Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Should the Large Get Larger?

The last couple of years I've heard a number of "transformational church" lectures from people like Paul Borden, Glen McDonald and Craig Barnes. We've been trying to apply some of those principles through the work of our presbytery. One point I've heard made more than once is that when a new church opens its doors, it should have be fully staffed (a full-time pastor, a church secretary/bookkeeper, a music director and a youth director) and have about 500 people attending the inaugural worship service. It is expected that average attendance will drop off after the first worship, but being fully staffed will help the church increase average attendance and giving quickly so that it can sustain itself. The theory is that a new church plant needs a "critical mass" when it opens in order to be successful--particularly in urban/suburban areas.

Like most other presbyteries, we have successful churches and struggling churches. To define my terms, a "successful" church has a stable or growing congregation, a low level of conflict, financial stability, and a ministry that makes a difference to the surrounding community. A "struggling" church is one with a dwindling congregation, a high level of conflict, financial problems, and a lower level of mission and outreach to its community.

It seems to me that in a metropolitan area like Houston, a church needs to have around 1,000 members (or 700 average worship attendance) to be successful. Before my gentle readers leap all over me for being too focused on numbers and not focused on ministry, hear me out.

Most people who live and work in a large urban setting are comfortable with large organizations. Many of them are used to commuting long distances to work. Their workplaces are in large office buildings and their employers are large businesses or professional firms. Their children attend large public schools. They are accustomed to working with specialists in every professional endeavor--from doctors to lawyers to accountants to niche businesses. Part of the attraction of living here is the wide range of choice in entertainment, shopping, employment, and educational opportunities.

Churches that are successful in a large metropolitan area reflect these realities. As that old Texas saying goes, "you gotta dance with who brung ya." People who are accustomed to long weekday commutes will drive past several smaller neighborhood churches in order to attend a larger church that offers more choices in worship, discipleship opportunities, music programs, children's programs, and mission and outreach efforts in the community. Successful larger churches have small group ministries that provide the intimacy and support that keeps individual members connected to the congregation.

Churches with large staffs offer the opportunity for church professionals to use their best gifts for ministry. After reading many pastor's blogs over the last couple of years and observing pastors in my presbytery, I think that being a solo pastor is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. In an urban/suburban setting, where people are used to a high degree of professionalism in all walks of life, it is almost impossible. All too often, solo pastors are expected to exhibit every gift for ministry. No one can do that. Dedicated church officers and members of smaller churches also find themselves stressed trying to exercise gifts which they do not have. As Paul said "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." (Romans 12:6) Yes, God calls us to stretch ourselves but I don't believe he calls us to exercise each and every spiritual gift ourselves.

There's a romantic notion about small churches that often doesn't comport with reality. As El Jefe and I can attest, building up a new church from scratch is a very difficult job. Recently I heard a story from one of our pastors about an effort from his church to develop a "mission probe" in a neighborhood close to the church. The goal of the probe was to create a house church congregation as an outreach mission from the church. What he discovered was that the unchurched people in that neighborhood were not interested in a house church--they were interested in the programs of an established church.

Most experts agree that it is impossible for a church with fewer than 100 members to support a full-time pastor--in an urban/suburban area it is more realistic to adjust that number to at least 200. Most people prefer affiliating with an existing organization rather than committing the time, effort and money that are needed to begin something new. There are economies of scale that make expanding a medium size church a better goal than starting a new one in an urban/suburban area. Sometimes that could mean relocating that church so that it could draw from a larger region than its own neighborhood, particularly when that neighborhood has changed from residential to commercial.

Understand that I am not saying that a small congregation in a metropolitan area cannot be successful by the definition I gave earlier. I know there are people who do not want to be part of a large congregation and that there are vital small churches in every metropolitan area in the country.

What I am proposing is that the PCUSA should develop an intiative that encourages and supports metropolitan area churches that are already "large" by Presbyterian standards (500 members+) to grow their congregations and missions. In an urban area like Houston, which is growing by leaps and bounds, we should emphasize growing large congregations larger. We need to play to our strengths rather than multiplying our weaknesses by putting as much effort and support into expanding existing congregations as we do into beginning new ones.


DannyG said...

For what it is worth, I am Methodist, and drive by 3 smaller UMC churches to attend the large one in the neighboring town.

Purechristianithink said...

When I was pastoring a small, struggling urban church I found that there is truth to much of what you say here. Folks that were looking for a church almost always wanted more "program" options than a forty member congegation was ever going to be able to offer, even if they were trying really hard to reach out. In conversation with the Lutheran pastor parent of one of my son's friends, she said that the ELCA had pretty much decided to focus its redevelopment/tranformational $$$ and energy on churches that still had "critical mass": 250+ member churches that were struggling, but still had enough people and resources to have a good shot at turning around. That Presbytery, by contrast, was focusing what little redevelopment it was doing on churches with 100 members or less.

Anonymous said...

I have served two small churches (although sadly, they are both considered "average sized" in terms of our denominational averages) and I completely agree that solo pastors have the hardest job in the world. I remember bursting into tears visiting Riverside Church in NYC early in my ministry when I realized they had a team of people to UNLOCK THE DOORS AND GREET PEOPLE. I was used to vacuuming the floors and printing the bulletin all by myself, much less everything else.

I completely agree that a church should not open without a full staff. As we've tried to begin new worship service, I can already see that we've not done everything as we should have. And yet, our efforts in other areas have been right on target.

So what's the answer? Do we shut down the (many, many) small churches? Just let them die? Do we cut off their funds, or suggest they merge with others?

So much of the church culture involves family history (and I don't mean "church family"; I mean individual families), sentimentality, etc. We'll have some angry people, and yet, if their/our vision is too small, are we saying that it's indeed too small to continue?

Thanks for your wisdom.

Quotidian Grace said...

Great questions, Jan.

I think we have to exercise some tough love with churches too small to support themselves. That means not supporting them financially when it is clear that they will not be able to support themselves.

We have had one (so far) successful merger of two churches in the last year. There is a group of 2 or 3 churches currently "dating" and trying to decide whether to follow suit. I think we need to offer support and encouragement.

Relocation is a good option for some churches. That could help grow an existing congregation in a good location. But too often an elderly congregation would literally rather die than move.

Sentimental attachment to the "family" church is certainly a big issue. We need to find ways to incorporate the history and ministry of a congregation if it relocates or closes. I'd love to hear ideas on how to do that.

Jane G said...

Just speaking for myself - I'll never join a church with more than 300 members. And yes, I live in a L-A-R-G-E city, not a small town. Small group ministries just are not the same as a community of believers that is small enough to know and support one another and yet large enough to offer worship, study, etc. What has worked for us is partnering with other similar-sized churches for mission, youth, etc. programs. This takes work, but it calls on gifts that some Presbyterians didn't even know those Methodists or Episcopalians or Baptists or Catholics have. Frankly, I don't need a big choir/music program at church - in this large city we have a symphony orchestra with a wonderful choir, an opera company, and an excellent music department at one of our universities - if I "need" music, there are lots of [better] alternatives to our church choir.

Shawn said...

All things being equal about churches I think these are some good observations. I think where medium size churches can thrive is when they offer things that the bigger churches in their area do not.

Our church is around 500 members but put frankly, we are more liberal than the larger churches in our area. Sure our members would like more programs and a fine tuned machine, but they are willing to forgo some of that in order to be in a community of faith that better represents their understanding of God's call.

Presbyterian Gal said...

My friends Peter and his wife, Denice, belong to a nearly completely dead and gone church (Lutheran) with about 40 members left. Yet they still worship together and study together faithfully every week and do some significant mission together. They know they're dying as a church, yet their spark is gonna stay strong till the last. And my friends say that the gift of this experience is becoming so much closer to these last friends.

This is a tough call. Because different areas and different folks work different ways. 'Cause we're.......different. I do agree that one of the yardsticks is being able to afford what you do.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh ... the old apples and oranges argument. :)

I think people will want big churches for some time, but I also think others will want to be a part of healthy smaller churches.

The key for small churches, I think, is to 1) not apologize for their size or think they should be bigger, and 2) to continue to find ways of reproducing and making disciples.

In the PCUSA (and most denominations) we are so imbedded with the idea that church = building and pastor that it's hard to see other options.

What about encouraging Commissioned Lay pastors to lead smaller congregations in healthy ways? They could have a seminary trained pastor as an "apostle" who would mentor and support them and encourage them to start new congregations.

It's probably true that in a market-driven culture, many people want to find a church that meets their needs effectively. But I'm still convinced there is also a place for more organic communities to emerge.

You knew, QG, that I'd have to respond.

oh, btw, we've had two successful mergers in the past three years. ;)

Quotidian Grace said...


I knew you'd chime in and welcome!

It's not either or--its both and.

The PCUSA and our presbytery already spend a lot of time and effort on small congregations. I think congregations that could (and want to) become larger in metro areas are neglected both by the PCUSA and by presbyteries generally.

I'm not suggesting we take anything away from self-sustaining successful small churches or that we try to stifle small congregations that may emerge.

Well-trained CLP's can be very effective pastors in the way you describe which can allow a congregation to have a pastor that otherwise couldn't afford one.

But I do think we should be more intentional about encouraging churches that are well-positioned and open to growth. I'd like to see the GA take initiative on this in addition to its NCD efforts.

cheesehead said...

I don't know, QG. You know I love and respect you, but this almost sounds like "The rich getting richer and hoping the poor just go away." That bothers me. It must hit a tender button.

I'm sure you know I pastor a church of about 150 adult/confirmed members, which is financially stable.(Debt-free with a little $$ in the bank) As of later in April we will have taken in nine new adult members and six confirmands, for a total of 10% membership growth so far in 2007.

My city is not as big as Houston, but there are about 3 million people in a 90 mile radius. Presbyterians here by and large, prefer smaller churches. All of the new adult members so far this year left much larger churches (of 700+ members) searching for place where they could make a difference.

There would be three churches left in all of Snow Belt City Presbytery if we cut off the smaller ones, so I'm suggesting that there are regional differences.

The bottom line for me as to whether a church is truly viable in the ways that matter is this: is there a witness for Christ?

Maybe a both/and approach, that still helps smaller churches feel supported and valued is a way to increase our overall witness in the world.

ceemac said...


Thinking back to the post on what books we would put in the bag.

If I remember both Norris and Lamott are "products" of small and possibly struggling congregations

Gannet Girl said...

Oh, honestly. I have tried to post a length comment 2x and it has compeletely evaporated both x. Maybe tomorrow, if this one works.

Quotidian Grace said...


I'm sorry if I hit a "hot" button for you. Your church is certainly very successful by the definition I gave in the post.

My purpose is not to denigrate or devalue smaller congregations but to encourage growth of "medium to large" congregations located in areas condusive to growth provided the congregation itself buys into that.

If people prefer a small congregation and are willing to support it that is wonderful. We need all types of churches to meet the needs of all types of people.

Reformed Catholic said...

Unfortunately, what I see is that people are asking "what can this church do for me?".

I would rather have people joining as disciples who are willing to say "What can I do for Christ and His church?"

IMHO ... the people who are looking for 'programs', are not necessarily the ones that will volunteer to help staff those programs. Thus you need paid staff, for whom funds are needed, which requires adding members to give, who ask "what can this church do for me" ...

Winds up to be a never ending Mobius strip !

Purechristianithink said...

While I don't agree that you need 1000 members to be "successful", I think an assertive outreach to mid-sized (300-500) member congregations is a good idea. Here's why: tiny, struggling churches by and large KNOW they have a problem. Mid-sized churches are still comfortable enough to be in denial. Sure, things aren't going quite as they used to "back in the day", but there are still kids in the Sunday School, women at the Circle meetings, a half decent choir, new members joining from time to time. Surely all that's needed is a little tweaking: reschedule the worship times, add some praise tunes, hire an amazing youth director and all will be well. It's much harder to "sell" this size congregation on the idea that they need to ask tough questions about their future.

ceemac said...

Don't know where original source but I once heard the idea that the ideal congregation was 10 tithing households. That entire tithe would be used to pay a pastor so the pastor's salary would be the average of the congregation. The Pastor's tithe would then provide the congrgations mission budget.

The idea was that this church would not hasve any property related expenses since it met in homes.

If/when the congregation grew it would spin off another congregation.

Dustin James said...

Hello QC, I enjoy reading your blog and finding out how you and El Jeffe are doing at big church. I think you hit my hot button, since I thought about your post all the way home from work. I have a few comments:

1. I am being cynical, but why would a large church *want* help from presbytery? I would think they are already doing most things right; if anything, the presbytery would want to learn from them.
2. I have seen data that some small congregations pay more per capita than some large congregations. Why should small congregations pay to be put out of business?
3. Don't large congregations need small churches as "feeders"? Much growth (I don't know how much) of large churches comes from people who first joined small ones.
4. Tangentially, national Greek fraternities favor large chapters over small ones, due to economy of scale I guess. This weakens the small chapters such that fraternity life is less attractive to male students on campuses with small chapters. This, in turn, (I think) leads to fewer male enrollees since men want to do "man" things. Small universities, such as my alma mater, now have a female:male ratio of almost 70:30. So, applying this to the present question, there are certainly people who want to be Christians at small churches rather than large ones. Weakening or closing those small churches would seem to send such people to other "small" activities rather than large church.

I can see the attraction of large congregations and I agree that presbytery should do things to support such churches. I know that big church is doing a lot to plant new congregations. God bless them and you for what you are being called to do. In our Presbyterian way, I know that conversations such as this will further God's Kingdom.

God Bless,

Dustin James said...

I really meant to say "QG". I guess I was thinking "quality control".

God Bless,

Quotidian Grace said...

Dustin, good to hear from you.

To answer your questions,

1. Recall that I am defining "large" as churches of about 500 members because they are large by presbyterian statistics. At presbytery, I've seen a number of churches have real struggles with this 'in-between' stage--too big to be really intimate and too small to do what they want to do. It's this group that is neglected, I think. I'd agree with you that very large (over 1500 member) churches don't need help and in fact are in the position to give help to others.

2. I think you're confusing per capita giving with benevolence giving. All churches pay the same amount of per capita to presbytery which passes it on to GA. This is a Book of Order requirement, like a tax. So a church with a large membership pays more per capita than a church with a small membership.

Benevolence giving to presbytery, synod or GA is voluntary but strongly encouraged. And certainly there are some smaller churches whose benevolence giving is greater than of some churches with larger memberships. This benevolence giving is what funds presbytery. There are lots of reasons why some churches are more generous in their benevolence than others. But they all are required to pay the same amount per member as their per capita to GA.

3. I don't know if smaller congregations are seen as "feeders" to larger ones. That has not been my experience. I think it is the reverse: very large congregations like Second Baptist and First Methodist in Houston establish satellite churches and create congregations in outlying areas.

4. I am in no way suggesting that presbytery or any other governing body close small congregations. Presbytery doesn't have the power to do that anyway. Presbytery spends a lot of time and effort assisting struggling congregations, as it should. I'm suggesting that on a national level we are neglecting those churches with substantial membership in growing areas that have the potential to become bigger.

Have a good Easter!

Michael W. Kruse said...

I am late to this discussion but I wanted ask this:

"What I am proposing is that the PCUSA should develop an intiative that encourages and supports metropolitan area churches that are already "large" by Presbyterian standards (500 members+) to grow their congregations and missions."

Why would there need to be an intiative to make this happen? Couldn't large churches network together to devise strategies? You have mention several experts that are giving great insight? What would an entity like the GAC bring to this effort? These are the kinds of questions we are asking at the GAC.

DennisS said...

As to someone who has significant organizational savvy, consider

As to Per Capita - our presbytery has a 2000 member congregation which refuses to pay per capita, while the little ones continue to pay. Our little congregation gives much more in benevolence than we get back in any form.

As to growing medium to large churches - great. We need viable congregations in the population centers, or else Reformed theology will nearly disappear.

On the other hand, I live in a 200 by 200 mile area which has only 26 PCUSA congregations. The largest of which had 115 average attendance (total) in two services. This is an area with quite a bit of loss, as the population continues to decline, the kids go off to college and don't return, etc.

Yet, 40% of the congregations started in the 1870's are still in existence. (None of the 60% that closed made it to the Great Depression.) Lots of CLP's, lots of shared pastorates, lots of folks preaching who have jobs outside the church.

Within the 200 by 200 mile area, in the past 80 years there have only been 2 church starts. One in 1939 (merged a year later), and one in 1955. Yet there are a couple of towns over 10,000 which don't have any reformed congregations. Where is Presbytery? They are spending time and money on the other half of the presbytery - the half where they are located.

Here, we are getting people involved. I think that's the future of the Church. In a high school of 2000 students, there are still only 5 at a time which can play on the boys varsity team. Though less than a 10th of the size, we have 5 boys playing on the floor as well. In the small church, a much higher percentage of people are actively involved - and it becomes more meaningful to them.

I've been a pastor for 19 months now. The congregation is not among the 5 which had more than 57 average attendance (up to that "large" congregation of 115) - though we might pass that congregation of 57 attendance this year. Our second adult baptism is coming up soon.

Last year we added 8% to our membership - but it was not enough to offset 7 deaths and 3 who transferred out of state. Yet, if we continue adding members at the rate we have been, we'll have a new congregation in a few years. Currently, those who have been active members for 35 years is the majority of the congregation.

Only once have we missed a prebytery meeting (bad storm). Otherwise, we always have an elder and pastor there - and we don't turn in mileage. We pay for our own lunch. We give a good chunk in benevolence. We haven't had to dip into the reserves to keep operating.

Yet, unless we grow now, there is no future here. Should we take on debt in order to have a more efficient building (designed when the congregation was several times larger and when fuel costs were less)? I don't think so. Should we have a CLP or bi-vocational pastor who doesn't have much more time for the congregation than the time it takes to prepare a sermon each week? I don't think that accounts for more than maintenance mode.

What should we do with small congregations? Train (disciple) the people. In April, for the second time this year, we will have a (second) lay person deliver the message for their first time.

Something we don't often realize, is that we do have visitors during the course of a year. Folks here have gotten good at hospitality - making people feel welcome, without looking desperate for them to come back. We recently added 3 individuals which had moved to town and had visited the churches in the area.

Something we are doing in that 200 by 200 mile area (parts of two different presbyteries) is gathering to consider the future. What if we could train up persons in the congregation, and have a pastor who rotates among 3-4 congregations? What if we used the internet to bring in a sermon from where the pastor was on that particular week?

Currently, ten of the 26 congregations share a pastor with at least one other congregation. Ten have their own pastor. The others rely on pulpit supply.

Anyway, from where I'm at, I don't see Presbytery as helping any of the small congregations - that means financially and that means educationally, etc.

By 2012, we will either conceed this area to other denominations, combine with other denominations, have a presbytery suited to dealing with small congregations, be using technology quite widely along with significant lay involvement - or I'll have a fulltime job outside the church.

The time to act is now, and I believe the presbytery where I'm at needs to think long and hard about where they will focus their energy. This is a critical time for the future. How and what we communicate will make a difference!