Is size the problem?

Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture
Tim Suttle
Zondervan Academic

I should love this book. I’ve been the pastor of a small church for the past 28 years and I’m intimately familiar with the weariness that comes from hearing megachurch stories. So when Tim Suttle writes, “The fact that many of the elements of our Christian faith that are actually essential to the gospel must be subdued or ignored by the mega church…,” it should be just what the doctor ordered.

But even as I cracked the book’s spine, I had niggling suspicions this book wouldn’t be it.

That said, the examination Suttle undertakes is both warranted and overdue. On the one hand, church attendance statistics in Canada and the U.S. paint a grim picture of decline. Several researchers report that church attendance is falling behind population growth in the U.S. (See “7 Startling Facts.”)

On the other hand, the picture has interesting nuances. While church attendance is declining, the largest churches are growing at a rate nearly double that of population growth. Meanwhile each week, 60 churches are closing their doors. That’s a sobering number for a small church pastor and for a denomination that has committed itself to church multiplication.

Something is going on that needs good analysis.

Suttle begins his critique of megachurches with Voltaire’s sentiment: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Success and greatness have become the mission of the megachurch, as articulated and led by leadership books like Jim Collins’s Good to Great. Suttle turns “good to great” on its head by paraphrasing Voltaire: “Great is the enemy of good.” Strategies have overtaken stories, models have supplanted ecclesiology, techniques have displaced virtues, he says.

The result, claims Suttle, is that the megachurches have neglected their mission to the very broken people who were attracted to Jesus.

The book is filled with stories demonstrating his thesis. They range from the comic, such as a massive Easter production set gone awry, to the tragic story of preacher Charles Stanley getting a divorce and not missing a single Sunday in the pulpit.

Convinced that the megachurch model is flawed, Suttle with a small team launched a church plant intentionally placing itself among the displaced. The stories from that church are counterpoints to the megachurch calamities. And the stories are compelling.

Suttle’s solution is to unwind the mega-influence by going back to virtues, narrative and a healthy ecclesiology. The bottom line: the megachurch has to shrink to be true to the Kingdom mission.

It could sound good, but there are some problems here.

First is the use of competing stories. I’m sure life in a megachurch has its dark sides, but there are also dark sides in our small churches. Yes, we are very close to the ground – and that is a virtue – but being that close to the ground also means being very close to fallenness.

The search for dark stories in small churches would be short and fruitful. Stories are powerful, but a well-chosen story can “prove” anything.

Second, there is Suttle himself. He brings some important qualifications to the task of writing this book: he has been a megachurch pastor and moves freely in the world of church growth conferences.

That’s good, but it seems to me that Suttle’s personal journey into small church ministry needs time to shake out. He doesn’t know the small church as well as he thinks.

Finally, I think his implied premise that small is a virtue, is faulty. Reading Shrink, I was reminded of a book influential in the early ’70s entitled, Small is Beautiful. Unfortunately the thesis did not stand the test of time.

Small church pastors work hard to achieve the effectiveness of the megachurches. We’d love better PowerPoints, more talented worship leaders, more inspiring sermons, more skillfully integrated messaging and on and on. Criticizing those who do it well feels just a little off.

Small is not a virtue and “mega” is not a vice.

And frankly, in our culture, size helps deliver what people want. “The best way I can describe it,” says religious researcher David T. Olson, “is that a lot of people believe they’re upgrading to first class when they go to a larger church.”

Is that the case? We might like the idea of the small church, but is it less effective than it used to be? That’s the tough question before us.

Shrink needs to be read and read carefully. I agree with Suttle that something unhealthy is happening. The issue of the expanding megaculture against declining church attendance appears to be a symptom of unhealth. This book identifies the problem well, but diagnoses it poorly.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C., where for nearly three decades James, Janet and their three children have walked besides the high and low of their city and have experienced both the great joy and deep sadness that comes from long journeys. Watch some of their stories here.

See statistics and reporting on church attendance here: “7 Startling Facts: An Up close Look at Church Attendance in America”

 

2 Comments on “Is size the problem?

  1. James,

    Thanks for reading the book and for your review of Shrink. I wanted to make a few factual corrections:

    1) I have never been a megachurch pastor. I’ve planted churches from a megachurch congregation, but I have been pastoring in small churches for the past 25 yrs, and I grew up in a small church in Salina, KS. That’s 45+ years in small churches…

    2) I do not argue that small is a virtue, and mega is a vice. Your review seems to infer that I do. The critique of the megachurch is that their example so dominates the church leadership conversation, that Pastors and leaders have come to equate ministry success with large numbers. The answer I suggest is NOT for churches to become smaller (which I say explicitly). The answer, I argue, is simply to remember that our job is to be faithful, and to leave the results in God’s hands. We must learn the secret of being content even when God chooses not to bless our best efforts.

    3) I am careful not to argue that the church should Shrink numerically. What I say is that anytime Christians get serious about discipleship & faithfulness, then those who just want to play around with Christianity will tend to opt out & find an easier place to belong. When we truly follow Jesus, we are walking on a pretty narrow road. So, if our churches do shrink, then maybe (in Hauerwas’ words), God is just making us leaner and meaner, and this shouldn’t be a discouragement to us.

    I feel like your review never touches on the major theme of the book: the churches job is not to produce results; the church’s job is to be faithful – joyfully accepting any results God brings our way! We have to let go of trying to determine outcomes & embrace the journey of discipleship & faithfulness.

    Hope this sheds light on the ideas from the book!

    peace,

    Tim Suttle – author, Shrink.

  2. Hi Tim
    Thanks for stepping into this conversation. I heartily agree that the church’s calling is to faithfulness rather than “results.” I also state that you have raised a very important issue in critiquing the mega church phenomena. In fact I think it is a question that our denomination needs to look at carefully and I recommend that we read your book in that context.

    Alongside of affirming commonality, I also see a book review’s role as exploring obvious counterpoints. My counterpoint to your book is wondering if the mega church model is actually more effective in Gospel faithfulness than the small church model, at this point in history.

    I was not convinced that that the generalization that mega churches are subduing the Gospel is in fact, valid. As the long term pastor of a small church, this is a counterintuitive position for me. I love my small church and have a lot of reasons to be protective of it but the reality is small churches are dying at an alarming rate.

    I think my observation actually fits well with your statement that size doesn’t matter. Other things being equal, maybe bigger is more effective at this time [“effective” in this context is not synonymous with “results” as you’ve used it].

    It may be that we are less disagreeing than looking the same phenomena from two different angles.

    On the matter of facts, would it have been a better characterization of you if, instead of stating that you had been a mega church pastor, I had simply said, “Tim is far more intimately knowledgeable of the mega church world than I am”? That was not a critique by the way.

    Blessings
    James

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