May 26, 2010
Small Churches are the Next Big Thing
Are intentionally small churches any better than intentionally big ones? It depends.
In a conversation last week about the virtues of small churches, a pastor friend of mine, Chuck Warnock, quoted a passage from John Zogby’s 2008 book The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House). Zogby prophesies that “The church of the future will be a bungalow on Main Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces. It’s intimacy of experience that people long for, not production values.”
On the face of it, I couldn’t be more pleased with that prediction. I’ve pastored two small congregations and am now a member and deacon in another, where my wife serves on staff. My experience with these churches has led me to believe that small congregations are uniquely positioned to carry the gospel into the world in the 21st century. Few things would make me happier than if the “next big thing” in Christian ministry conversations was the small church.
But the context of Zogby’s forecast gives me pause.
Zogby is a political pollster who checks the nation’s pulse during elections and that sort of thing. He has also worked in consumer polling—researching what kinds of products people like to buy. His book, The Way We’ll Be, is an account of the changing values of Americans as those are evidenced in voting and purchasing patterns. So when Zogby says that the “church of the future will be a bungalow on Main Street,” what he means is that religious consumers of the future will prefer small congregations. He isn’t making any claims about the inherent value of small churches, about intentional philosophies of ministry, or about the role of the church in God’s vision of redemption. He is simply talking about consumer patterns and preferences.
I don’t fault him for that; this is what he does. What concerns me is that it is easy to imagine how the consumer appeal of small congregations could quickly become a motive for keeping a congregation small. Right now, most of the conversation about organic and simple and house and, increasingly, traditional small churches is dominated by voices that advance theological and ecclesiological reasons for thinking mini instead of mega when it comes to ministry. But American Christians love polls; and when word gets out that the average church shopper prefers a small, intimate worship experience, it is very likely that we will lose sight of our theological and philosophical principles and start appealing to pragmatics. Instead of celebrating small churches because they are better positioned to reach people at the margins, better equipped to empower the laity for the work of ministry, and more inclined to cooperate, rather than compete, in ministry, we’ll be touting small size as a strategy to get people in pews.
This is already happening on a smaller scale. A couple towns southwest of where I grew up, there is an ever-growing megachurch led by a celebrity (well, at least a local celebrity) pastor. Ten or twelve years ago, they planted a satellite church near an upper scale neighborhood in my hometown. This is a gated community full of multi-million dollar houses. And just outside the gates there’s an upper scale shopping center, complete with boutique cheese shops, delis, and couture stores—you know, snooty places. This large church planted its sister site in this shopping center, and the little congregation (who hears preaching via satellite) fits in nicely with the other boutique stores. Now, I’m not judging motives but from an outsider’s perspective, this small satellite campus feels like an effort to attract a high-end clientele that would not be inclined to attend the larger church, made up of mostly middle class folk, but who are attracted to the boutique style of this small site.
My point is this: if we start favoring small churches because of their consumer appeal, we’ll be doing just what many of us accuse megachurches of doing—giving the people what they want. In this case, shifting from mega to mini ministry would require some changes in strategy, but no real re-thinking of our philosophy or theology of ministry.
In the interest of full disclosure, I agree with Zogby: I think that the future will belong to small churches. But I want to be darn sure that we begin to favor small church ministry for the right reasons and not simply because we think we’ve found a way to win a new share of the religious market. Some of the current shifts in consumer mentality spell good news for small churches, to be sure. People who value intimacy and authenticity, for example, will be drawn to smaller, local congregations. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I hope we perceive these trends not as a strategic boon, but as an opportunity to reclaim a biblical vision for our ministry.