Why Size Matters

by Susan Beaumont

What are the central essential characteristics that make this congregation unique? This is a question that I frequently pose to congregations who engage me as their consultant. Recently, leaders of a congregation that I worked with posed this question to their members as part of a series of listening circles. Somewhat disturbingly, a significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics by replying with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big.” These statements about the size of the congregation were often made without any qualifiers about why big was important or what it helped the congregation accomplish. People simply thought that what made them unique was their size. Size was an end unto itself.

As we probed the responses a little further, we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation. Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to ensure that the congregation could make an impact in its community. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others, the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leaders expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

As you can imagine, this data produced some interesting dialogue among leaders. Is size an end unto itself—or a means to accomplish something else? If we cease to be a large and resource rich congregation, will we have failed in our mission? Should our size be one of the core values expressed by our congregation? What difference does it really make that we are considered “big” in the world of congregations? What does our size allow us to accomplish?

Our Attraction to Large

There are five major aspects that create a sense of appeal for the large church in this day and age:

Capacity for Excellence

We live in a high expectation culture. Increasingly, people are looking for congregations with a threefold emphasis on relevance, quality, and choices: excellence in presenting the gospel in what is perceived as relevant terms; a reputation for quality worship, teaching, and training; and provision of a broad range of attractive choices in worship, learning, and involvement.

Effective Use of Technology

Culturally we have shifted from communication that is printed and spoken to communication that is visually supported with imagery, motion, humor, drama, and music. This shift is transforming the worship service from what has traditionally been a low-energy, verbal presentation style to higher energy, multimedia, and entertaining worship experiences. Overall, large congregations have greater resource capacity to purchase and use technology effectively, which contributes to their sense of cultural relevance.

Space for Anonymity and Intimacy

One of the reasons that larger congregations are growing at a faster rate than smaller congregations is because of their unique capacity for accommodating both intimacy and anonymity. The large church provides an arena in which a person seeking to be unknown can be present and participate in worship and education without compromising anonymity. Larger congregations can also meet the intimacy needs of individuals through small-group educational, service, and programming venues, where people can know and be known in deeply connectional ways. People who are seeking engagement at opposite ends of the intimacy/anonymity continuum can sit comfortably side by side in the large church.

Presence of Diversity

In addition to being better able to serve diverse needs and appeal to different demographic groupings, the large congregation allows members and participants to engage diversity, in measured doses, as they feel comfortable. In a small congregation, when diversity shows up in the form of a visitor who presents some form of “otherness,” the congregation as a whole must encounter the difference if the visitor is to feel welcome. In the large church, however, people can find their way toward others with whom they identify, without the entire congregation having to negotiate difference all of the time. Congregants balance the tension between engaging differences when it feels safe and retreating to more homogeneous groupings when that feels right, in much the same way that they negotiate intimacy and anonymity.

Capacity to Make a Difference

“Think global, act local” has become a mantra in our culture. We are becoming increasingly aware of our own insignificance in the global scheme of things, and we crave ways to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. Large congregations offer members and constituents the opportunity to participate in something that feels significant. People who struggle with a sense of insignificance in life may be drawn to a large congregation so that they can finally be part of something that makes an impact. People who are movers and shakers in their communities may similarly be drawn to these institutions, because they expect to invest themselves in places where their voice matters.

The Limitations of Large

With all of the natural advantages that the large church brings to bear on our culture, it would seem evident that the large congregation has become a poster child for the future of the church. However, the large church also faces formidable challenges that may limit its capacity to serve the very culture to which it appeals.

Communication Problems

The larger a congregation grows, the more difficult it becomes to make sure that the right and left hands of the congregation are aware of one another and informed about mutual activity. Increased size means increased complexity, and the greater an organization’s complexity the harder it is to ensure that everyone has access to the same information.

Resistance to Change

The large church is often compared metaphorically to an ocean liner. And, like the captain of the Titanic trying to avoid colliding with its iceberg, you can’t start, stop, or turn a large church easily. The complexity of the large church means that it is not easily jumpstarted, it is not easily stopped when it does have momentum, and mid-stream course corrections are not accomplished without considerable effort. Because large congregations are not generally nimble, they are not well equipped to handle the changes that the shift from modernity to postmodernity is requiring.

Continual Staff and Leadership Transition

The effectiveness of the large church is dependent upon a high functioning, strategically aligned team of clergy and program and support staff. The stability of that team is critical. If the team is in conflict or turmoil, the congregation is likely to be in conflict and turmoil. However, the very nature of the staff team in the large church is that it is continually in a state of transition. Large church pastors bemoan the fact that there is always a position open on the team and always a search committee in process.

Undercapitalization

Pastors of large congregations are continually trying to figure out how to raise money to support the growth initiatives of the church without robbing the operating budget needed to sustain payroll and existing ministries. The large church naturally projects an image of abundance, and it is difficult to convince people that the church has any genuine need or that their financial contributions make a difference.

Lack of Alignment

As growth occurs, coordinating and aligning the ministries of the church becomes more challenging. When the staff team no longer fits comfortably around a single decision-making table, the church begins to lose its sense of strategic focus. Successful ministries begin competing with one another, not just for budget dollars, but for voice in shaping decision making. Highly talented staff members compete for limited resources. Lay leaders begin to feel that they’ve lost their place in the decision-making life of the church as the role of staff becomes more central. Keeping the entire structure aligned and focused is one of the greatest challenges in the large church and also a key to its effectiveness.

Regardless of what draws you into this dialogue, I invite you to examine your own presuppositions and assumptions about church size. I invite you to pause and reflect upon your own congregational background and the various ways in which your assumptions about the right-sized congregation have been shaped by your experience.

Adapted from Inside the Large Congregation by Susan Beaumont,copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Alban Weekly, 2011-10-31
Number 379