Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (3): You’ll Probably Never Be A Mega-Church And It’s OK To Grow Slowly

April 23, 2012 at 6:47 am

So, nearly four years ago, we planted Church of the Cross. During that time, I’ve had lots of time to reflect, considering what we’ve learned and what we might have done differently. I’ve also considered several things I wish people had told me when we were setting out to plant. First, we considered the need to start with discipleship, then we looked at the need to define yourself quickly and stick to it.

Church planting is an interesting culture, full of interesting paradoxes and sometimes even contradictions and far too often, not unlike other entrepreneurial crowds. Though we all know that succes in God’s kingdom is not measured the same as in the world of business, we insist on measuring success in the church by business models. We embrace the notion that bigger is always better and we find ourselves entwined in the false expectation that we will naturally grow as large as possible as quickly as possible.

Not only does this false pressure come from within, it is often reinforced from without. Introduce any group of pastors to one another and guess what one of the first questions invariably seems to be: how large is your church? Not only that, if you’re involved in a denomination or church planting network, you are bound to have the internal pressure compounded by outside people asking for regular reports on your numbers.

And nearly every church planter believes in themselves. Otherwise they wouldn’t have set out to plant a church. But, the truth is that most of us will never be mega-church pastors and most of our churches will grow pretty slowly. We need to be told that it’s simply not realistic. Michael Bell has discussed the reality of America’s church numbers:

Imagine you are looking down a very, very long street, and all the churches of U.S. are lined up along the left side of the street from smallest to largest. In behind each church are all their Sunday morning attenders.

If you counted the grand total of everyone standing behind each church and then divided this number by the total number of churches that you see on this very long street, you would come up with a “mean” or “average” size of 184. “Mean” is usually what we mean of when we think of “average”. But this number of 184 is a very misleading number.

Lets say you start walking down the street, passing the churches with 5 people on a Sunday morning, 10 people, 15 people, 20 people. You continue walking until you have passed half of all the churches in America. Half of the churches in the U.S. are now behind you, half are still in front. The “average” church that you are standing in front of is called the “median” church. You look to see how many people are lined up behind it, and you see 75 people. That is right, half the churches in the United States have less than 75 people.

Bell continues:

So, you continue walking, past the churches of 80, 90, 100, 110. You walk until you have passed 90% of all the churches. You look to your left and you see 350 people lined up behind this church. Much to your surprise, although you have passed 90% of all the churches, over half of the churchgoers are still in front of you!

Bell goes on to dissect some of these numbers, noting that: “half of all those who attend church are in less that 10% of the churches” in the United States. The “numbers = success” and “celebrity” cultures that we have built in church planting are not only unhelpful, they are unhealthy and instill false expectations in countless church planters. We need a culture that celebrates the pastor who faithfully serves day in and day out instead of the guy who can simply pack out a room.

Most of us will never be mega-church pastors. This is normal and it’s OK. Most of our churches will not have explosive growth. This is normal and it’s actually probably more healthy in the longrun. We need to establish a culture of church planting that measures in more than the 3Bs (Buildings, Butts and Budgets). We need to celebrate faithfulness more than celebrity and we need to instill realistic goals and timelines before we set up another set of church planters up for undue stress and unrealistic expectations.

  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (1): Start With Discipleship
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (2): Define Yourself Quickly And Stick To It
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (4): Don’t Plant Out Of Opposition
  • Read Church Planting Things I Wish They’d Told Me (5): Don’t Plant To Prove Yourself
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