I’m not shy about the fact that math is not my strong suit. I barely made it through algebra 1 in the formative years of my education. However, I have an important mathematical equation that may be of help to the church planting movement. Several years ago, one of my mentors noted that it may, in fact, be more advantageous for a church or Presbytery to call godly and faithful men to plant 10 churches that will each reach 100+ members in any given geographical area than it would be to call one extraordinarily gifted individual to plant 1 church that would reach 1000+ more or less committed church members. 10 x 100 > 1 x 1000? Really? How in the world would one ever come to such a conclusion? Let me explain.
Most of us have probably thought, at some time or another, that it would be better to seek out and call an extraordinarily gifted man who will be able to plant a large, fast growing church in a metropolis than it would be to call a man with ordinary gifts to plant in a rural setting. There are, however, only so many men who have the unique gift set and/or the resources and situational dynamic necessary to plant a 1000+ member church–even in a city. There are, however, many godly and faithful men with ministerial gifts who are ready and able to use them to advance the kingdom of God by planting smaller, but healthy and steadily growing churches. The advantage of calling a man to plant a church that will reach 1000+ is that there will be, in turn, many more resources for ministry both inside the church as well as potential for more widespread Gospel outreach and influence in the community. However, there are quite a number of benefits of planting 10 church plants that will reach 100+ throughout a geographical region. Here are 4 such benefits that can be gained by adopting this approach:
1. It nurtures qualified governance. I have never been one of those who has dogmatically argued that a smaller church is better than a large church. As I noted above, a larger congregation has the people, resources and ability to have a massive impact on the lives of those within the church as well as in the community. Additionally, smaller churches often depend on larger congregations for financial support and resources. That being said, it is much more likely that a church planter will be able to train two or three ruling (lay) elders to become theologically and spiritually mature shepherds of a congregation of 100+ than it is that a church planter will pour into the lives of 20-30 men in order to gain qualified and eager ruling elders for a congregation of 1000+. Having planted a church, I have experienced this first hand. Cutting corners may get you a board of directors, or company with church CEOs, but laboring to train men who will lay down their lives for the sheep is an altogether different matter. Planting 10 churches in a geographical region may better help foster the training and electing of qualified elders and deacons.
2. It limits unhealthy growth and fallout. “It’s hard to derail a slow moving train.” This is something that the mentor I mentioned above constantly reminded me of during the seemingly slow and more trying times in church planting. We have all seen how bad the damage can be when a church plant grows exceedingly large exceedingly quickly. The fallout from a wreck of a train going 120 mph is enormous. By way of contrast, when church plants are growing slowly and steadily, it can enable the planter/pastor to lay a firm foundation in the administrative and pastoral realm. It is quite possible for the “smaller is better” mentality to be a cloak for inactivity or unhealthy leadership just as it can be in the “bigger/quicker” models of ministry, however, there is something to be said about having the time and ability to lay a lasting foundation. This is often lacking in larger and faster growing church plants. I look back at times that seemed discouragingly slow in the early years of planting and now realize that the Lord was enabling me to focus on aspects of the congregational life and development that I would not have had time to focus on if we had been growing at a much faster rate.
3. It fosters parochial ministry. When I was young, my dad used to say, “God would be glorified if there were solid, biblical and Gospel-centered churches in every neighborhood of the world.” I failed to understand what he meant by that statement at first, and am only beginning to understand what he meant now. I have found that those who snidely say, “There’s a church on every corner,” usually don’t go to any church on any corner. The reality is, the growing population of North America is quickly outpacing the number of local churches necessary to effectively reach people with the Gospel and shepherd them in the church. What sort of impact could we have if we had faithful, biblically-solid, outreach-zealous, Gospel-centered local churches everywhere? What would it look like if we had 10 churches in a region that were reaching their neighborhoods for Christ?
While we can speculate about the impact of such a model, it is not simply the ministry of the word that thrives in a parochial system. Thomas Chalmers, in the 19th Century, wrote a short work about the benefits of a parochial model for deaconal ministry. One only needs to read through this to start to understand the rationale behind the parish system and caring for the needs of those within and outside the church.
Someone in a larger church will respond, “Our small groups are really our community.” Despite the fact that such a response reveals the weakness of the larger congregational model, and, while I recognize that attempts to maintain a parish ministry through a small group model can work, the reality is that it is incredible easy to fall through the cracks in a large congregation–even with small groups in place. I have been a member in large congregations and have rarely seen needy people truly shepherded and cared for in small group settings. It is the call of elders and deacons to provide the sort of spiritual and physical care that God requires in His church. By way of contrast, a parochial model is just that–a model for how this can best be accomplished.
4. It encourages connectivity with other congregations. The most dangerous trend in large, fast growing church plants and congregations is that they are often taken captive by the tyranny of territorialism. We all have territorial hearts by nature. Territorialism is a form of pride and greed. The larger a church grows, the more tempted it will be to focus on its own name, ministries and accomplishments. The model that we find in Scripture is that of more established churches helping struggling churches. But, how rare a thing this is in our day. I have heard men who have planted 3000 members churches mock those who have “only” reached 300 in 4 years. When the church in Jerusalem was hurting financially, churches throughout Asia minor stepped in to help.
As a Presbyterian minister, I am committed to an ecclesiastical system of connectivity. We meet quarterly to carry out the work of the church on a regional level and once a year on a national level. This does not ensure real, Spirit-wrought connectivity by any stretch of the imagination; but, it does remind us that our individual churches are part of a greater body of believers and that we are dependent on one another for prayer, accountability and co-belligerency for the sake of the Kingdom. Human nature being what it is, we still have to fight against turning inward and only caring about what is going on in our individual churches. Nevertheless, a parochial model of planting more churches with less people better helps foster likeminded churches working together for the sake of the kingdom. This can be done by larger congregations as well as smaller, however, I have noticed that the larger a church grows, the less connected it becomes–in any substantial way–to other local churches.
Much more could be said about the pros and cons of seeking to plant both larger and smaller churches. I am sure that an objection and/or alternative could be raised to any of the things said above. However, it is my hope that what has been said will give us pause to consider that it may actually be more advantageous to consider a 10 x 100 contra a 1 x 1000 model. The Scriptures may not give us guidelines for the size of a congregation, but wisdom may.