We church leaders love them. Leadership. Church Growth. Church Planting. Name the flavor and preachers, ministers, youth and worship leaders will flock to them. The best worship bands, well-known authors, preachers, and teachers will fill our minds with ideas and our hearts with zeal. And there in the seats we sit, with our notebooks and laptops open, recording everything said, with high hopes of replicating their “success” in our ministries.
Unfortunately this seldom occurs. Either the notebooks get shelved, never to be opened again, their ideas forever unborn, or the ideas do get implemented, but the results are less than satisfactory. Sure, there’s the rare exception, but too often the let-down after a conference is an all too familiar reality for many a church leader.
The reasons why can be many, and I am in no means am trying to paint this problem with a one-size-fits-all brush. However, I believe that there is one major contributing factor to the disconnect between convention and successful application, namely that nearly all convention and conference speakers come from mega-churches.
Two Different Worlds
The mega-church. She averages over 2,000 in total weekly attendance. Multiple staff offer multiple ministries. Worship bands provide well-polished performances to help lead people in glorifying God. And polished speakers deliver flawless messages to the masses, thus making them the attractive choice for major conventions.
And did I mention that mega-churches represent less than 1% of churches in America¹ and less than 10% of church-goers attend churches of such size? That’s right, guys who lead less than 1% of churches are telling the 99% what they should do, and the 99% are paying for it! The fact is the mega-church is the anomaly, not the norm, and the context that mega-church leaders minister in is vastly different than what leaders in the 85% of churches who average 100 or less in weekly attendance are dealing with, and the result is major disconnect. So why does the mega-church leader get all the invites to speak at conferences? To answer that, let’s look at why the small church guy does not.
Small Church Rejection
The reasons why small-church guys don’t speak at conventions are varied, but the top answers I run across when I speak to friends who serve on planning committees are as follows.
- Excuse me, who are you? The number one reason I get when I ask why don’t conferences feature more guys from small churches is that they are largely unknown, and if you want to attract attendees you need recognizable names. Fair enough. But, why can’t small church guys be sandwiched in between Best-Selling Author and Mr. I-preach-to-10,000-every-week? That question usually gets the next response.
- Just Follow these 7 Easy Steps to Success. While few church leaders will flat out say that big attendance numbers are the best sign of a healthy church, even us small church guys have to admit that they can be a very tangible result. After all, if we are making disciples, we should expect those disciples to attend church somewhere. Because of this, success is often attached to big, and as one conference leader said, “people come to hear success stories.” I have more than once witnessed the sympathetic nod from bigger-church leaders when asked the size of the congregation I serve. That nod conveys the, “Hang in there dude. Not everybody can have the success we have had at XXL Church.” But what if I were to tell you that we have grown by nearly 90% in the last four years? Would that change your mind about how successful a “little church” of 100 has been?
- Big Church Guys Deliver the Best Sermons. Oh puh-lease! I have run across this particular argument in various forms. “Mega-Church ministers are accustomed to speaking in front of large audiences.” “We can’t guarantee small-church guys will communicate effectively.” Both of these are cop-outs. Enough small church guys podcast that you can get a feeling for their communication skills. As for being in front of a group that big, even mega-church ministers had to get their start somewhere. I will admit, I have heard many good sermons from big church preachers. I have also heard some very average ones, and even some terrible ones. The same can be said of small church ministers. There is many a pulpit in small sanctuaries across the nation that are occupied each week by unheralded but gifted preachers who are doing their best with the situations handed to them.
What the Small Church Preacher has to Offer
So why invite the small town guy to the big party? If nobody has heard of him, and very few people go to his church, and he’s never delivered a message to a few thousand people, what could he possibly have to offer?
- Perspective– Small church guys know the grind of being “the guy” in a single-staff environment. They know all too well how to wrestle the demons of tradition, limited resources, and loneliness. And, they can also speak to a wholly different demographic. Most mega-churches are suburban in setting and have a more affluent membership. Small churches occupy every demographic imaginable. Urban, rural, wealthy, poor, black, white, and other, small church leaders can speak to the challenges of ministering to their specific setting.
- A Report from the Front- In the great spiritual war in America that the Church is engaged in, small church leaders are in the trenches. They are highly engaged with their members on a personal level. Ask any minister at a single-staff church what problems his people are facing and he will tell you more than a handful of stories. Families fighting cancer. Small business owners fighting foreclosure. Marriages that need mending and children that need direction. And with each story comes a face. The details are intimate because the relationships are, and often there is one man to do the hospital calls, preach the funerals and counsel the couples. The work is often messy because life is a mess. Small church guys can speak to that mess and let the national Church community know that Satan is not gaining ground, not even in the small church.
- Practicality- A lot of conference speakers use broad generalities and concepts to try to convey that what they have done can work in multiple environments. While this may be true, that leaves the leg-work of application up to an already overworked and over-committed small church leader. Sometimes, small church guys need specific examples of a concept that works without having an army of volunteers, a foyer as large as their current building, and a budget that seems unlimited.
- Encouragement- Most of the attendees at conferences come from the 99% of churches smaller than 2,000 in attendance. In fact, most of them go to churches with less than a tenth of that attendance. It’s one thing to hear a guy who ministers in what can be perceived a perfect setting. It’s another thing entirely to hear from a guy who is making it work in their world. It’s also a nod to all the small church guys that says, “You and your work matter to the kingdom at large. You don’t have to preach to thousands every week to be considered a success by God.”
Amen to that.
¹If you trust John MacArthur’s claim that there are 250,000 churches in America compared to only 1,600 mega-churches.
Check out this conference held at Nebraska Christian College. It’s specifically designed for small rural churches, but it’s a great gathering for pastors who struggle with the issues of small churches. http://nechristian.edu/crca
Thanks for a thoughtful and well written article. I pastor in a small town and, like you, the church I lead has experienced some significant growth and is a part of great ministry but I have just about given up on attending church leadership/growth conferences over the years.
Love the article. Many of these conferences are underwritten by the booksellers who need to sell the books of big church pastors and make more money. Have you read those books?? Collections of sermons or stories or self help exercises. America is taken with celebrities and now we have them in the church too!
Just a small anecdotal clarification: Last year, for the North American Christian Convention, NACC President Mike Baker issued an invitation for preachers — regardless of church-size — to participate in a Preaching Marathon. Now, granted, when it happened, it happened at the end of a hallway; it was hard to find, it overlapped the workshops, there was no pulpit provided, and attendance was almost non-existent. But the thing to see is that it would appear that /hardly any preachers accepted the invitation/.
I do however think that it was a profound mistake to schedule Christine Caine as a speaker at the coming NACC. I do not know what the NACC’s organizers were thinking.
Great post! Very well articulated.
Spot on. Thanks for this.
I’m the pastor of a very small Lutheran church in Chicago. Yes, we’re small. But we average about 60% attendance; few of those megachurches can say that their weekly attendance is over maybe 33%. The people sing–real hymns, not happy-clappy, hoppy-poppy songs about “Jesus is my boyfriend”. We use the basic Lutheran liturgy as it appears in the 1941 hymnal. My sermons aren’t “how to” sermons. I preach the Law: that you are a sinner and lost without God; and the Gospel: that thanks to the perfect atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, you are saved and are made children of God. I preach that your salvation isn’t about your feelings, or about having faith in your faith; indeed, it’s not about anything you are or do. Rather it’s about who Jesus is and what He has done for you. I give the people this Gospel message, and I give them the Body and Blood of Christ in the Communion every Sunday. That doesn’t make me special. It isn’t my word, nor is it my body and blood, and I’m not doing anything that thousands of faithful Lutheran pastors (or tens of thousands of faithful pastors and priests) around the country aren’t doing. But the Lord would not be more present, were there a hundred times more people there each Sunday than there are by us.
Start a new church conference network, call it ‘real church: a network for small churches’ — who knows, maybe it will catch on. maybe all the small church guys will flock to that conference instead. 🙂
Start it John — I’ll be happy to host the first meeting!
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