called to preach the Word and care for people.”

I’m not sure that’s an exhaustive portrait of the shepherd, but let’s say it covers the basics. Which of the two descriptions seems more biblical to you? Which seems likelier to produce healthy churches? I suspect not the bureaucrat.

IC: And yet the religious bureaucrat — usually formally titled as “administrative pastor” — has become indispensable to the running of megachurches. The job description is pseudo-spiritual, but the real needs are for a mass-manager for all the worldly comings and goings, the programs, the plant, the resources and wads of money involved. The usual explanation for his existence is, “Well, takes the practical stuff off the real pastor’s table, and he does some pastoral work too …”

Tom: This is very true. In smaller churches a full-time guy for that is not necessary at all, and it saves the embarrassment of inventing an extra-biblical title that’s only necessary because you’ve complicated your mission by choosing to run a giant corporate entity.

Bi-Vocational Shepherds

Which brings me back to this “bi-vocational” thing Vaters mentions. Now, I know he sees “bi-vocational” shepherds working “alongside” the “seminary-trained theological giants” within churches rather than replacing them (whereas I’m advocating for a full transplant), and I know he doesn’t anywhere in the article back off his initial assertion that “big churches are great” despite the fact that he’s implicitly picking them to shreds, as you pointed out. But those caveats aside, I’m shocked to find a career ‘pastor’ declaring that it might be better for the body of Christ as a whole, and certainly better for individual churches, if there were more unpaid shepherds in the churches. That’s a bit of a concession, I’d say.

IC: Oh, indeed. And I wonder how the pastors of today understand the biblical term “hireling”. Last time I looked, it meant someone who is “hired” to do a job (Gk. μισθωτός, meaning “one who works for wages”), instead of doing it out of love. And the understanding Christ gave us is that such persons are not to be trusted or expected to have particular loyalty to the flock.

Now, many will say, “IC, don’t be judgmental: maybe those hired people are genuinely working out of pure motives.” Okay, maybe. But why argue? Let’s see. Tell the pastor in question that you are stopping his salary for six months so he can learn what depending on the Lord means. A true shepherd will say, “I have the Lord’s work to do, and this is the Lord’s flock. I’ll do it anyway.” But if they fuss, pull rank or leave, well, we don’t need to argue about what their real motives are anymore, do we?

Meet the New Boss

Tom: I’d love to see that. And I think we will soon see more unpaid shepherds, though not because a whole bunch of us are about to get serious about ensuring those in charge of evangelical churches are truly caring for the sheep.

IC: Well, maybe more might … if the office was not being filled already. Once you’ve ponied up some of your hard-earned cash to pay for someone to “spiritually pastor” you, you’re less likely to see the need for you to step up and do it. It’s only when no one else is in that spot that you see that maybe God’s calling you to take a role. And I think Mr. V. is starting to realize that, when he speaks of people having more opportunity for gifts in smaller groups.

Tom: Yes, I think that’s true, but I also think we’ll see unpaid pastors for other reasons. I have a friend in a particular Christian charitable work who’s convinced we’re quite close to seeing the end of our current slate of church-related tax exemptions. And he’s quite relaxed about it. He was telling me about the 80/20 rule. Here, it applies in that 20% of believers do 80% of the giving, and vice versa. Remove the tax incentive to give to Christian workers (or to contribute to church buildings, as they are already doing in British Columbia), and my friend is convinced we’ll quickly see the real size of our churches and be able to more accurately measure our real ability to support missions going forward. That, and we’ll soon be moving to much smaller venues.

IC: I can see that.

Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone ...

Tom: Now, the social justice megachurches will probably do just fine, but any sort of discretionary change to the current tax exemptions like the ones in B.C. will spell the end of the megachurches, or at least those that try to be remotely biblical about things like conducting gay marriages or giving sensitivity seminars on trans issues.

Will you miss them?

IC: No. In fact, it sounds rather like the situation that has obtained in China. There, the government guardedly “approves” only State churches that basically color inside the government’s lines, and persecutes all smaller groups of believers ruthlessly. We think we’re better than that: but that’s folly. Human nature is human nature. The wickedness that happens overseas can come here, if our conditions are right for it. And they do look more like they will, lately.

So if the wolf is coming, we can expect the hirelings to flee. How soon that will happen, nobody can say. But big churches make fat targets. And when one man, or a small group of hireling “professionals” has been placed at the head of them, we can expect the decapitation to start right there.


  1. Hi guys! This was an interesting convo for me! Kinda like sitting in the next booth while church members talk about the Sunday sermon I just preached. Thanks!

    1. Hey Karl, nice to hear from you. Next time we riff on one of your posts, we should probably invite you to the conversation!

  2. Tom and IC, thanks for reposting this. It's putting more meat on the bones of conversations that I've been having recently and I'm finding you guys express things a whole lot better than I do.

    So, if nothing else, thank you for all the hard thought and work you've done and are continuing to do. God bless you both