An article from the Associated Baptist Press on August 9 describes the issue of larger churches “merging” with smaller ones. The article offered some reasons why it’s a good idea for small churches to merge with larger ones. It was written from the perspective of a consultant (of course) rather than a pastor, and made some very valid points.
In that same article, I sensed an unintended arrogance and drastic assumptions about small churches. Let me paraphrase the words of Jim Tomberlin, a merger consultant (yes, we have those now) from MultiSite Solutions:
If small churches would just give up their old-school traditional attitudes, and if they were TRULY missional, it would be a lot easier for them to be taken over by larger churches with more people and more money. You can check out some comments at the bottom of the article that echo this sentiment, including one from church consultant George Bullard.
To be honest, I’m pretty sick of getting that attitude from people, from consultants, from marketing strategists, from Christians, and occasionally from pastors.
(Side note: I’m pretty glad Jesus didn’t have a strategist or a marketing consultant, or that whole Cross thing might have ended before it got started).
When I tell people where I pastor, I usually get one or more of several questions: “Is it a big church?” Or “I’ve seen your building. That MUST be a big church!” Or one of my favorites: “Y’all got a contemporary service going yet?”
As if my ultimate goal should be to get drums and electric guitars in worship. Because that solves everything, right?
Then they ask me for the numbers. You know those numbers that define you in Baptist life. How big is your service? How many baptisms? How many new members last year?
Once in a while, I talk with someone who is familiar with our little slice of paradise in downtown Greenville, SC. Those folks usually give me the “Oh…(awkward pause)…um…that’s nice!” Or “Wow…really?” One of these days, I expect someone to pat me on the head and say “Bless your heart!” in response to the fact that I am pastor at Augusta Heights.
Let me be clear: I am GLAD to pastor where I do. I was called to do it. Serving in a small church wasn’t “settling” for me, and I’m not walking around looking for the next big thing.
Let me also be clear: The multisite movement in church is not wrong! It is not some violation of an immutable spiritual law or guideline for church existence. In fact, there are plenty of arguments for why big, multisite churches are GOOD. NewSpring and Elevation and Marathon can do some things that Augusta Heights may never be able to do. I confess to harboring my own bias against the multisite and mega-church movements, and that’s something I need to lay aside.
I just wish people—including consultants, denominational leaders, and pastors of big, multisite churches—would recognize that small churches may be good, too.
Yes, maybe they’ve hung on to traditions too long and maybe they’re stubborn about change. Maybe the name on the sign is way too important to them. As Mr. Tomberlin says, “There is a huge win-win if people can put aside their egos and their logos”.
But I haven’t heard of many multisite churches that didn’t put THEIR name on the sign when they took over a smaller congregation. Are you honestly going to tell me that there is no ego involved in the multisite church movement, and the insistence that a singular message be broadcast to thousands of people in different locations?
Tomberlin’s discussion hints more at smaller churches simply “submitting” to the will of a larger church, with an assumption that the bigger MUST be better. And there is no hint that perhaps a large church could invest some resources to help a small one get back on its feet.
I believe that I both chose and was chosen to minister to small, often struggling churches I don’t apologize for that, nor do I need anyone’s pity for it, because I still believe that these types of congregations have value. They can still do a lot of good work to do and they can impact the community around them, even if they don’t have strobe lights in their worship service.
I am simply suggesting that perhaps we should be just as excited about the one that a smaller church baptizes as we are about the 1000 that a mega or multisite church baptizes. Seems I remember some story about that in the Bible (Luke 15 if you missed the hint).
Perhaps one day we’ll all just stand outside and wave the white flag, waiting on some larger congregation to consume us. If that day comes, it is my prayer that we will follow what the Spirit is leading us to do.
Until that day, let us respect the work of large and multisite churches. But also let those in smaller churches not grow tired of doing good, and let us do all that we can to reach and minister and impact the community that is entrusted to our care. Let us do all that we can, not only to survive, but also to thrive in doing the work of Christ.
You see, I really LIKE our church and I LOVE what we are being called to do, as hard as it might be and in spite of the odds that are stacked against us. And I would ask that the consultants, denominational leaders, and marketers show as much respect for that calling as they do for the calling of multisite churches.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Since publishing this, I have received a clarification from ABP assistant editor Jeff Brumley. The churches that are candidates for merger with large congregations are usually on the verge of folding due to any number of factors. The article was not intended to target active, vital small churches.