Changing the metaphor for small church


A couple months back I raised some eyebrows by saying that medium-sized churches were in crisis. Since that post I’ve had dozens more conversations which confirm that it isn’t just me seeing this, it really is happening. Church leaders all nod their head when they read Seth Godin,Big is the new small. But you’ll always have big.” In the business world, Wal*Mart is still getting bigger while medium-sized outlets struggle to exist. But the real growth in retail happens in the mom-and-pop shop online. The same is coming true in chuch-world.

In churches, the big will keep getting bigger. Just like people are driven to the big box retailers, people are continuing to be drawn the big box churches. I say… let them have their big buildings, ginormous programs, and endless pursuit of perfection. While it doesn’t appeal to everyone… certainly, that appeals to masses and its obvious that those megachurches will/should continue to get mega-er.

For them, the business model really is the best model for church. 10% effort and 90% profit.

But for small churches, the best model is a farm. 90% effort and 10% profit.

Both are noble. Both are valuable. But both operate in strikingly different manners.

I see that we are at the forefront of seeing an explosion of small, niche based small churches. Just like it’s easy to dream of an online shop selling homemade Mario Brothers crafts and finding an audience on, it’s getting increasingly easy to build a church around a niche. People are more-than-happy to drive 50 miles to worship with people in their tribes who share their passions. That’s why we’re seeing a major wave of church planters who successfully grow from 1 to 200 and then plateau… happily. They are churches full of artists or surfers or engineers or soccer players.

Differences between business models and farming models of church leadership.

At the core it’s this: Business models are driven by growth. Farming models are driven by sustainability.

home-depot1. Success is different. In business models growth is expected every year. You are expected to have a larger audience in 2010, 2011, 2012 or you’ve failed. When you reach saturation you have to franchise by planting a new megachurch or going to satellite services somehow. Plateau is the enemy, growth is measurable. In a farming model, growth is important but sustainability is more important. A farming-based model recognizes that you’ll have bumper crop seasons where there will be temptation to grow the farm… but you don’t, intentionally, because you know there will be tough times when a bigger farm would lead to failure. Successful farmers expect good years and bad years.

2. Discipleship is different. Examine any discipleship method in the business model of church and it all goes back to the Sonlife model taught in youth ministry of the 80s. Win-Build-Equip-Multiply. Navigators, Sonlife, Willow Creek, Saddleback, North Point… all of those models are designed to grow a church through multiplication. In a farming model, it’s all about yield per person. How can I maximize growth with the people that I have? How can the people within my congregation grow the most? How can I love them more? Since farming is about sustainability and not multiplication discipleship is always about maintaining a healthy ecclesia. One isn’t better or more biblical than the other… they are just different methods. (Of course, proponents of each think their model is superior!)

3. Leadership is different. A large church pastor is driven [and held accountable] by growth. There are many good ramifications of this. Tens of thousands of people are introduced to the Gospel… please don’t misread that I’m saying big churches are bad. But a nasty byproduct of that drive for growth is that the successful church in this model really becomes about the pastor. New Spring is Perry Noble’s church. is Craig Groeschell’s church. Willow Creek is Bill Hybels church. North Point is Andy Stanley’s church. Mars Hills is Mark Driscoll’s church (Or Rob Bell’s church, depending which coast you live in.) On and on. While those leaders never desire to create a cult of personality… the leadership-style that creates that movement of God draws that type of person in the same way Ebay is Meg Whitman’s company, Microsoft is Bill Gates company, and Apple is Steve Jobs company. Contrary to what you might think… I don’t think the drive to grow a large church is evil. It’s perfectly fine and healthy to live within that paradigm. My fear with those churches is that there simple isn’t a succession plan if/when that leader steps away! Look back to last generations megachurches and you see the problem and how it plays out.

soy-fieldA small church pastor is driven by sustainability. It always has to be about the people, the families, and the community. Since everyone will actually know everyone in a small, niche-based church can’t afford a cult of personality. In a small church the people are always aware that the pastor won’t be there forever… and so they hold the pastor accountable by making him make sustainable decisions. The small church pastor is motivated by “the farm” and he isn’t frustrated when there are bad times… it’s just part of what he does. He fertilizes and tills the ground, he maximizes the yield, and he understands that good and bad times are part of the ebb and flow of small church ministry.

4. Expectations are different. Values in a large church are that things will be professional, smooth, highly organized, and striving for perfection. In a small, farm-modeled church, excellence is nice when you have an excellent person… but the expectation is “the best we can do.” That’s why there was so much pride in Mainstreet when I was in Romeo. It was the best thing we could do and we were proud of it. Sure, it wasn’t Broadway quality. Reggie Joiner wasn’t going to come to Romeo and write a book about how we adopted his model with cardboard and a fat youth pastor dressed like a cow. But no one in Romeo really expected it to be and we set it up in a way that could sustain. That’s why Mainstreet is still happening even after I moved away. In a small, niche/affinity based church, perfection isn’t the goal… the niche is the goal. Quaint is good! Rock that quirky church, baby! Mrs. Nelson’s son playing on the piano poorly is just fine. A kids program lead by an ex-stripper now Christian grandma is a blessing. Ministries lead by teenagers is about sustainability of the niche-based church… not about having the best leaders teaching.

What do you think? Do you think it’s time to introduce a model for small church ministry that is based on sustainability? Do you agree with this premise… or am I way off?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.


  1. Adam, couldn’t a large church also be driven by sustainability, like having a “mega-farm?” Couldn’t a smaller church also strive for growth, to be the kind of farm that actually grows something too? I know the two aren’t mutually exclusive–and I don’t think you’re communicating it as such–but I wonder if it is still not quite as cut and dry as saying that large churches are businesses and small churches are farms. Sustainability seems to be something every church should seek, but I understand how the cult of personality can inadvertently create a culture where sustainability only goes as far as the leader in charge at the time.

  2. Joel- like any good metaphor… we have to be careful to take it metaphorically. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!

    I think you raise a good point that they aren’t mutually exclusive. And I would hope than ANY big church leader thinks and works hard at sustainability after they move on.

    I really want my point to be this… smaller church need to find a better metaphor to strive after. What I run across is frustrated and disappointed church leaders. I think that if they spent more time modeling their ministries after farms instead business models, they’d be more satisfied in doing it longitudinally.

    At the same time, I’m cool if you think I’m just wrong!

  3. @Adam, I definitely don’t think you’re wrong, and I like the metaphor of a farm for churches. I do like metaphors a lot, and I do have a tendency to just run with ’em! 🙂 Farms have to do with creating healthy environments that can sustain growth, require lots of hard work and patience, are in tune with seasons, and feel a bit more contextual than a large church. I think your appraisal of large and small church philosophies is accurate.

    Can I push back a little though? The only aspect of your suggestions that I wonder about is the niche-based approach and its connection to sustainability. I could see how creating a tribe of people with similar passions could end up being more of a trend-based and even homogenous church if the leadership isn’t careful. I think a church filled only with artists or only engineers would be missing out on something. And there’s a good chance I missed your point about niche-based. Any thoughts?

  4. wow! We are small church soul-mates.

    You are totally on. Seth is completely right….small is the new big.

    I never thought about your argument of sustainability vs. growth.

    Also research indicates that smaller group have more of an impact than bigger groups. Everyone expects the bigger groups to do amazing things, but no one rarely expects small groups to do great things.

    I think a small church ministry that can find their specific niche and be comfortable, confident, and clear that God is calling them to that–than small churches would be able to realize that they don’t have to be all things to all people.

    I think mega-church youth ministries models have done a huge dis-service to smaller youth ministries because they mega models indirectly challenge smaller ministries to “multiply”. In addition, these mega models expect smaller ministries to fulfill all of the elements in the Great Commission, rather than challenging them to focus their ministry on 1 chapter in Acts.

    Thanks for this post. : )
    Keep it small and simple.

  5. Joel, I don’t think I gave the best example of niche-based churches. It seems I gave examples of things that would work inside a youth ministry… but I suppose in a large metro, those are groups of affinity I could see people drawn to as adults.

    By way of example, my family drives about 6 minutes to our church. So I couldn’t say that we just go to the church that’s most in our neighborhood. We chose to be a part of Harbor because it is in our neighborhood AND it touches on our primary affinities… a desire to live out the Gospel tangibly and a desire to reach a community.

    Do I think large churches don’t think enough about sustainability? Absolutely! They are modeling themselves after companies that became hits 20 years ago. My contention is that these churches who use business methodology are actually using the VERY WORST business models out there! There is such a thing as “too big” and not because they can’t keep growing, but because they have chosen a poor model.

  6. Adam, I think you’re right about the business methodologies being out of date and not working; just look at the state of our economy! 🙂

    You’ve given me a lot to think about, mostly because I’m doing ministry in a larger church (not a megachurch, just large) and we in the leadership are actually wrestling with how to create a culture of sustainability and find our niche as a church in our community. So great post; you’ve gotten me thinking a lot! Thanks for this.

  7. As a first-generation-not-farming-the- family-farm because there is not enough money in it to survive, let me poke at your farm metaphor. Farming has lost and not yet regained its sense of stewardship. Factory farms are in and sustainable agriculture is only a question mark.

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