I love to eat! When I was in High School I would go for a day or two without eating and never even notice. We had plenty of food, I was just busy with other things. Now, I barely go for an hour or two without being tempted by something with enough calories to add pounds just by looking at it. I appreciate a nice restaurant with quality food and great service. I love Atlanta, but it did take some getting used to “all things fried” and sweet tea so sweet it can take the enamel off your teeth. So each time Patti and I find a really great restaurant we are thrilled.
Large and small restaurants share a similar purpose. They want to serve good food, provide good service, and make a profit. But they are different in nature. Small one of a kind restaurants have different concerns than the larger “mega” restaurants chains and franchises do. Large and small churches also share the same purpose but are dramatically different in their nature as well. I’ve served in churches from 150 to over 10,000 in attendance and love the different aspects of both. There is something really special about a little country church where the pastor gives his heart and energy to personally shepherd the people. And there’s nothing quite like the amazing ministry of a mega-church and the size of its impact for Jesus. Both have a significant role in the Kingdom.
Because large and small churches are different in nature, they face different kinds of dangers. In this article, I will cover three of the top dangers that large churches face. The next Pastor’s Coach article will deal with the dangers small churches face.
A staff pastor and trusted friend in a very large church called me to talk about his frustration. The Senior Pastor of this church wrote and published a book about the story of their church and the ministry system it was using. The book was apparently good, and the story captivating, but unfortunately the ministry system wasn’t working. They needed to kill it or change it in a big way. But the pastor insisted that the staff stick with it since the book was out. It was obvious that changing the system would hurt the church’s reputation if word got out that the system didn’t really work and they therefore dropped it.
As a kid, I was never one of those straight-A students, so I don’t know what it is like to have to live up to an academic reputation. I wasn’t athletic or on a winning sports team so I’ve never known that pressure either. But I do understand a little of the demand to keep a winning church winning. If we are honest, there is an ultimate Catch-22 in play. It is the mix and mystery of “everything rises and falls on leadership” and the fact that nothing of any real eternal value is done outside the power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit He sent to His church.
The great churches are under a crazy pressure to “get greater.” Part of that is natural and right. They want to reach more people for Jesus. Yet, the crazy part is that a church can get caught chasing and trying to keep up with its own reputation and lose the very thing that got it there. We don’t have all the answers to this at 12Stone, but I will offer a few thoughts that might be helpful. First, we don’t take ourselves very seriously, but we take God very seriously. That makes a big difference. Secondly, we often talk about things like, the name of Jesus must always be lifted higher in the community than the name of 12Stone. I know that pleases the heart of God and helps us think right. One more, is to remind ourselves that we aren’t all that great! We have plenty of flaws and things that need to be improved. That healthy dose of reality is humbling and keeps us focused on what really matters, people, and not where we rank compared to other churches.
The Holy Spirit is the source of wisdom and power in the local church. Salvation and life change is truly at the hand of our loving God and the presence of The Holy Spirit. There is also a sweetness of the Spirit that can be sensed in the relationships of people as they pursue the fruit of the Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control. The Spirit is always in order, but doesn’t like to be controlled. The wind of the Spirit of God travels according to His plan not ours.
When churches get very large, as a result of the favour of God and the presence of His Spirit, systems are required to keep the ministry from flying off the tracks. It’s not unlike the need for traffic lights and air traffic-controllers in airports. Without them there would be chaos. But no one likes those systems. No one likes sitting at a long red light. No one likes circling Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta waiting your turn to land, only to touch down and discover there is no gate to go to. But these systems are necessary. They are needed in the church as well.
The problem is found in the extremes. Churches that want all Spirit and no systems spin in circles, and churches that live in the systems to the extent that the Spirit is squeezed out, lose the anointing that got them there. This is nothing new. The difference is that there have never been so many really big churches and now with the added complexity of multi-site churches, systems are in play now more than ever.
Personally, I think you must have systems, but the systems must serve you (the ministry). It is not smart to serve the systems, or to be in bondage to them. How you interpret that statement makes all the difference. The systems serving you doesn’t mean you get to ignore polices and guidelines when they are inconvenient. It means you can make exceptions when the good of the ministry is clearly at stake. The systems serving you doesn’t mean you get to play the “Holy Spirit” trump card because you are sloppy or lazy. Following the prompts of the Holy Spirit require careful attentiveness to the voice of God and obedience. Following the systems requires discipline and maturity but not using them as a substitute for leadership. This isn’t easy. That’s why it’s called a tension. But it is so important to face this one head on.
One of the great things about large, very large, and mega-churches is that they have tremendous ministry programming. Each event is executed with polish and precision. People love the experience and the results. From a membership class of 150 or more, people with high tech video production and a team of several staff to lead it, to Baby Dedications complete with harp and finger food fit for High Tea at Harrods in London. People are grateful for quality. They appreciate when things are done well and the experience is impacting. But there can be a cost. I have personally experienced moments where I feel we are more like event planners with advanced theological degrees, more than pastors who disciple Christian believers. It is possible to lose the heart of a pastor, at least momentarily, under the demands of such high-end and constantly repeating programming. It’s not that pastors in large churches don’t care. They really do. It’s a combination of so many people and the appropriate commitment to do things with excellence.
The good news is that this is not an either or proposition. It’s a tension that will not go away and must be managed. The answer is not an across-the-board lowering of the quality of your events. But it does require an understanding that trades will be made on both sides of the equation. It requires that staff and key volunteer leaders in very large churches must invest intentional effort to shepherding people within the context of large and high quality gatherings, worship environments and special events. The Pastor(s), in general, are not able to visit people in their homes, but there are other ways to keep that personal touch and heart connection alive. From a great Small Group ministry to a highly relational leadership style, many huge churches find a great balance. When we talk about this at 12Stone, we’ve found that simply acknowledging the reality and re-doubling our commitment as spiritual leaders to mature people in their faith goes a long way.
My encouragement is for you to talk openly about all three points in this article. Don’t ignore the dangers, be honest about them and hit them head on.
"This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter, "The Pastor's Coach," available at www.INJOY.com."