Big Church, with its big budgets and big buildings and big membership rolls, is the gold standard of church. Big Church defines vitality and success. Big Church is the point of church growth. Big Church is celebrated at wider church events where most speakers are Big Church speakers. Big Church is the past, Big Church should be the present, and Big Church has to be the future.
And Big Church could be our downfall.
I learned in seminary, and it was reinforced in seminar after seminar after graduation, that church growth is about taking your church to the next level. If your church is pastor-centered (50-150 members), you need to grow it to a program-sized church (150-350 members). Program-sized? Time to grow into a corporate-sized congregation. If you are corporate already, you might look into following Walmart’s business plan to take over the world.
Got to get to the next level, and the next, and the next. It is a rat’s race, a never-ending quest. It sets up 99 percent of churches and pastors to feel ineffective, depressed, and disenchanted. It makes it truly difficult to be content and at peace. All in the spirit of attaining Big Church.
My church has taught me about the church of the future. The Church of the Good Shepherd, UCC is a small church by all standards. We have 140 members and a worship attendance of 80-90. Our budget is just over $200,000. We have 3-15 kids in Sunday School. And you know what? We are so okay with that. In fact, we are thrilled with it.
We don’t want to be Big Church!
I know, some of you groaned inwardly, and thought “that is the mentality of all dying churches.” But we are not dying—far from it. We are quirky (here is an awesome post celebrating quirky churches) and joyful and complicated and diverse and alive. All this with only a worship attendance of 80-90. Say it ain’t so! We are small and we are growing.
We always have new faces in worship. And it isn’t because of a church growth program or a marketing campaign. It is not because we have a special social media strategy. It is not because we have the latest and greatest A/V equipment or an awe-inspiring sanctuary with dark wooden paneling (we sit in folding chairs and our sound system is 25 years old). I would love to say it’s the pastor, but this was happening long before I showed up four years ago.
It is because we were transformed when we walked into this community, and we want others to experience transformation. It is genuine and real, and new people feel that, and most return again and again.
New people don’t feel Big Church when they visit us. They feel Being Church.
For us, Being Church is about:
- singing our heads off to a favorite hymn or being brought to tears by all kinds of beautiful and powerful music, even when it is not perfect.
- hugging a sobbing person in the middle of worship or kneeling with others in prayer before the altar; compassion always outweighs decorum.
- speaking clearly and fiercely about justice both in worship and on the street even when it makes us uncomfortable.
- belly laughing with your brothers and sisters in faith anywhere you can, especially in a tense meeting; in worship, it’s mandatory.
- being really mad at another person, but still knowing and trusting that he or she loves the church as much as you do.
- understanding that there are no mistakes in church, even in worship, because we have nothing to lose; we have God and we love Jesus.
- sitting next to the dying for days, praying for the pastor who has breast cancer, celebrating a baby’s baptism as if that baby was our own (because they are!).
- truly celebrating diversity and remembering when it gets tough, it was never supposed to be easy; if it were, everybody would be doing it.
- imperfectly but wholeheartedly loving one another with all our rough edges—loving each other just like Jesus loves us—bigly and boldly and fully.
If Big Church is not Being Church, then it is no gold standard. Big Church may sell books, ALL churches can Be Church, just as they are, especially the small ones.
I am a better pastor because my church taught me how to Be Church.
Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware is the pastor of The Church of the Good Shepherd UCC in Ann Arbor. She has served two other churches in Madison, WI since graduating seminary in 2000.
Deborah is a wife and mother of an 8-year-old boy. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2015, and is trying to live this journey as honestly as she can. You can read about this experience at her blog Pastoring into the Unknown.