Small is beautiful – Church edition

There are very few large animals left on earth. I don’t mean elk large, I mean elephant large. Once there were many. Blame whatever you like for the decline, but the facts are clear. Being large is difficult.

Being small is easy or at least easier. Small things are more easily swapped in and out. Small things are more easily changed. We often talk about how much time it takes to turn a large ship around. We don’t often talk about how to design a more easily turned ship.

The answer of course is in what you want to do with your ship. If you want to go from Vancouver to Beijing turning isn’t an issue. Efficiency is. On the other hand if you want to go fishing in different spots every day turning becomes a big deal.

So how many things are like big ships these days? I can think of a few but not many. In an information age where organizations need to pivot on a nearly constant basis to keep ahead of the curve, the ability to turn becomes a big deal.

This isn’t the only concern. Large organisations inevitably grow power structures. Not the sort of power structure that small business owner has. A small business owner affects the lives of a few people and has skin (and soul) in the game. Large corporations affect thousands of people and are run by people who often don’t have any skin in the game at all. Think of the high-profile CEO who goes from company to company effectively gutting each one and earning a huge paycheque and bonuses along the way. In the worst case scenario, these executives are actively defrauding their stakeholders. Think of Enron.

This isn’t just a problem in the corporate world. It’s a problem in every organisation. The power problem doesn’t stop at companies. It infects governments, nonprofits, and even churches. Washington, DC is an example of an entire city build around power structures. Tell me if that town is sane, let alone getting its job done.

The power problem isn’t just about skin the game. It’s also about the structures that grow to support the powerful. Structures the powerful themselves create. They may not even know they’re doing it and yet it happens.

Take for instance the church. I want to pick on the church because I have skin in that game — I attend one and care about the wellbeing of the church in general.

Leave aside the Catholic church for a moment, which has a very obvious and historically problematic structure (let’s just say the child abuse scandal is not exactly an aberration). Let’s even leave aside the very structured Orthodox and Anglican churches. Let’s instead focus on the problems of the modern Anabaptist Protestant church.

On first blush the Protestant problem would seem to be not enough structure. Some of my Catholic friends are eager to point out that we’d have a lot fewer odd cousins in the Protestant family if we were allowed to take them out behind the barn and shoot them. This is not to say that the power structure isn’t there. It’s just not as obvious. Instead of being centred around the Pope or synods or classes (etc, etc), the power structure often centred around a single local church which expands outward to a movement which forms and organisation and on it goes.

This happens constantly. A single pastor rises above the rest, his church grows, he forms a church organisation, it grows, and eventually the whole thing collapses. This sometime happens under the auspices of existing denomination structures, other times outside of them, and other times organisations form vague associations.

No matter how it happens, the concentration and creation of power happens alongside. Then comes the books, the teaching tours, the conferences, the radio sermons, the ministries, the money, the salaries, the whole deal.

Again and again this leads to corruption in the church. The simple reason is that power insists upon itself. Even without realising it. There’s an entire cottage industry that exists solely to funnel money into these various organisations and therefore influence to their founders. When we talk about the rise of the CEO pastor, this is what we’re talking about. The rise of pastors who look and sound like businessmen, churches that are concerned about cash flow and market share, and organisations whose reasons for existence are dubious at best and essentially money laundering at worst.

I think of these things in terms of mission. What is the mission of the church? Does your church do that? Does your organisation do that?

For instance, you’re a CEO pastor. You have a church of 1000 people. You want to reach 1000 more people. What do you do? Well, a satellite church with a video feed from the main church of course! Ah, technology. Then another, then another, then another.

At what point did it seem to you that a video feed to a satellite gathering is better than setting up a new church with a new pastor? The point was when you realised that you were the main attraction. Call it what you want. Think of yourself as an excellent teacher. Whatever you need to justify your face being on that screen. Think of it as easier, cheaper, better, whatever. Either way, there you are.

Then you write a book. After all, the people in your extended congregations need to increase their personal piety, don’t they? So you write a book and sell it. Suddenly you have this money and this exposure you maybe didn’t have before, especially if the book becomes popular outside the limited audience of the screens your face reaches.

Then you start taking your face on the road. Conferences, teaching tours, a radio show, maybe even a TV show.

Then the real money starts to roll in. None of this is bad, none of this is evil. You’re reaching thousands, millions, even tens of millions of people!

You probably thank God for all this exposure, but you start pulling down a salary that says you really thank yourself. Then you meet some opposition in your organisation. Maybe someone objects to the CEO mentality you have. Maybe the situation starts to snowball.

Or maybe you find yourself signing into a hotel with a hooker and some blow, because (paradoxically because the demands of being a CEO pastor mean you have less free time in aggregate but more unaccountable free time in strange places).

Maybe your church is accused of actively covering up a child abuse scandal.

I don’t know. Either way, here you are, the CEO, the only thing holding this machine together. Maybe you fall apart, maybe you don’t. Either way, the damage begins. Or maybe you just die one day. Either way, things start to change.

What if, instead, we did things differently?

What if we had no CEO pastors with star power and teaching organisations and radio shows and book tours? What if we just cut all that stuff out?

I’m sure the personal piety of the average Christian would remain the same (pretty low in my case; you can be your own arbiter). I’m sure the impact of your book and your radio show and your array of satellite churches would be replaced by something else.

What if we decided that small was beautiful? Churches of, say, 200 – 300 people. What would that look like?

If I had to pick the most successful type of organism in the world, I’d have to say bacteria. Prokaryotes reproduce mainly by asexual binary reproduction. That is to say they grow, then they split. And they do this incredibly fast.

What if, instead of trying to be some mythical multi-headed beast, churches just got too big to be churches anymore and split off into two new churches?

I’ll tell you one thing that’s for certain: There would be a much better ecosystem of small churches. Instead of one church failing and orphaning thousands of people, a church could be gracefully shut down and folded into the (hopefully) myriad of small, local churches.

True, our “reach” might not be as great, but I think our impact would be. Instead of concentrating on a million people or 10 million people in our state or province or city, we could concentrate on the thousands of people in our communities, in the places we actually live and work. We could take ourselves out of national politics (and so very many people would heave a sigh of absolute relief) and put ourselves back into the realm of service on a local level. We’d be a much more welcome and less offensive group of people if we did that, I can assure you.

We’d also avoid all the problems associated with celebrity pastors and their seemingly inevitable downfalls.

It seems to me this is the better path: Smaller, nimbler, less visible, and more effective churches.