Better churches become bigger churches. Right?
That’s been the rule of thumb for businesses, too. And it’s no more true there than it is for us.
Constant growth doesn’t work for the majority of churches or businesses. Yet they can still be successful at what they do. As it turns out, constant growth doesn’t work for the majority of churches or businesses. Yet they can still be successful at what they do.
This week, I finally got around to reading Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead Of Big (how could I resist, right?). Written more than ten years ago, it followed 14 companies that chose to limit their growth for a variety of reasons.
Some limited their growth to keep it more personal and intimate, some because a smaller size fit the skills and goals of the leadership, some because they felt it was the best way to maintain quality control, and so on.
But they all had one thing in common — an obsession with making their business better, combined with the belief that staying small was the best way for them to do that.
But how do we keep getting better if we’re not getting bigger? And what does this have to do with church and ministry?
Even if you want your church to grow but it isn’t, you still have a choice about helping the small church you lead become better.
Not everything (or even most things) in Small Giants applies to the church world, but what does is quite striking. Let’s take a look at a few of the takeaways from Burlingham’s work that can readily be adapted to what we see in church leadership.
“Virtually every mass-market business (church leadership) bestseller … has concentrated on the people in and the practices of large public companies (big churches). … Along the way, we’ve come to accept as business (church leadership) axioms various ideas that only work in those two types of enterprise. …But there are thousands of private companies (small churches) that don’t grow much, if at all, and … they’re often quite healthy.
“What about the concept of ‘getting to the next level’? … The phrase implies that bigger is better. That may or may not be true for public companies (big churches), but it’s demonstrably untrue for a large number of private ones (small churches).” (pgs. xvi-xvii)
What Burlingham notes about businesses is obviously true in the church world. We’ve been inundated with one model for church health and excellence — the one that says the better a church is, the bigger it will become.
Not only does the expectation of continual numerical increase not apply to all churches, it doesn’t apply to the majority of churches.
But most of us don’t even think about an alternative to grow, grow, grow, because…
“If you constantly hear about the need to grow or die … you may not even think to ask about options other than growing.” But if we don’t keep growing, what other option is there?
“There is a choice, and the payoff for choosing the less-travelled path can be huge.” (pg 6)
Choosing to be a small giant can have many unforeseen benefits — to the church, the community, the pastor, and the kingdom of God. But what are some of those payoffs? Here are just two of them.
“When you look closely at our small giants, one characteristic jumps out at you. …they were all so intimately connected to the place where they were located that it was hard to imagine them being somewhere else.”(pg 50)
“A human scale company (church) in a single location can be part of a community without dominating it.” (pg 60)
Pease note that not dominating a community does not mean we stop having an impact on it. As Burlingham also notes,
“every new business (church) represents an attempt … to reorder the world in some way.” (pg 122)
Small giants are no exception to that. In fact, by choosing to remain small, all the companies Burlingham cites were convinced they would have a greater impact than they might have had by becoming big.
“There is generally an inverse correlation between the number of people who work for a company (attend a church) and the strength of their emotional ties to it.” (pg 98)
This does not mean that every company or church that grows big loses their intimacy. Many of them got big precisely because people were drawn to that kind of atmosphere. But the bigger you get, the harder you have to work at it.
Here are a few more quotes about the dangers of equating size with value.
“You can’t measure the value of what a company (church) does by looking at how big it is.”(pg 218)
“A company’s (church’s) record of growth … may tell you something about the skill of its management team, but little about whether or not the business (church) is contributing anything great and unique to the world.” (p 218)
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you’re maximizing growth, you’re also maximizing success.” (pg 219)
And, finally, this. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Small Giants.
“Nothing in business (church leadership) requires them to build the largest company (church) they’re capable of building. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with deciding you do want to build such a company (church), but it’s only one of many options, and business (church) leaders are free to choose another path.” (pg 258)
Bigger isn’t always better.
And better doesn’t always lead to bigger.
But better is always better — whether it gets bigger or not.
If bigger to be better isn’t working for the church you lead, try something else. You have a choice.
Small but excellent might be what Jesus is calling you to be.