Many believe that large equals liberal or bad means bad. We do not believe that to be the case. What a sad place that would force us into. God would have a vested interest in His Family staying small and struggle. Yet our God is a big God and He intends that His church grow (Daniel 2; Matthew 28; the BOOK of Acts). While growth becoming “god” is a formula for failure that is no excuse to not pay attention to partnering with God in growing His Kingdom.
So we set out to identify some of the large in number and solid in belief congregations in our fellowship. We surveyed 20 preachers in our brotherhood who have preached for churches of roughly 1000 or more members. We wanted to find out what these churches and/or their preachers are doing that is right, inviting, infectious and “imitatable.” None of these churches have women in the leadership in worship or biblical position, have any services with instrumental music, or even “praise teams.”
We are thankful for their positive influence on the Lord’s Family and souls.
Here’s what we learned.
Let’s start with the guy up front - the preacher. Since most reading these posts are preachers our first several questions will go directly to the preacher and the preaching:
How are these churches “fed” from the pulpit?
What we learned most is that these guys work at their preaching! There is no single approach to style (expository, topical, inductive, etc) but there is a commitment in every one of them to biblical truth. Also, they don’t casually stool into the pulpit unprepared or without purpose but to a man they know where they are going and have prepared to go there. They used words like: “energetic,” “eclectic,” “ever evolving” to describe their own style in the pulpit. Not surprisingly the best work hard at bringing their best each week. Maybe the most insightful line that has most influenced the “staying power” of these congregations was this one: “We emphasize strong biblical content from the pulpit.”
We asked these men how they are seen as leaders among the elders. This deals with both how they are treated as well as how they believe they are viewed and goes to their own security in their role:
Most elderships could learn something from how these effective churches treat, involve and respect their preachers. But it’s a two way street, many preachers could learn a lot about how these effective preachers treat, understand and respect their elders. Our favorite quote was this one: “I tell people I am like Puerto Rico. I am included in debate but have no vote.” To be honest several of the respondents indicated that there is a challenge between the preachers strength through influence and the fact that the larger a church becomes the less the elders are individually known. Also most respected the ministers knowledge of the Word as well as the church and church growth in general. There must be a clear understanding of roles. One answered: “I am the preaching minister, and I share ideas about expanding our ministries and reaching out to the community more. But most of the direction comes from our shepherds, not our staff members. My role is to preach the Word and to better communicate the vision the elders have set forth.” Another responded: “They have made it clear to me that I am a part of the team, so unless a person specifically asked to meet without me present I am invited into all of their discussions, I just don’t ‘get a vote.’”
It’s hard to get these guys to brag - that’s good to know. We asked them how they got to a large church and what equipped them to minister to a larger church?
The overwhelming sentiment was “others” not “me.” God, mentors, opportunities, prayer, open doors. Most just didn’t really want to say much about themselves on this question. Our favorite quote from here is: “I am more surprised than anyone how God has blessed my life and allowed me to preach for such outstanding congregations.”
What about the elders leadership styles in these larger churches?
What we learned here is that all leaders struggle to be the best they can be. Just because a church reaches a certain size does not mean they think they have it all together. It also seemed that these leaders as a whole take responsibility for what they are responsible for! One respondent said “the buck stops with the elders.” All indicated that they TRY to let the deacons do ministry and they focus on spiritual issues, counseling and shepherding - but they all still struggle with that. One simply replied “old habits are hard to break.”
We asked “what programs have most influenced the church’s growth?”
Programs that emphasize the family, marriage, youth, children were big in most all of these. They also have strong “guest followup” efforts. Others that stood out: Giving, small group efforts, Bible reading, ministries to hurting people (Recovery outreach, meals, Bible studies), mission trips. One program that stood out was this one: Caring & Sharing Ministry - We have a ministry that reaches out to the community by inviting them on Monday nights for a positive Bible lesson and a warm meal (the meals are exceptional). We offer another meal on Thursdays to anyone who desire to be in a one-on-one Bible study. This ministry was begun about 6 years ago and has baptized hundreds. The retention rate is around 50%.
What most of you want to know was question four: “What do YOU THINK sets the church there apart? What three things do you think the church there does BEST?”
We loved these statement”: “This church seeks to be biblical and relevant. There is no reason that a church cannot be both…we are Bible centric rather than issue centric.” “________ Church is known in our community for what they do outside the Sunday worship assembly.” “We focus on events for the explicit purpose of reaching out into the community.” “We are a congregation that does not attempt to lean to the left or right -- We strive to be warm, friendly and biblical in all we do. We want to preach God's truth but always in love.” “We are a very generous congregation.” “We are blessed with strong leadership.”
We also wanted to know what are the defining characteristics of these churches:
There were a lot of neat ones shared (Generous, diverse, flexible, loving, relational, patience) but every leader polled except one listed and one of their top three characteristics - Friendly! Enough said? Well maybe not. Every church believes itself to be friendly. These growing church make it a mark of who they are. What is your congregation doing that shows genuine friendliness to outsiders?
What are the biggest challenges different at a larger church than a smaller one?
This group was more united on this question than any other. It is just more difficult to get to know, keep up with, corral, stay connected with, involve, be a part of the lives of, be personally involved with, keep a sense of family with both members and visitors in a larger church. This was well worded: “I have said often that it is much easier to get to know 400 people in a 400 member church than to get to know 400 people in a 1000 member church. Simply put, I know less people now than I did at previous works. It just takes longer when spread out.”
The ministers in these churches faced the same challenge. We asked them what changed as they went from a smaller church to a larger one:
One said simply, “I can't spend time with every member and that is frustrating. I spend time with the sick and hurting but much of my time is spent coaching others on how to be with people.” One interesting insight was that being at a larger church he “was surprised that the preacher was not expected to have his fingerprint on every program as in a smaller church because there were more ministers and talented members who were willing to take a lead in those programs.” The biggest change from going from a smaller congregation to larger one seems to be time management. There are more problems, more interruptions and time to do anything seems to become more limited. A great quote was this one: “I have learned how to ‘hide’ to spend quiet time in the Word and prayer.” In a larger church you shoulder the blame for more things outside your control than in a smaller one. And with a larger staff most were expected to be mentors, aids, counselors, and safety nets for the other staff members. But on the positive side most see their fellow ministers as a team and sounding boards to create and develop.
Let’s close with an extremely positive note - every one of the guys preaching said they would like to stay till they retire.