I’ve never been in a megachurch environment for more than a Sunday or two. My experience is all with smaller to mid-sized churches. I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena in these churches. Everybody says they want the church to grow. But they also say they like the smaller church feel. Kinda confused? Me, too. We want the church to grow and stay small. We want the church to grow but not change. Obviously, many of us aren’t sure what we really want.
But let me make a point from this conundrum. There are people (a lot of them evidently) who want the megachurch phenomena. But there are others who want a growing, vibrant church, but do not want to get lost in the weeds of a big church. I think that there may be a way to do both.
Churches Have to Grow
First of all, let me say that there is nothing wrong with being small. Babies are born small and we make fools of ourselves cooing and coddling them. Babies are cute and wonderful and exciting. There is nothing wrong with being small.
But there is something wrong with staying small. I get tickled when people see a baby and say, “Wow, you’ve really grown” – as if they are surprised! That’s what babies do. They grow. If they don’t, there is something wrong. There is nothing wrong with a church being small, but if a church stays small, that is usually evidence of some kind of spiritual illness. The natural course of life is growth. The natural course of a living church is to grow, to reach people, to “add daily to their number those who are being saved.”
When a church is small and has stayed small, there is usually a reason for that. There are churches in small towns or rural areas that do not have many folks to reach and thus will never grow to be big. That’s a special case. But most churches that stay small do so for unhealthy reasons. For some, it is a cadre of powerful folks who strangle the life and growth out of the fellowship. Some churches are small because they lack a vision for growth. Some are small because conflict has caused amputations to the Body of Christ. Some communities have several smaller churches that used to be one bigger church.
There are certainly places where it is easier to plant a church and see it grow. Iowa can be rocky soil for planting SBC churches – we are viewed as some weird Southern cult. I know some who labor in Muslim countries and the growth there can be painfully slow. But I still maintain that the natural course of a healthy church is to grow.
But, does that mean that every church should seek to be a megachurch? Is that the only course for growth that we have?
Is Bigger Always Better?
There is one prominent blogger (whom I respect and enjoy reading) who constantly regales us with tales of the successes of larger churches and their pastors and givesl analysis of their successes. But frankly, there are a lot of us who do not want to be part of megachurches. Maybe it is sour grapes or jealousy. But I have some serious questions about the megachurch phenomenon.
Certainly, megachurches can have mega-ministries, provide inspirational and creative worship services, generally have charismatic pastors in their pulpits. But I think it is accurate to say that the early church was generally very small – focused on home cell groups and smaller gatherings. My fear is that the larger church gathering that we seek today sacrifices some important elements of NT worship.
As I read the instructions of 1 Corinthians 14 about proper worship, I am struck with the idea that NT worship was participatory. Everyone brought a song to sing, a word to exhort others with, a testimony to share. It was not pastor and praise team as performers and congregants as an audience. There were no spectators. And there was a personal fellowship and accountability that is simply not possible in larger settings. Effective megachurches realize this and have smaller groups where this fellowship takes place. But it is essential to Christian growth.
But, I am saying that while I want my church to grow, I am not sure I want to have one church of 1500 or 2000. Oh, I can’t deny it would be cool to pastor a church that big (and probably a huge headache as well), but is that the goal that I should strive for?
So, essentially, the question is this: How do we grow without getting bigger?
Introducing Southern Hills Baptist Church
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I am trying to figure out how to lead Southern Hills Baptist Church into the future. SHBC is one of the stronger SBC churches in Iowa (that’s not saying much) but there are some dynamics that bother me. I’m going to share with you where we are as a church and the struggles I see ahead for us. I not only covet your prayers, but I ask for your advice. As I share with you the plan that is forming in my mind, I’d like you to
I’d like to tell you a little about the dynamics of my church and then tell you what I am thinking about doing. I want to tell you a little about the dynamics of Southern Hills and some of our recent history.
Two Churches – One Building
I pastor at least two churches. No, we are only one congregation officially, but we are at least two in philosophy and attitude. The two churches get along well and we are not a church at conflict (anymore – see part 2). But we are nonetheless two churches. This happened over time. It was not intentional. When the pastor who led the church in rapid growth split our Sunday worship into two services, the intent was to have both services be blended. But through a series of events, gradually the two services evolved into two styles. By the time I got here in 2005, we had two services with two very different styles. Our 8:30 service is contemporary in style and generally attracts about 2/3 of our congregation. Our 11:00 service is very traditional and the other 1/3 come to that.
We have some absolutely wonderful folks who migrated to SHBC when a Bible Church a few miles away imploded. It was a very conservative (fundamentalist) and traditional church and these folks brought their attitudes and viewpoints with them. They are salt-of-the-earth people – supportive, generous and they LOVE the Word. But they have attitudes that were shaped in the 50’s and 60’s. They think that singing any song that is not in the hymnal is an offense against God. They believe that wearing a tie and coat to church is a biblical imperative. In other words, they believe that our early service is probably not real worship! One man came to me to discuss a “growing problem” in our fellowship – that some people were bringing water bottles into the sanctuary and sipping from them during church. Horrifying!
These are people who love God and God’s Word and genuinely desire to serve him. But they believe that the best way to do it is the old-fashioned way. They are not mean about it (well, not usually) but it is simply the way that they think.
I also have some committed young folks who just want to worship God and grow in a more free and open style. They want to come in casual clothes and stand to sing and raise their hands and all of that. They love Jesus just like the more traditional group, they just have a completely different way of going about it.
Keep that in mind while I tell you a story. After the story, I will try to tie these things together.
An Accidental Church Plant
All of what I am about to tell you happened before my time in Sioux City. My account is based on conversations iwth many people. I will try to state facts without judgment.
SHBC was a thriving, rapidly growing fellowship when the senior pastor whom God had used to bring that growth went to another state to serve the Master. The church hired a pastor and things went sour soon. No details or interpretation is needed. In the summer of 2004, a group decided it was time to leave. In November of 2004, the pastor left.
While it was not their original intent, this group of dedicated Christians and close friends decided to form a church on the north side of town. (Our name, Southern Hills, is descriptive of our location in Sioux City). It has been perhaps the most successful church plan in Iowa over the last 5 years. They are very nearly our size now (about 250-300) and will probably pass us in size in the next year or two.
For the record, our churches are reconciled and fellowship well together in our association.
Divide and Conquer
So, here’s the thing. Our church divided into two groups. Now, there are two healthy churches in Sioux City. Would I recommend church conflict as a means of church planting? Of course not.
But what if we could do the same thing without the conflict? What if the splits were intentional? What if we intentionally divided one church into two smaller churches and let those churches grow strong? Divide and conquer!
The normal method of church planting produces mixed results around here. Start a Bible study, gather a small nucleus, find a church planter who labors diligently to birth a church. That church often struggles to become an independent, self-sustaining church.
But, in Sioux City, a church was “planted” with a cadre of mature, missional and enthusiastic folks, and that church has prospered and contributes to the CP without ever having taken CP money to sustain its growth. Sioux City now has two healthy SBC churches, and together we are bigger than this church was before the trouble took place.
One church split into two and now the two have gone beyond where the one had been.
Whatever we can say about the painful details, the simple fact is this – IT WORKED!
What’s the Point?
I’ve been thinking (often a dangerous thing). I’ve got two churches coexisting (well) with very different philosophies of ministry and preferences. Why not intentionally divide SHBC into two churches? Why not send a group of 50 or 75 over to South Sioux City (Nebraska – just across the Missouri River) and plant a church there? Then, when one or the other church grows, we split again.
Would it be better to have one church of 1000 is Sioux City, or ten churches of 100 each?
The Mitosis Method
I call this the mitosis method of church planting. Mitosis is the process of splitting one cell into two cells, which each can then grow to gain the size and function of the original. It is also sometimes called binary fission (as I understand it, the difference has to do with whether the cell nucleus divides into two). Here is what I am prayerfully considering. Tell me what you think.
- We would look for a location in South Sioux (a school, rental facility, whatever) where we could meet. We would probably take the contemporary ministry over there. Many younger folks actually prefer not being in “churchy” buildings for worship.
- I had one crazy thought. There is a Mexican restaurant in South Sioux with a huge dance floor area. It would be perfect for a contemporary church. I thought it would be hilarious to worship surrounded by Budweiser and Michelob signs (just don’t tell certain bloggers).
- We would begin the church as a satellite. Our church staff would continue to serve both churches. Right now, we have an 8:30 service and one at 11:00. At first, we’d just be moving the early service off site. We’d have a worship service at 9:30 in South Sioux while Sunday School is happening here. Then, I’d drive back to Southern Hills for the 11:00 service.
- After a time, when both churches are growing and established, we would split the two fellowships completely – with perhaps some continuing shared ministries. I think it is best to move toward eventually having both churches be independent and self-sustaining.
- We would look to continue this process. When one of the churches grows to be about 150-200 people, we’d look to perhaps send another group off to plant a church in another part of town. With the mitosis method, we could blanket Sioux City with vibrant Southern Baptist churches.
- I believe that the northside church might partner with us in this and more healthy churches could grow in Siouxland. (Sioux City includes Nebraska’s South Sioux and South Dakota’s North Sioux – we call the general area Siouxland).
I’m interested in what you think about all this, about the mitosis method church planting.
Do you know of anyone who has actually done this? How has it worked?