We in the Churches of Christ tend to assume that all congregations must operate pretty much the same way. There’s this “pattern” that all churches must follow. Of course, there are exceptions, but not many.
For example, we teach that churches must be elder led, with deacons running ministries. Unless the church is too small, then it has no elders and no deacons and is run by the men via a “business meeting.”
We have lots of experience with small churches, but big churches are largely a new experience for us. Can we run a church of 1,000 the same way as a church of 100? Does the Bible place restraints on how we can lead a church of over 500 or 1,000?
Tim Keller recently posted an explanation for how church dynamics change as the church grows. Keller is Presbyterian, and Presbyterian Churches are organized very differently from Churches of Christ, and yet many of the same principles apply —
The difference between how churches of 100 and 1,000 function may be much greater than the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist church of the same size. The staff person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another. …
Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.
For example, if some members of a church of 2,000 feel they should be able to get the senior pastor personally on the phone without much difficulty, they are insisting on getting a kind of pastoral care that a church of under 200 provides. Of course the pastor would soon be overwhelmed. Yet the members may insist that if he can’t be reached he is failing his biblical duty to be their shepherd.
Another example: the new senior pastor of a church of 1,500 may insist that virtually all decisions be made by consensus among the whole board and staff. Soon the board is meeting every week for six hours each time!
As Keller notes,
Larger churches have a great deal of difficulty keeping track of members who drop out or fall away from the faith. This should never be accepted as inevitable. Rather, the large church must continually struggle to improve pastoral care and discipleship. …
The smaller church by its nature gives immature, outspoken, opinionated, and broken members a significant degree of power over the whole body. Since everyone knows everyone else, when members of a family or small group express strong opposition to the direction set by the pastor and leaders, their misery can hold the whole congregation hostage. If they threaten to leave, the majority of people will urge the leaders to desist in their project. It is extremely difficult to get complete consensus about programs and direction in a group of 50–150 people, especially in today’s diverse, fragmented society, and yet smaller churches have an unwritten rule that for any new initiative to be implemented nearly everyone must be happy with it. Leaders of small churches must be brave enough to lead and to confront immature members, in spite of the unpleasantness involved.
It’s hard for small churches to grow large because often one family insists on a decision that makes growth impossible. It’s hard for large churches to grow larger because it’s so hard to keep track of people.
In Churches of Christ, size differences impact several things. For example, in a small church, the deacons may cut the grass and lock the building. In a church of 500, those jobs may be hired out. In a church of 500, the deacons will likely be program heads, responsible for overseeing a ministry with dozens or more volunteers. Men who were great deacons when the church had 100 members may not serve effectively when the church grows to 300.
Larger churches will have more ministries run by women (although some will pretend it’s not true). It’s just not possible to run children’s, teen, and campus ministries without significant leadership by women. Indeed, churches may find that many ministries once run by all-male deacons are led by women because the women are just too talented to be denied — and there aren’t enough qualified men to do all that needs to be done. These churches soon shift from deacon-led ministries to ministries led by the gender neutral “ministry leaders.”
The role of the preacher changes as the church grows. In a small church, he may be the entire staff. In a larger staff, he may be a co-minister with two or more other ministers — some of whom may be women. A preacher who is excellent in a church of 150 may not be able to work within a much larger staff. Indeed, in a church of over 500, it may be necessary for the preacher or another staff member to oversee the staff. The job may get too big for the elders.
Indeed, as a church grows, the role of the elders shifts, as well. Elders can personally know every member in a church of 200, but not in a church of 1,000. Members will all know their elders in a church of 100, but many may have little personal relationship with an elder in a church of 1,000 — unless the church works in a very concerted way to change that outcome. Things that happen naturally in a church of 100 — everyone knowing the preacher and the elders — become very difficult in a church of 1,000.
Indeed, one of the biggest barriers to church growth is trying to run a church of 300 the same way you ran a church of 100. At 100, you could talk to everyone before making a big decision — but not at 300. At 300, most members don’t expect to be involved in all decisions — except the ones who were there when the church was at 100!
So that was a lot to say just to ask: What has been your experience as your church has grown or you’ve move to a larger or smaller church? What should leaders watch out for?