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The bigger is better syndrome

| by Tony Llewellyn

If you lead a small church, you probably want your church to grow. But consider this: Exactly why do you want that?

Here’s a common experience for small church leaders. You attend a gathering of church leaders. Being new, you don't know anyone, and decide to introduce yourself to some fellow travellers on the leadership road. Your conversations run like this:

"Hi, I’m John." says one fellow.

"I'm Frank.”.

"What church are you pastoring, Frank?"

"First Church of the Holy Chalice of Saint Freddie," you say.

"Great. How many people in your church?"

I'm not aware if there’s any such church, but this conversation reveals an important aspect of church leadership interaction. One of the first questions you’ll hear is: "How many people in your church?"

You soon wonder if this is the pastoral version of dog-sniffing. Your answer places you in the pecking order. If you answer 10,000, you automatically have respect, even if you’re downright mean, your marriage is in tatters, and your kids hate you.

Why am I talking about this? Because in many denominations, competition is fierce. Leadership ability is assessed by church size.  Even when they diligently fulfil their duties, pastors can feel that they are sub-standard, and maybe they shouldn't be pastoring anyway. They might even need supervision from a more "successful" pastor.

Here, successful equals big. And subtly and slowly, pressure is applied for small church pastors to become big church pastors, no matter how. The desire to be seen as a "major player", to be respected by your peers as achieving something worthwhile, the need to feel that others don't see you as lazy or incompetent, all combine to create the desire for a bigger church.

But is bigger necessarily better? If you believe the hype that comes from many big churches, the answer is unequivocally yes! They may even wonder why you're asking this question. Obviously, you're jealous of their success, trying to justify your failure, making excuses.

But bigger isn't always better. Now if you're a big church pastor reading this, try not to get defensive. Are there positives to having a big church? Of course. Big churches do things smaller churches can't. But it doesn't necessarily follow that it's better to be big, or that there's no healthy limit to a church’s size. Big churches have challenges too, so everything isn't as perfect as it appears outwardly.

Consider the analogy of the church as a body. Last century, Charles Atlas’ bodybuilding method was very popular for building muscle mass. Atlas was America's most famous muscle man through much of the twentieth century. Part of the advertising campaign showed a big bully kicking sand in the face of a scrawny guy at the beach. Scrawny-Man decides to bulk up.

No man wants to be regarded as scrawny. Atlas coined the phrase "97-pound weakling". Nobody wants to be that! It’s time to build muscle mass. But how big can you be and still be healthy? Is 600 pounds healthy? Is there a point at which getting bigger is no longer good for the body?

Here's one advantage of smaller churches. You can't hide.  Everyone knows that people often go to bigger churches because they have more to offer: electrifying youth groups, exciting Sunday Schools, counsellors. Big churches offer impressive programs.

It's equally true that some attend big churches because it's a great place to hide. If you only turn up every month or so, nobody notices, except maybe as a statistic. If you don't contribute meaningfully, nobody knows. Really, you can hide and avoid being challenged in your personal growth and commitment.

In small churches, you can't hide. If you don't attend, everyone knows. If you don’t serve, everyone knows that too. If you never invite anyone to church, you don't need church growth specialists to figure it out.

Everyone sees your spiritual maturity, so you can't hide that either.

In many large churches, much of the congregation might do nothing more than turn up, watch the show, and reap the benefits of someone else’s labours. In small churches, it’s most – if not all – hands on deck. Real success has nothing to do with church size.

Tony Llewellyn

Tony Llewellyn is an Australian pastor, author, musician and songwriter. He and his beautiful wife Alli have two adult children. Tony authored 11 books on biblical and musical topics, released five CDs and runs two websites: and

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