Wednesday, February 15, 2006

How Big Is Too Big?

I've always been very open about the size of a church. If a church of 25 people is really worshiping God and serving Him in a meaningful way, then that's great! Similarly, if a church of 2500 is really worshiping God and serving Him in a meaningful way, then that's great too! For obvious reasons, the larger church in this comparison is more likely to be really worshiping and meaningfully serving because there are plenty of people to do ministry and funds to back it all up. But if the little church can pull it off, more power to 'em! Size doesn't matter.

As I was checking in on some of the Big Shots in my blogroll, I found a great post from the Internet Monk about the lack of biblical support for a "secret rapture" and was enjoying it thoroughly. I generally seem to enjoy a post more when I agree with it! Then I started in on what promised to be a long string of comments after the post. I hadn't even reached the tenth comment when I hit a sentence which made me stop dead in my tracks:
I’ve had a similar experience, except that my church is too big for me to actually talk with my pastor.
Stop. Rewind. church is too big for me to actually talk with my pastor.
Now maybe for many of you, that sentence means nothing. But as a pastor, that sentence breaks my heart.

I understand the way larger churches operate -- a series of pastors on staff taking care of different responsibilities with pastoral care, teaching, shepherding, visitation, administration, music, small groups, youth -- but what kind of church is too big for an individual to not be able to talk with his or her pastor. One of the major roles of the pastor is to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. What kind of spiritual leader is not accessible?

Deep breath here. I realize that this was just the perception of one person within the congregation. I'm sure the pastor in question here is probably just dying to talk eschatology with each grandparent, single mom and college student in the church. But the point is that the pastor and or the church is giving the impression that the individual member isn't important enough to take up the senior pastor's valuable time. Look, if I'm part of a church where the pastor stands behind the pulpit or in front of the assembled masses and says that when Jesus returns He'll be passing out Girls Gone Wild videos and saving all Christians, Muslims and Hare Krishnas, there is nothing on this earth that is going to keep me from speaking to the pastor about it! Nor should there be.

We are baptised into one Church, one body. We have different functions, but we are one in Christ Jesus. We are not an insignificant part -- not so insignificant as to not deserve an explanation from the guy doing the preaching. If a church is actually set up so that the pastor can not be contacted with spiritual or doctrinal questions, or if it gives the congregation that impression, the church is too big. Period. I'm not concerned with drawing lines of 1000 people or 2500 people or 5000 people or even 100 people. My concern is that a pastor is just that -- a pastor. He is to be accountable for his teachings and available to the people. He doesn't have to recognize each church-goer when they pass one another in the supermarket aisle, but he does need to shred the insulation around him until it is known that the pastor's door is always open to the first-time visitor as well as to the Administrative Board Chairman. Plus it is his responsibility to be sure that each member of the congregation knows that. A church which is too big for an individual to come talk to the senior pastor about what was taught during the service is too big.

And so, I never thought I'd say it, but I've come to the conclusion that size matters.


julie said...

I agree that the availability of the senior pastor is size dependent.
I disagree, however, that the senior pastor is the ONLY person appropriate for the parishoner to approach after hearing a sermon. I think the ideal scenerio is that everyone's spiritual needs are met - but not necessarily through the senior pastor.
There are only so many hour in his/her day, and there are so many lay people or other pastors with SO MUCH to offer. We all need to be using our gifts.

rev-ed said...

julie, I fully believe that the one who speaks the words should be held accountable for them. The senior pastor cannot meet everyone's spiritual needs. However, he had better be available to answer for the words he speaks to the assembly. It isn't fair or right to allow an associate pastor to answer for the words of the senior pastor/teaching pastor.

A Human Bean said...

I guess I kind of agree with you. For instance, my church has a three person teaching team that co-develops every message. Any one of them would be able to answer questions etc. One of the three is the lead teaching pastor, but he is not the lead pastor. Every campus also has a campus pastor who only teaches on occassion if they want to. Some campus pastors speak a few times a year and some never speak. However, they also are versed on the Big Idea for each sermon (The Big Idea is the topic that is taught at all levels on any given Sunday.) I guess I am suggesting that there is not one person who is qualified and capable to do what you talk about. In a traditional solo pastor model, I would agree. I believe with all my heart that a traditional solo pastor model is terrible for a large church. Large churches that have the senior pastor leave will often because not so large churches if one person does all the speaking/teaching. The church I was raised in is a prime example. Tommy Barrnet, current Pastor of Phoenix Fist Assembly of God, helped build the church to over 2,000. However, he left and it declined over a number of years until it reached about 200. Ironically, when Phoenix First Assembly went for the multi-million dollar loan they needed to build their new church, the financial instituion put a clause in the loan contract that the loan becomes payable in full the day he resigns. How is God in that?

Dan Edelen said...

The Rule of 500 states that any organization reaches its peak performance with five hundred people. Any more than that and the enterprise starts failing because it's too big to administrate and people won't know each other.

I find that limit to be about right.

My wife and I left a church that had grown so big that despite many of us having a long history with the pastor, his secretary was filtering everyone out. If she didn't know you well, you never got an audience with the pastor. So despite repeated attempts for the pastor and me to get together, she kaboshed each attempt. Very frustrating, particularly since I wanted to warn the pastor that the church was getting off message. It took the pastor another eighteen months to realize this because he was constantly insulated from the problem by a secretary who wouldn't let the people who saw the problems get through to him.

Very sad and very typical of large churches. (This one was over 5,000 people.)

Godzheart said...

I agree with what you say, if we are going to grow, we better be ready to make time for people to meet us. The church I go to has about 5000 in congregation and we have something called a people's day over 3 days,where in we can make an appointment and meet pastor and just talk to him. Each one gets a time to come over to the church and meet pastor at the time they were given . I appreciate my Pastor for being able to set apart and make time for people who want to meet him regardless for the reason they come.

rev-ed said...

godzheart - That's a good annual practice. I just hope that the door is open the other days also.

Dan - I agree that the 500 rule is probably accurate. Interesting point about the insulating secretary. I think it can happen simply with the administrative board or with an elder board as well.

Doug - that sounds like a nice system if a church is blessed to have more than one teaching pastor, but I think the person preaching should be available to own up to what was said. In that respect, I agree that the solo pastor model doesn't work well in a church over 500 or so, although that number isn't written in stone.

Any church that is personality-driven carries a real danger of losing sight of god. I've always liked the idea of planting new churches or restarting old ones instead of adding yet another thousand worshipers to a mega church.

Karen said...

Interesting thoughts. My church as a Sunday attendence of around 800. I know both of our pastors personally and feel comfortable talking to either of them. I tend to go to the associate pastor more than the head pastor, but that is just because she is closer to my age and we share a lot of the same things that are important to us.

I think a lot of it has to do with how the pastor comes across. I know our pastors make an noticable effort to personally talk to all the new visitors and to remember their names the next time the come and stuff like that. I noticed this when I started going there and I think that has a lot to do with how comfortable I am with both of our pastors.

HeyJules said...

My church has about 650-700 attend its weekly attendance (not sure what the total number of parishoners is) and we have a senior pastor, four associate pastors, two assistant pastors and two interns.

In the first three months of attending church here, I had talked to, emailed and met almost all of them. One of the assistant pastors is my mentor now and part of my online Christian book club; one of the interns has had a sit-down conversation with me at my request; my senior pastor reads my blog and comments on it (occasionally) and we have had many impromptu discussions about things I've written as we cross paths at church functions in the nine months I've been going to church there.

My point? (Aren't you glad I have one after reading all this???) My point is BE PROACTIVE. Go up and introduce yourself. Ask to speak to someone about things that are going on in your spiritual life. Go up after a service and TELL the pastor what you liked about their message that day. Get to know them as people so you have a personal connection to them and they to you.

Rev-Ed is right, if they don't have time to get to know you and truly take an active roll in your spiritual development you are probably not at a truly great church. Big churches can be warm and inviting but it takes ALL parties being pro-active to sometimes make that first connection begin to grow into a true spiritual connection.

Lauren said...

I have to agree with the advice from HeyJules, sometimes people complain about the pastor not being available yet they forgot to let the pastor know. The best of my church experience have always happened in churches under five hundred in attendence. Currently there are 1100 in ours, new building = growth. I wish they would have church planted instead!