I learned something in my first year of seminary that finally made sense of church dynamics for me:
You can be good at leading a group or building a community and still be really bad at following Jesus.
I don’t know if my professor, who happened to be on staff at a local megachurch, would have said it quite like that. Rather, during his teachings on the dynamics of church ministry, from leadership development to small group ministry, I saw that there is often a rather large gap between the organizational abilities of growing churches and the churches that are struggling.
That isn’t to overlook the many other factors that cause a church to grow or decline. I mean, how long do you have to read this post?
A particular statement from this lecture caught my attention: “Sometimes the big churches can do small better than small churches.”
That isn’t to say that a church ONLY needs to manage its groups well to grow, but a church leadership team’s ability to manage certain dynamics can go a long way toward determining the numerical growth of the congregation.
We could argue that, of course, a church must have certain elements in place to be somewhat stable, if not healthy. The sermons, songs, and prayers shouldn’t be out of left field. And yet, there are plenty of small churches where the pastor faithfully teaches a small group of people a biblically grounded sermon, while some massive megachurches have sermons that amount to biblical entertainment. In other cases, crowds flock to hear the hot, dynamic preacher whose sermons are basically transcribed into best-selling books on the spot regardless of their substance.
All of this is to say, the size and vitality of a church may have very little to do with the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Plenty of churches hum along whether or not Pentecost really happened or has any measure of relevance for today. A church may grow large because its leaders have an intimate relationship with the parental love of God or because its leaders have experience as high-powered executives who get stuff done.
When a prominent church leaders fails, I remember what my seminary professor said about big churches “doing small well.” Although it’s perfectly possible that this leader has had an authentic relationship with Christ and an authentic ministry empowered by God before failing morally, the growth of a church may hinge on a leader’s ability to manage people. Maintaining that growth may call on skill sets that pull leaders away from a deeper spiritual life.
Managing people is a neutral thing. I suspect that every church leader needs to reckon with this at times, but it’s possible that a church leader could lead a massive congregation because of off the chart talents on the management side that hide spiritual or biblical deficiencies. That isn’t to make a blanket statement about megachurch pastors or leaders. I know some personally who have a stable inner spiritual life while leading a large group.
The key is that we’ve seen enough megachurch pastors fall or end up spiritually empty to say something about the elephant in the room. A pastor can grow a large church, preach a super sermon, or manage large groups of people without a deep inner spiritual life. Those things shouldn’t be our indicators of God’s authentic presence and life.
Stepping away from the lights, speakers, and jam-packed auditoriums; turning away from church offices packed with computers, copiers, and phones; leaving the climate controlled lobby and plush furniture behind, we may have a greater opportunity to hear the present voice of God in a whisper. It wasn’t all a lie, but perhaps we have looked at the wrong signs for the presence of God.