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Why big churches get bigger

It’s been about a year since our family started attending Journey Community Church in La Mesa.

For the past decade or so we had been small church people. Most of the congregations we’ve been a part of (and worked at) were a couple hundred people. But, for a number of reasons, we started attending at Journey last Spring.

There are some obvious reasons people come to a bigger church… things like:

  • They do worship services really, really well. I can’t think of a time a technical issue has truly disrupted the flow of a service at Journey.
  • The preaching is always for the masses. I’m not sure why, but in smaller contexts the preaching has a tendency to respond to issues within the church a lot more than in a small context.
  • Programs. Programs. Programs. Dear Lord! There are programs for anything and everything at a big church. I’m waiting for Journey to start a class for how to start a class at Journey.
  • The disappearance factor is high. When you attend a church with a couple thousand people you can be as anonymous as you want. Plus, if you ever need anything— anything at all— it’s all right there at your disposal.
  • Big things are possible! When you have a big church with lots of hands available, you can pull off big huge thing after big huge thing. The crazy thing is that since there are so many people… pulling off something huge doesn’t exhaust the congregation in the way it would in a small church.

I’m sure there are more, big obvious reasons why big churches grow. I don’t buy into the idea that God has blessed them more or that their staffs are better or anything like that. I know too many people to think that the case.

But let me clue you in to the big one. One that actually drew us to Journey in the first place.

Triangulation.

People who study marketing and specifically those who study the art of sales, know that in order to make an impression on you about they need to triangulate. You need to see a message about that product in 3 different modes. You need to hear about Geico on the radio. Then you need to see a Facebook ad. Then you need to see their gecko on the side of a blimp at a sporting event. When you are looking for car insurance… everywhere you look you see Geico. So you call.

The same factor is super high at a big church. 

One reason people end up at big churches is the triangulation of connection. It’s easy to find other people or have a social connection to people in a bigger church even if you never meet them at the church. You just start bumping into them all over. Even when you meet a person whose sister goes to Journey, that makes an impression.

Think about the social connection you make with any stranger… When you meet someone out in the community we each have an innate desire to seek social connection with them. There is always a little dance that happens when two people are getting to know one another. They shake hands or start chit chatting in line at the store, and they start dancing for a social connection. Sometimes its as simple as watching the same TV show. But you’d be surprised how often a church person will find another church person or a person through their church network will be connected to someone they meet in the community.

Part of what is happening that makes a place like Journey grow is that it’s very easy to find little points of social connections.For us, it felt like all of the people in our lives had a connection at Journey. We joked about it feeling like a gravitational pull was dragging us there because everyone we knew went there.

That’s triangulation in action. When you start to use the church as a place of social connection– that’s a powerful draw and it can overcome almost anything. 

Photo credit: Dave Gray via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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7 Responses to Why big churches get bigger

  1. Lisette Fraser June 4, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    I’d never thought of it that way – great insight! Working at a larger church for the first time, I see this in action all the time – just hadn’t put a name to it! 

  2. KJ June 4, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Wow….now that I’ve picked myself up off the floor I can type my comment!

    I need to “triangulate” the fact that you have written something positive about big church, programs, etc. I’ll put it on facebook, tweet about it and maybe even rent a blimp! (winky face).

    I think you’re right, Adam.  Most people, even introverts who want to hide in the crowd (which, as you mentioned is very easy in a bigger church), want to feel like they are “part of something”. Being part of a smaller church, or even a house church, certainly qualifies and meets a TON of needs a larger church can’t (my best friend is the pastor of a house church, and when I visit I always get a taste of something very unique that my church can’t provide), but running into churchmates at Target, at the movie theater, on facebook, etc. on a regular basis helps you feel like you are part of something exciting, with momentum, etc.

    Lots of negatives about big churches…..LOTS.  But lots of positives, too, and I think you listed most of them.  I’ll actually add one that might shock some folks: Care.

    Because so many large churches have great follow-up systems, small group structures….and even ENTIRE departments dedicated to caring for the congregation, they are actually quite good at genuine pastoral ministry.

    • Adam McLane June 4, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      You crack me up. Hmm… lemme know if you rent that blimp. It’d be awesome! 

      You are right about the care ministry stuff. It’s pretty funny having my toes in so many worlds because I see strengths and weaknesses of a lot of different groups. One of the annoying “lies” that I hear from the missional / small church tribe is that they are better at stuff like caring about parishioners. In reality, everyone cares about the people in their churches. Some churches are better at having mechanisms of care… and larger churches typically have the record keeping and dedicated people to look at the data in ways that a small church can’t. 

      Some of that is why I like mixing people. When small church people hang with big church folks and visa versa they quickly see they have way more in common than they thought. 

  3. Gwenheathcock June 4, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Really interesting, Adam. We have been fighting with ourselves over attending the huge church that Eric’s sister and her family attend. When we lived in Memphis before, it was not an option for us…too big, too easy to get lost in the masses. But now the size draws us as there are so many opportunities for us and for the kids. More points of connections to draw our teenager is and help him find his place in the church. And I have to admit that after several years of hanging in through major changes we didn’t necessarily agree with, I am looking forward to being a part of a church where there are enough people to fill the needs that I can just sit and worship and breathe for a time.

  4. Tim Ghali June 5, 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Nice post Adam.  Like you and Lisette, I have really had to rethink some of my pats experiences and presumptions on the large church as I now serve in one.  So much good can happen, like the volunteer energy (which turns out is not bottomless but it is deeper).  One of the other aspects I like is that for those seeking community, there is an urgency to find it in the big church and our primary “system” for that is small groups.  As this is my ministry focus now, I’m surprised that I don’t have to sell this idea, everyone who wants to connect instinctively seeks this.  The challenges include having enough groups on particular days in particular areas, etc.

    This is a significant shift for me because win the last two churches I served in, this was not as obvious as a realization.  

    I’m still wrestling with consumerism (which is everywhere) and how easy it is to hide in a big church (which depending on someone’s life season may not be a bad thing … for a short time) but I think I am most encouraged by the conversations we have about these challenges as a staff.  

  5. Becky Daye June 8, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    But… :)  What’s the purpose of church?  To be big and grow bigger?  Or to glorify God?  Show me a church that is seeking to glorify God and I don’t care what size it is.  The danger in having everything be perfect and big and all the programs is that it can easily shift from being all about God to all about you.  The danger in being small is that you can think that you don’t have anything to offer and that you need to be more things to more people in order to grow.  And that shifts focus from God as well.
    I get the marketing stuff, but that can cause people to get too full of themselves (thinking of the tower of Babel).  Instead, every church should be seeking God, humbly bowing before Him and desiring to be faithful.  
    I love worshiping in a big church from time to time, but I love being in a small church and faithfully serving God with my family.  Because it’s not about me, it’s about Him!

  6. Judy June 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    If only Christianity was really about good music, lots of programs, big exposure, and lots of people. if only….

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