I’ve earlier written about the importance of the church as community, several times. This is not only a theological imperative (that is, a command of God) but also a great cultural need in modern America. People are so individualized, so lonely, that they need something to belong to.
Thumma and Travis comment (p. 16),
Out of necessity because of their size, megachurches have had to overstructure every aspect of member involvement. One cannot expect that natural processes at work in small-scale settings will happen within a massive congregation. … Nothing is left to chance. The assumption is that people in this society do not know each other, nor will they make the effort if left alone. The megachurch assumption is that contemporary individuals do not interact unless forced to and are relative strangers to those they meet. People need the intimacy of small groups but will not seek them out. There is also the realization that people will remain spectators and marginal participants unless they are strongly encouraged to become involved.
This is just so true! Most church leaders do not fully appreciate these facts, because most church leaders joined the church when it was much smaller, when making friends and getting involved was much easier.
Moreover, most church leaders are the sort of people who easily interact with others. But church leaders are leaders, in part, because they aren’t like everyone else.
Now, it bears pondering just how large a church needs to be before these relationship issues come into effect. I think the answer is somewhere around 200. Studies suggest that we just can’t know and keep up with more people. Now, churches generally don’t become aware of the problem until they hit 300 or more, because old habits die hard. But any church of 200 or more needs to have a structured involvement ministry.
Imagine that you are new in town and find a church in the Yellow Pages. You go to visit. How do you make friends and get involved? Even in a very small church, if people aren’t intentional about making friendships with new members and inviting them to serve, they can become just as marginalized and lonely as in a church of 20,000 members.
There are several aspects of this need mentioned by the authors.
* Visitors need to feel welcome, but not made too conspicuous. A greeter program helps, but there’s no substitute for friendly church members.
* New members need to be placed in a class and/or small group. They won’t ask. They might not even complain. But if they aren’t helped to make connections, they’ll leave.
* New members need to be involved in some sort of ministry. If the small group or class does ministry as a group, then you’ve met two needs with one ministry. (This is the structure we’re moving to. See here.)
* The need to connect members with a ministry is not about meeting the church’s needs. Well, it is. But not foremost. Members will feel more ownership and will grow more rapidly in their discipleship if they are expected to do something for others within the church’s ministries. And they’ll make friends.
If a church gets serious about ministry as an expected, normative aspect of membership, the church will have all the volunteers it needs.
But we tend to consider ministry as some super-high level of maturity, to one day be accomplished after years of study and growth. Megachurches expect all members to serve somehow, some way. Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback, is famous for saying that they don’t have enough chairs for seat warmers. All members must serve or else transfer to another congregation!
This attitude derives from a radically different view of how to do church. Rather than the preacher seeking a bigger audience or the treasurer wanting more givers, the church sees itself as being all about mission — and mission requires workers. Jesus calls us to discipleship, not a lifetime of study and song.
We do a huge disservice to our members when we allow them to treat us like a drive through restaurant — just pull in for 55 minutes of 5 acts of worship (you want fries with that?) and then go home and not think about Jesus or church again for 7 days.
In short, the methods that make a megachurch grow will also make a smaller church grow. After all, all megachurches were once much smaller. Some started with 4 or 5 members only 10 years ago! But they understood the importance of intense, loving, intimate connections among their members and the necessity of calling each member to ministry.
And the two — relationships and ministry — synergistically build on each other, because we make the best, the most enduring friendships working together with our friends.