There is a burger shop by my house that I use to love visiting. Each time I would order the same burger, The Colorado. It was filled with delicious peppers and cheese unique to Colorado. Over the years the company has grown into a national chain. To my displeasure I visited the restaurant recently and found out they took my favorite burger off the menu. When I asked the attendant why, she said that corporate removed it to standardize all of the stores across the nation and removed local favorites since not every store could source the same ingredients. I immediately lamented her answer and complained to my wife how corporate growth doesn’t always ensure a better product. I haven’t been back since. But then it got me thinking about my own church experience.
My first few staffed ministry experiences were at organizationally large churches. We had thousands of people in attendance across multiple campuses. Since the size was so large, it required a high level of organization, marketing, rollout strategies and the likes to keep the message clear and handle such a high volume of people. This level of intentional leadership allowed for us to scale in size while keeping a focus on discipleship and along with engaging our community. As we continued to grow, so did our resources. We were able to accomplish some impressive stuff that put us on the cutting edge for how to “do church.”
I remember when the church grew to a multi-site model. Our global pastor of youth ministry for each of our campuses said that we needed to standardize the sermons. The idea was that no matter which campus you attended, you would be in the same passage of scripture and expect a similar message. The thinking was birthed out of a Starbucks model where customers experience the same Starbucks environment no matter where they are in the country. I hated the decision. Don’t get me wrong, the importance of being one church in multiple locations wasn’t lost on me, but each church had a different socio-economic spread, ethnic makeup, and age group. As a result, not everything we do at one campus will have the same affect on another. My worries were put to rest when we were told that we still have the autonomy over our messages, but that it was more about remaining in a similar series. However, it was the first time I realized that the tradeoffs of a larger, growing organization.
Similar to how people enjoy going to a local, family owned restaurant, averaged sized churches (under 200 people) have huge advantages when it comes to their ability to feel personal. There is a homey feel that comes natural with a smaller size. The need for strict structure and rollout strategies aren’t as necessary. You can often times communicate through more personal means and aren’t always thinking about how to put on events for thousands of people with hundreds of volunteers.
However, not every small church sees this as an advantage. In the pursuit of creating bigger and better churches, I’ve come to notice that many smaller sized churches end up losing sight of what makes them special. They trade what they have for the dream of becoming bigger. As a result, there is a pressure to adopt strict organization strategies, develop marketing efforts, and focus on being technologically advanced liked the big boys. And while there is varying reasons for why a church would do this, some reasons more noble than others, I have seen small churches let go of their charm to try to catch the same success as some of the larger churches. They end up feeling more sterile and less authentic.
Don’t get me wrong, if churches aren’t attempting to grow, then what are they doing? The Great Commission, after all, commands us to make disciples. But we should not fool ourselves in thinking that a specific church model is the only way in accomplishing growth. As well as thinking that the only successful churches are the ones that can cater to hundreds if not thousands of congregants.
Churches are living organism and require extreme care when handling organizational shifts. As I now serve at a smaller sized church (under 100), I am reminded more than ever to think about what made our church unique. That is, what cultural emphasis did this church meet 30+ years ago when it first opened its doors. Once I recognize that, I then concentrate on how to honor that cultural heartbeat as I organizationally add and adopt new strategies into our church life. Because if I fail to recognize the unique cultural qualities of my church for the sake of being a bigger, better, corporate institution, then I will end up taking things off of the menu that people have been enjoying.