Church Leadership

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.


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)
Church Leadership

High-trust, low-control

A movement cannot grow in a low-trust, high-control environment. 

But a dictatorship can. (Cuba)

A corporation can. (McDonald’s)

A gang can. (Al Capone)

In a low-trust, high-control environment leadership is supreme. Decisions flow from top to bottom. A high value is placed on replication and copying and perfecting. Efficiency is more important than individualism. And the everyday worker has virtually no voice. In fact, the less voice the worker has the better.


You want to see what church growth looks like? Remove the money. Learn about the Boxer Revolution and how that changed the church in China. All the western missionaries and their hierarchical structures went away. (Or were killed) And the church went underground.

Thus, a low-control and high-trust structure was forced to emerge. When the church went from an Augustinian mindset with paid staff and buildings and budgets and fake-butts-in-seats to an underground movement of unpaid pastors on the run, meeting in house churches, and people risking their life to be a part of it… the church became a movement again. The Gospel spread neighbor to neighbor because it is Good News. People risked their lives to be called a Christian.

And it became an unstoppable force. (I’ve heard estimates in the hundreds of millions of converts during the 20th century in China.)

Jesus designed the church as an insurgency. Looking at church history, the times when the church has been most effective have been in a high-trust, low-control environment. The Roman Empire conquered every people group in its path but was conquered from the inside-out by an insurgency of the heart.

A core problem in America is the rapid embrace of a low-trust, high-control leadership structure. “Church growth experts” (and their books and conferences) encourage church leaders to remove the voice of the people and go to staff-lead models. To generalize, the staff become the local experts on everything from discipleship to sex and the people become relatively voiceless, idea-less, worker bees in support of the vision of the leadership. These high-control, low-trust leaders proudly say things like, “This is the type of church we are. If you don’t like it, you can leave. There are plenty of churches out there.

I’ve heard leaders say that at leadership events. And people in leadership write that down. And underline it. As if asking people to leave who disagree with you is a sign of a powerful leader. (Hint: Surrounding yourself with people who agree with you makes you a wimp of a leader.)

So many people have left the church. Sure, there are examples of big churches you can look to and hope for growth in that model. But I can schedule a tour of a 25,000 square foot church for sale 500 yards from my house that says there is no hope in that model.

You can’t create an insurgency of the heart with a low-trust, high-control model. People will die for Jesus but they won’t die for you. 

La Raza

The church will grow when we give power back to the people. Not just the power to serve leaders vision, but real— actual power over their day-to-day church life. We give lip service to the Priesthood of all Believers but we don’t live it out. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom.” In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: “No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.” Source

Friends, our lips say we believe in the Protestant doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers but we fund a priesthood among us.

Are you saying we have to fire people?

Listen. I’m not saying that we need to eliminate church staff. I’m saying that if we want to see the church grow again, in a post-Christian America, we need leaders to lead towards decentralization of power. We need paid staff to see their job as expert equippers and not expert speakers. We need to measure leaders on their ability to replicate Jesus and not themselves. We need leaders to unleash an insurgency and not continue an occupation.

So indeed, we probably need to fire some people who won’t embrace the present reality we live in. But new leaders will emerge. The Holy Spirit has always provided. Indeed, there are leaders in your pews today who could do this if only you allowed it.

And which people should we pay? Probably the ones who don’t want to be paid. 

youth ministry

Youth Ministry is Flatlining

If I were to plot out the average youth ministry attendance in a local church this is probably what it would look like.

So when I say, “The way you are doing ministry is failing to reach students. It’s not you, it’s your strategy.” Youth workers look at me and say, “No, that’s not true. We are actually reaching more students than we were 10 years ago with less budget.

And from their vantage point, looking at that one view of the population of adolescents in their community, they could be right. They are reaching 10-15% more students than they were 10 years ago.

Flatlined growth

However, when you compare students engaged in youth ministry to the overall student population in your school district it looks a lot like this.

This is what I mean by “you are failing to reach students with the programs you currently offer.

Statistically speaking you are flatlined. (As in– no heart beat!) You’re reaching just about the same percentage of people you’ve always reached. That may be OK from a church politics situation but I’m not sure I’m OK with that from a theological position.

And I’m positive that this flatlining has lead to the following problems in youth ministry over the last decade:

  • A general cynicism about youth ministry internally and externally.
  • A decrease in youth ministry staff and general budget funding.
  • An increase in expectations that new youth ministry staff grow the program immediately.
  • Lots of great youth workers moving on to other ministries or careers.
  • The rise of family ministry models designed to circle the wagons. (Historically, youth ministry existed for evangelism. Popular models today are primarily interested in keeping church families engaged.)

Students are involved… just not in youth ministry

According to this 1995 study, 79.9% of all high school students were involved in an after school activity. I know that this study is 17 years old– but we would all agree that that percentage likely hasn’t changed much in 20 years, correct? (Maybe +/- 10%)

Every youth ministry strategy I know of is trying to wedge their way into this pie graph. They are looking for students, ultimately, to forego involvement in one of the programs at the school and invest in their program.

After nearly 40 years of youth ministry we know that this isn’t going to happen. Even the best youth ministry program model might only wedge their way in there by 2-3% of total student involvement.

A theologically appropriate number of students are not going to stop involvement in other things to get “fully engaged” in a local youth ministry program. And even if they did this it wouldn’t be a good strategy for continued growth, would it?

It’s 2012. You have flatlined for the past decade. Are you ready to try a new strategy?

This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Ephesians 5:14

Stay tuned, subscribe via RSS or get my daily email. This year we are going to look at new youth ministry strategies that are breaking this model and reshaping the way students engage with Jesus.