The Coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting times for life and ministry. Back in March 2020 toilet paper disappeared from the store shelves along with hand sanitizer. While the second one made sense in combating a virus, the first one was a bit of a puzzle.
What also seemed curious were the items left behind on store shelves. Items that didn’t appear on anyone’s shopping list included things like chickpea-based linguine, chocolate hummus, dryer sheets, obscure canned veggies like artichokes and asparagus spears, plant-based proteins, and oddly enough, Dasani bottled water. “Chocolate hummus is the canary in the coal mine. If you see it selling out, it’s time to start fleeing into the woods,” according to Aaron Mak in a post on Slate.com.
What are Churches Leaving Behind?
Once stay-at-home orders too place, churches went online. Worship services went online. Small groups went online. Giving went online. But, some things got left behind.
In a recent survey of churches across North America, pastors reported not only what they stopped doing, but also what they’re not bringing back. This included things like the church bulletin, working at the church office, tons of physical meetings, large group speaking events, and too much programming.
One shift is to stop gauging the church’s success on Sunday worship attendance. One pastor wrote, “We need a more unified and thoughtful approach going forward.”
Scarcity brings clarity. What will your church leave behind?
What are Churches Starting and Keeping?
Every church represented in the survey reported a much stronger online worship attendance after March 1, 2020 than their average weekend attendance in February 2020. While some churches just expanded the reach of an existing online campus or streaming service, others have discovered that through online services, they are engaging a larger part of their congregations and attracting people outside of their church (often outside of their state!).
Churches are also engaging in an uptick of personal ministry. Pastors are using text messages, phone calls, personal emails, handwritten notes, and of course, Zoom meetings. The overall tone of ministry has become more informal and more experimental. Restrictions have forced churches to rethink the methods in fulfilling their mission.
This is a time of learning. The church is learning what to do and what not to do. The church is discovering what really matters, what doesn’t seem to matter, and what used to matter. And, of course, the church is waiting. Waiting on the Lord is a good thing.
The church is discovering that it’s much more than a Sunday service in a building. We’ve all said that, but now we’ve lived it. As Alan Hirsch says the church is playing chess without the queen. With the queen of the worship service gone, it’s a chance for the church to see what all of the other chess pieces can do without her. That’s not saying the on-campus worship service shouldn’t come back. But, it is causing everyone to look at what is working during a crisis.
A while back someone said, “Right now everything is a startup.” How is your church a startup? How are you innovating? What have you discovered?
[Dear Readers – Do you ever have thoughts that you can’t get away from? For a few years now, I have almost resisted writing about some things that have been stirring deep inside me. Also, over that time period, a number of events as well as ministry startups in various sectors have confirmed many of the things I’ve been sensing. Over the next month or so, I will post some of these thoughts. What I am writing should not be taken as an indictment of any ministry or methodology. I am sincerely inviting you to wrestle with some things I’ve been wrestling with. I would appreciate having you join the conversation.]
Megachurch, as we know it, is not the future. In an increasingly secularized society, the tolerance for more “big box” churches will decrease. Churches are already viewed by municipalities as heavily reliant on city resources, yet do not pay taxes. In fact, some of their prime locations could generate more revenue as a Costco. I foresee zoning as a continual obstacle.
Speaking of taxes, while I don’t see tax deductions for charitable contributions disappearing, the new tax law makes most people’s charitable contributions irrelevant in regard to their taxes. Since the standard deduction has increased to $24,000, for many households their mortgage interest, charitable giving, and medical expenses aren’t going to top that amount. Now, I’m not a CPA, but the math is pretty simple to pencil in. If giving no longer offers a tax advantage, then how will giving be impacted? If giving decreases, then what happens to capital campaigns and building projects?
Then, we could go back and ponder the question asked by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson in The Externally-Focused Church (Group Publishing 2004): If your church disappeared from your community would you be missed? Does your community rely on your church? Do you pick up the slack where government services lack? Can you serve the under-served in your community? Or, does your building provide a meeting place for weekend gatherings, then sit empty the rest of the week?
The climate is changing. I haven’t even mentioned those churches who are fighting a culture war that’s already been lost. I also didn’t bring up a moral majority that’s become an oxymoron.
The strategies that served us well over the last 25 years are not going to do the same in the next 25 years. It’s time for a shift. Decentralized Organization
The “hero” in any church is the member, not the pastor. The best representation of the impact and ministry of the church is the individual member. Members will determine the effectiveness of the church’s outreach. While churches can have a great location, in the churches I’ve served, we found that less than 2 percent found their way into our church from merely passing by. About the same went for paid advertising, social media, or other forms of advertising. How well does your church make disciples? There is nothing more attractive than a believer whose life has been transformed inviting a friend who’s noticed their life change.
When you look out at your congregation on Sunday morning, do you see an audience or an army? If it’s an audience, then they need to be entertained. The concern is over comfort and convenience. If you perform well and offer a good experience, then the hope is they will return.
But, if you see them as an army, that’s a different story. Your army needs to be equipped and empowered to serve. They don’t need to be catered to. They don’t need to be fretted over. They need marching orders. They need permission and opportunity to live out what God has called them to do.
The focus changes from gathering to scattering. For the last 25 or more years, we have gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change. Flexible, Unrestricted Gatherings
About six years ago, in a conversation with Josh Surratt, Lead Pastor at Seacoast Church, he mentioned a family from their church who had moved to Maine. Every Sunday morning, they gathered with about 40 friends and neighbors in their living room to watch the service at Seacoast together. My immediate reaction, “Well, maybe it’s time to redefine a ‘campus.’”
Conversations like this led to the idea of microsite churches. In my initial brainstorming with my friend, Brett Eastman, we imagined smaller communities or places where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. What if the service via steaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas? The microsites would rely on unpaid staff to manage them, but with connection and support from larger organization.
One of the first places we saw develop these microsites was NewSpring Church in South Carolina. They took a little different spin on the idea by using “houses campuses” as a trial balloon to determine whether a community could support a viable multisite campus eventually. It was essentially planting a multisite campus with a less expensive, less risky trial run. We also interacted with the folks at The Rock Church in San Diego, who had heard from people who were not comfortable walking onto their main campus on Sunday morning. So, they multiplied 50 microsites in venues where these folks felt more comfortable gathering. This included bars, night clubs, and other locations. Read more about the early days of microsites.
By developing a microsite strategy with online video and support, there is no limit to a church’s potential to reach any community that can provide someone to pioneer the work. Once the strategy has created a unit of one, then the sky’s the limit. Locations can easily be rolled out in same language communities or translated into other languages and cultures. Potentially, these flexible, unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. As long as their kept small and taught to multiply, securing larger gathering spaces is unnecessary. Meaningful, “Volunteer” Ministry
I hate the word “volunteer,” but it’s the word everyone uses, so here we go. With the congregation as an army, the key to deploying the army is gifts-based ministry. God has gifted and called every believer to fulfill his or her mission on the earth. Calling is not limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between “volunteers” and paid staff is the source of their income and possibly their availability.
If the church fully embraces the concept of the priesthood of believers, then it can accomplish far more than what it’s currently doing. The key is to champion the member, help them discover their spiritual gifts with a tool like Network, and to support and deploy them as they do the work of the ministry. When believers are operating in their gifts and abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and supported by their pastors and churches, they are unstoppable. They find meaning and purpose beyond what anything else can provide. And, the church functions as it should.
I led the gifts discovery and deployment process at a church I served for 15 years. Every member who attended a discover your ministry type class met with me for a post-class interview. I was always amazed at what people aspired to do and how God had equipped them. In fact, I even identified my future wife this way!
Our church reached a point where we only started new ministries out of these conversations following the gifts discovery class. Some of these ministries, we heard about from sources in the community because our people were serving based on their gifts and hadn’t told us what they were doing. That thought just makes me smile.
The church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry – parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the “guest services coordinator,” because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every weekend of the year! Why? Because no one is called to this. (Feel free to argue in the comments, but read on).
Yet, believers rise to the occasion in gifts-based ministry. Pastors – do you want your members dragging themselves out of bed to serve or jumping out of bed to serve? The difference is organizing ministry around spiritual gifts rather than filling slots. Multiplication
Microsites are easier to multiply than megachurches. Microsites don’t require church-owned property, elaborate budgets, or guest services. As someone is welcomed into a member’s home, isn’t that the only guest services needed?
What about training? Who can be trained more quickly – a pastor or a location host? No location host to date has been required to earn a Master of Divinity first.
Most churches will never have the budget, paid staff, or buildings to accomplish what God has called them to do. Well, that’s if we look at the church as an institution. But, in viewing the church as the body of Christ, there is millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church’s members. The “staff” originates from gifts-based assessments. There might be a few expenses, but really no budget.
As it becomes harder to fill and maintain the big box church, there are viable options. Examples like the Tampa Underground (tampaunderground.com) are worth considering. After 10 years of developing their model, they are now sharing their learnings with others.
The future of the church is bright, but it is different. While previous models of ministry have served us well, it’s time to reconsider our strategies and redefine our ministries.
I was recently interviewed by Aaron Earls on the trend toward launching multisite campuses through microsites. As I have blogged previously, microsites start in homes for the purpose of gathering people for a weekend service. Microsites are not a small groups, but can certainly create small groups very readily. Below is the article that appeared in Lifeway’s Facts and Trends magazine. By Aaron Earls
The popular image of an American megachurch as a sprawling campus surrounding a massive worship center drawing thousands of attendees every Sunday needs some updating.
Even as most continue to draw in more worshipers, the typical megachurch sanctuary is shrinking. And some of the largest churches from California to South Carolina are planting their new campuses in the smallest of sites—homes. This comes as church leaders realize sustained growth of their congregation and spiritual growth of their people will come from going small. Multisite and Microsites
In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places.
Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further.”
In the midst of this, a new trend is emerging. Larger churches are now launching microsite campuses. “Microsite is a much smaller version of a multisite campus that meets in a home or another small space,” says Allen White, a pastor and church consultant in South Carolina. The Rock Church in San Diego, California, and NewSpring Church in South Carolina are two megachurches that have added microsites to their multisite approach, according to White.
Instead of securing a larger temporary location such as a school or movie theater, for a microsite, a church identifies an area of the city or community it wants to reach and often begins meeting in the home of a member there. “A microsite can pop up as quickly as a sandwich shop,” says White. “All that’s needed are local leaders, resources to train them, and video for the services.”
White says these microsites allow larger churches to experiment. “If it blows up, that’s how experiments go,” he says.
Megachurches may need that infusion of experimentation. A study shows that megachurches—once hailed as a new way to experience church—may be getting stuck in their ways.
In 2010, more than half (54 percent) of megachurches strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new realities. In 2015, according to the Megachurch Report, that number plummeted to 37 percent.
As churches grow larger and older, they can lose flexibility. Adding microsites or other innovations allows churches to regain some of what was lost. Those microsites are one of the ways in which larger churches are trying to recapture the essence of being small. Why Megachurches Go Small
Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits.
“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”
This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.
It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.
These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”
With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches. Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in.
Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place. Community — The main benefit larger churches can gain from going small, according to Allen White, is connection and community. “Everyone desires the experience of being known and accepted,” he says.
Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says. Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles.
“Once a church is able to train and deploy staff or volunteers to lead a microsite campus, then the number of campuses is limited only to available space and willing leaders,” says White. The opportunities for involvement and leadership are endless, and in smaller settings many may feel more comfortable taking the reins of a ministry. Reproducibility — Thousand-seat arenas aren’t on every corner to start a new megachurch, but that’s not a problem for microsites or small churches. The ease at which microsites can begin makes it possible for them to go viral, according to White.
This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500.
As churches quickly reproduce, mistakes will be made, and they’ll learn what not to do. But White says this means the church is trying to fulfill her mission. “The church as a whole has spent too many years perfecting ministry, but not producing disciples,” he says.
Going small allows larger churches to produce faithful disciples in new contexts outside the gigantic arena.
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@LifeWay.com) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, NewSpring Church has moved all of their microsite campuses to larger portable locations. They outgrew all of the houses!
DISCLAIMER: Before you launch microsites in your church, check with local zoning regulations as well as HOA policies and fire regulations. If microsites become too large, they can cause parking problems as well as other potential headaches for neighbors. It might be wise to rotate microsites between different homes to alleviate any neighborhood issues.
By Allen White
On Sunday, February 22, Pastor Perry Noble announced eight new campuses of NewSpring Church by the end of the year. In addition to four multisite campuses in Clemson, Greer, Simpsonville, and Northwest Columbia, SC, house campuses are being launched in Rock Hill, Sumter, Aiken and Hilton Head Island, SC.
Hearkening back to the start of NewSpring Church, Perry shared how 15 people started in a living room in 2000. In the same way, the house campuses will start in homes led by NewSpring members and supervised by NewSpring staff. Different from a small group, the house campuses will view a special edition of the NewSpring service together online and will include children’s ministry. Similar to a small group, house campuses are exponentially expandable and are only limited to the number of homes available. House campuses will offer pastoral care and ministry similar to a multisite campus. They are more than just a bunch of people watching an online service in a living room.
As house campuses grow, additional homes in the area will be added. If enough people begin to participate in the house campuses, there is potential to add a multisite campus to the area.
With a goal of reaching 100,000 people in the state of South Carolina for Christ, the house campus concept, similar to the microsite campus I blogged about a while back, has the ability to reach all corners of the state and any open living room. There is no cost for renting or purchasing a building, since the millions of dollars in NewSpring’s members’ homes will be leveraged to bring the Gospel and the ministry of NewSpring Church to any community.
Every church currently doing multisite campuses can launch new campuses in the same way. These microsite, house campuses can be launched anywhere from the small town out in the country to a group of scientists in Antarctica to a group of astronauts on the space station. There is no limit.
I can’t wait to see where requests for house campuses come from next. I love my church!
You might also be interest in: Three Reasons for Microsite Campuses The Rise of the Microsite Church
By Allen White
Every once in a while in my life as a small group coach and trainer, I run into a senior pastor who insists on weekly attendance numbers from their groups. This is not so much for the purposes of discerning how the group is doing and isn’t even for the purpose of member care.
These pastors hearken back to the day of the old attendance board in the front of the auditorium. You remember those:
Last Sunday’s Attendance: 267
One Year Ago: 263
Sunday School Attendance: 56
While megachurches are often accused of being “only about the numbers,” it seems like others have a little number-envy going on themselves.
Small group pastors ask me, “Is weekly attendance really important?” To which, I refer them to Good Reasons to Take Group Attendance [LINK]. While the small group pastor acknowledges those benefits, he or she soon confesses the pressure for attendance numbers is coming from outside – from a tote board -obsessed senior pastor. They don’t care who’s signed up for a group. They want to know on a weekly basis who’s actually attending the group. Here is why this recordkeeping might be a bad idea. Small Groups Are More Like Families Than Classes
Let’s say you have a family of five. Your son has a late practice so he can’t make dinner tonight. Sitting around the dinner table, do you have a family of four or a family of five? Small groups are more like families than classes.
Groups are built on community around a Bible study. Classes are based on a course of study. If you skip too many classes, then you miss the content – the class is really of no benefit to you. But, a group is not a class.
Yes, there are group rosters. And, yes, attendance may vary. But, what happens not only during group meetings, but also in group life is what causes small groups to stand apart. Whether you attend the meeting or not, you’re a part of the group.
Years ago, we had a neighbor who attended our church and wanted to join our small group. She lived right around the corner, so our group was convenient for her. She also wanted her husband to attend the group. He came once, but obviously didn’t want to be there.
They had busy lives, so rather than spending an evening apart with her at group and him at home, she opted to stay home as well, but we kept her on our roster. She never attended a meeting, but my wife would check in on her regularly, go for walks, and once in a while, she would show up for group.
She wasn’t a part of anybody else’s group. This was her group, whether she was there or not. Attendance records would report her as “inactive,” but we connected with her every week outside of the group meeting. See where record keeping can go a little haywire? Small Group Attendance Alone Is a Poor Measure of Church Health
While it’s important to know over all how many people are connected to groups, ministries and classes, numbers should never be an end in themselves. What do those numbers mean? “Well, we have 80 percent in groups, so our small group pastor can keep his job.” “We’ve gone up and down with group attendance. Small groups aren’t working in our church.” That may be, but are you really getting the information you need?
Here are better metrics for group and congregational health: How many leaders have you developed?
Every believer is called to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). There are no exemptions from the Great Commission. How are you empowering and equipping your members to gather a circle and make disciples? For many churches, an easy-to-use DVD curriculum is the answer. The person doesn’t need to be a leader or a Bible scholar. They just need to invite some friends. What makes this even better is if you create the video teaching yourself. How’s the load of pastoral care?
When numbers go up, care goes down. I believe Pastor Rick Warren said that. This is why even though Saddleback Church has well over 25,000 in attendance, they also have well over 4,700 small groups.
A church will never be able to hire all of the staff it needs – mini-church or megachurch – it’s the same case for everybody. But, there are gifted people sitting in our pews every Sunday. If we encouraged them, and they said, “God use me,” we shouldn’t be surprised, but God uses them.
As people care for each other in groups, the need for pastoral care goes down. The Body is encouraging and serving one another.
Now, every church culture is a little different. Some church members are well trained in calling the church office for every little thing they need. Others simply feel out rightly entitled. But, when care goes up in groups, phone calls to the church office will go down. How has assimilation improved?
When people start attending your church, how easy is it for them to make friends? How are they connecting? Groups are a great place for people to start.
In most churches, everyone can’t know everybody. But, everybody needs to know somebody. Statistically, that number is around 6-7 people. That’s all it takes for a person to stick. And, that sounds like a small group to me!
People who feel the connection and care of the church body outside of the Sunday morning service are more likely to stick around. A few months ago, our family started attending the Greenville, SC campus of NewSpring Church. Our kids where actually invited first and loved it. My oldest son would like to go to church twice per week!
My wife and I joined a small group – not because we had to – but because we were invited. Here’s the interesting thing – even though over 3,000 people attend the Greenville campus, we run into members of our small group on a regular basis. We just pick each other out of the crowd. There’s just something really great about seeing a smiling, familiar face in a large crowd. [Begin Cheers theme song…]
Other than our small group and our children’s teachers, we don’t know anybody else at NewSpring. We’ve never met our pastor. We don’t know the staff. But, we do know our group, and that’s all we really need. What’s more important: attendance or relationship?
If attendance supersedes relationship, then if you lose a member here or there, you just replace them to keep your numbers up. After all, if you’re posting numbers on a tote board, a decline is sending a bad message.
But, if relationship is valued over attendance, people will invest in each other and build into each others’ lives. Whether members are present at each meeting or not, they are loved, valued, encouraged and supported. These are harder things to measure, but are far more meaningful.
Related Articles: Good Reasons for Taking Group Attendance When Counting Doesn’t Add Up