Is “Big Church” thinking “Small Church” Relevant?

by Kurt Goble

The country’s largest churches dominate the culture of Children’s Ministry. But is what they have to share applicable to most churches?

They host conferences, publish curricula, and offer websites. Their children’s pastors speak professionally, write articles and books, and create resources. Their accomplishments and numbers seem to testify to their success. But is what they have to say relevant to all churches?  Is what they have to offer what most churches really need?

The average Church size in America is 75, so statistically speaking, anything over that is large. The term, “Mega-Church” was coined to describe a Church of over 1,000 people  One could say that this is the defining factor. The reality is that if your Church is able to hire a Children’s Pastor, you are probably in one of the nation’s larger Churches.

For our purposes, let’s define “Large Church” as one that has become esteemed as a leading force in the Children’s Ministry community. Churches like Saddleback, Willow Creek and Fellowship Church, influence the way we think about Children’s Ministry with success stories, resources, curricula and ministry models. Thousands of churches excitedly attempt to implement these models and resources.

But do the tactics translate to smaller churches?

Suppose you want to be more effective in the kitchen. You want to make food that is healthy, and that your family will enjoy. You want some help,  so you attend a conference where experts will speak about running a successful kitchen.

At your opening session a health inspector addresses the importance of having separate sinks for hand washing, dishes, and vegetables. Later a chef leads a workshop on hiring the perfect kitchen staff.

It all sounds impressive, but you’re not too sure how relevant this information is to you. It’s beyond what you were hoping to gain. There is a disconnect between what you are being told and what will actually be of benefit. You are not going to hire a kitchen staff or have two more sinks installed in your house.

And so you listen and learn and observe, but with a filter in place. This filter contextualizes much of what you see. These people are talking about cooking in a different context than the one that applies to you.

A filter to help me contextualize would have been helpful when I was at my first large church conference. At that time my church had attendance of about 1,400 on a weekend. The church that hosted the conference was running about 17,000. Many of the ideas I heard about were overwhelming, and didn’t apply in my ministry context.

No matter how ideologies and principals are touted as universally applicable, I wonder if these visionaries have ever personally tried the methods in smaller church settings.

Most of my ministry experience comes from working in churches ranging from 800 to 3000. A few years ago I stepped out of my comfort zone and spent a month at a church plant. There were 3 to 10 kids per week ranging form preschool to fourth grade. I was lost. My “big church” skills didn’t translate to this “small church” reality.

If I am at a church of 150 that is aspiring to be a church of 250, what do I learn from somebody who is successfully leading a Children’s Ministry at a church that went from 13,000 to 18,000?  Do their success strategies apply in my context?

James Woest leads the Business Department at Hope International University. He points out that, “In business, different scales of operation require different skill sets.” For example, certain skills are required to launch a business. However, those skills are different from the ones necessary to make it solvent. The skills necessary for solvency can be different from those needed for profitability. These skills are different than the ones required to run a million-dollar business. And, when a company goes public it’s a whole new set of skills.

I believe that this idea translates to churches. One set of practices is required for a launch. Another is required for initial growth. Another is required for sustained growth, and so on.

I have a friend who owns a small business. A few years ago he created a position to manage his six-person sales team. The man he hired was from one of the nation’s largest companies. He had experienced success on a much larger scale, but his tactics failed at my friend’s small business.

Let’s think about some issues a smaller church children’s pastor might face. She’s paid for 10 of the 20 hours she works each week. There’s no budget other than what she can make through fundraising. She has three volunteers, and one of them is her husband. She serves a group of 12 kids ranging from 3 to 11 years old. She struggles to connect with all of them through one program.

How about a large church children’s pastor’s issues?  Her budget has been cut, so she must decide between staff pay cuts or layoffs. One volunteer’s background check turned up some unfavorable facts. The conference her church is hosting is only three months away and many details aren’t finalized. Does this leader’s agenda have relevance to the small church children’s pastor?  There is definitely a chasm between these two ministry contexts.

So where do we go from here?  Do we ignore everything that mega church leaders have to say?  Mega churches have made extremely positive impacts on the landscape of children’s ministry and their accomplishments shouldn’t be ignored. Children’s Ministry has emerged from the image of “babysitting” into a legitimate, life changing and essential ministry of the Church. It has become a major field of study at most Christian Colleges. This is mostly due to the work and efforts of successful large-church children’s pastors who have ventured beyond their congregations to influence the culture of children’s ministry. So, I don’t believe we can simply dismiss what these experts have to say.

What we need to do is employ a set of filters. When we read books or attend conferences, we need to do so with an appreciation for how their situation is different from ours. Here are some questions I would suggest asking when pondering “big church” ideas in a “smaller church” setting.

Four Filters

  1. “What is the principal behind this idea?”
    A large church may push the importance of volunteer background checks. If we didn’t use these, I wouldn’t be able to place adults with children in a trustworthy manner. But our volunteer force is over 300 people.If you are working with two or three volunteers, you are able to take the time to know them personally. You are able to ascertain their character in a way that I could never accomplish in my ministry setting. (editor’s comment: Background checks for all volunteers who work with minors and special needs adults is important.)  The principal behind the idea of safety and security is accomplished with different techniques.
  2. “How can I translate the idea to my ministry context?”
    A method may be presented that requires large props, each representing a certain teaching point. What does the equivalent of this concept look like in your setting?  Perhaps your teaching time is done while sitting around a table. You might opt for small items that could be placed in the middle of the table or passed around from student to student.
  3. “How is being smaller advantageous?”
    A friend of mine owns a small pizza restaurant. If someone requests a topping that is not on his menu, he runs to the grocery store next door and buys it.No big chain could offer that service. For a large pizza chain to add a new menu item, they must go through processes, procedures, testing and approval. My friend can provide more personal service because his operation is small.
    Smaller size churches come with a completely different set of strengths and advantages. You may be able to take “big church” ideas to a higher level of effectiveness by embracing a more responsive and flexible approach. This kind of agility is most often impossible for larger churches. Check out the book Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church by Rick Chromey. He is the expert on this idea.
  4. “How does the idea fit into the unique personality of our Church?”
    A church’s uniqueness is one of its greatest and most overlooked commodities. Every church is special. And Through unique churches, God advances His Kingdom in unique ways. This is why I am sometimes troubled by trends that have a homogenizing effect among churches.Each New Testament church had its own DNA. The Hebrew’s faith in Christ was steeped in their History. The Roman church was famous for their faith; the Corinthians were known for their wisdom and eloquence; the Thessalonians for their loving deeds. It wasn’t about strategy meetings or growth plans. They just followed Jesus the best way they knew how, and as they did this, they excelled.. They embraced their strongest qualities and used them to serve Christ.

Embrace the God-designed uniqueness of your ministry. Assess your strengths. Ask God, “What is our church built for?  Why did you design us this way?”

Run every idea through the filter of who you are as a church. Don’t compare or idealize another church’s image.

Influential churches definitely have valuable ideas to share. Only you can filter these concepts and determine what they mean in your unique ministry setting.

Kurt Goble has made more mistakes than anyone in the history of Children’s Ministry. But he loves sharing what he’s learned from all those mistakes. For 13 years Kurt has served as children’s pastor at First Christian Church of Huntington Beach, where he shares God’s Word with kids through the technical arts. He is a graduate of Bethel College and a curriculum author. He and Heidi are happily married with two kids.

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