Do We Have a Walmart View of Ministry?

Commander Bill Gunter —  December 7, 2010

Disclaimer: This isn’t a commentary about Walmart, or discourse about how they are affecting the business and economic climate in various areas, or even an endorsement of Walmart. In fact, this could relate to any “big box” store, I just opted to use Walmart as the example. Though it may sound like it, I am not “bashing” large, or multi-site, churches either. These are my thoughts designed to spark your own thoughts and view on the topic.

A couple of weeks ago, Tony Kummer wrote an article for a series of articles being written about the “Future of Children’s Mnistry” (you can read it here). His article spurred some thoughts in me, and I wanted to share them here. Item # 3 in his article really struck a chord with me. It was “Church Consolidation”.

I wondered if the Mega Church movement we see today is the Walmart mentality in ministry. Are these mega-churches (even churches with about 500 members or more) destroying the smaller local church? While I have not verified the stat, I believe I heard that approximately 80% of churches in PA (maybe the country) have an average membership/attendance of around 100 – 150, and the mindset of  many people is that bigger is better.

Here is my personal frame of reference…

I was an active member of a church that had a membership of 800 with an average attendance any given Sunday morning of around 500. As they discussed growing, adding  a building, etc., I wondered when was a church “big enough.” When, in reaching a certain region, was it time to say “Hey, we have 10 -12 families in this community, why don’t we look at planting a church there” (not a satellite, an independent entity). God was preparing me for where He was leading me. Not long after that, a group of about 10 families which had moved across the state line were prayerfully considering planting a new church where I was called (well, it was actually an e-mail) to serve. Do you know what my biggest obstacle was, and still is? Youth and adults looking for that “big church” feel and endless run of activities for youth. Many families had come from larger churches (like the one I attended) who had full time children and youth pastors and leaders, a minimum of 50 youth involved in activities and a permanent facility. So when we had 5 youth with various schedules, a volunteer Youth director (me!) with an hour commute each way, meeting in a movie theater Sunday mornings – having to rent or find places to hold activities, they still wanted all that their former group offered! They didn’t really accept where God had placed them for that time. Yes, it was discouraging when the youth we had did not show up for planned activities (it still is), but we need to take it into focus. If in the “big church group”, 5 youth are missing, it’s no big deal. Leaders seldom dwell on it. However when our 5 youth do not attend, it is a major crisis! Yes, we can extrapolate several things from that but ultimately it is because they want the big group feel. Youth contact each other and say “If you’re not there, I’m not going”, so it is not the activity necessarily, but conflicting schedules and other youth not wanting to be the “only one” attending.

Okay, enough of my rant (sorry!). I wonder if this Walmart mentality is harming the way we reach the lost and hurting world. Look at Walmart and the other big box stores. They offer as much as possible for the least amount of money trying to “reach and help people”. As the need to keep prices low, sometime quality is compromised. Is this the case in the church? I often tell people that I can have 50 youth at any time, if I wanted, just by being an event coordinator – offering activity after activity. So, what’s the problem with that? There are several.

  1. I personally don’t have the time or the resources.
  2. Generally youth/children bring their other “churched”/Christian friends and so it is not outreach or discipleship, they are going to where the fun is.
  3. There often is not depth, just a shallow devotional, maybe.

Yet, this is what youth and adults are looking for, the most activity at the lowest cost. That cost could be financial or commitment. The large church has many different “departments” offering different things. How can the “small shop” compete, exist, along side the “big box” store? Likewise, how can the “small church” compete against the “big box” church? Is the “big box” church forcing the smaller, community based church to close?

What will the future church look like? As I’ve noted on one of my blog posts on CommanderBill.net (Big vs. Small – Is there a difference?), big churches try to be small with small groups, and small churches try to get big. So where is the balance?

Do you think there is a Walmart view of ministry? And if so, do you think that is impacting the smaller church in the same way that “big box” stores impact the mom & pop store in the community? I’m interested in your thoughts.

Commander Bill Gunter

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Bill is the Associate Pastor of Children & Youth at Hanover Fellowship in Hanover, Pennsylvania where his responsibilities include caring for children and youth from birth through high school. Along with his responsibilities in the local church, Bill is very involved in the Awana ministry, serving on the ministry teams of local Awana missionaries, providing trainings, leading workshops and helping run regional events.

17 responses to Do We Have a Walmart View of Ministry?

  1. Great post Bill. Sometimes I feel like the church is more like Burger King than Walmart: Everyone wants it their way. Small churches want to be big and bigger churches want to be smaller. It seems like we’re never happy. No wonder people don’t want to be Christians sometimes. We’re so schizophrenic! We’ve got to do a better job of really living out the “less is more” principle.

    • Jeff, you’re right that many people want church like Burger King, having it their way. Being a church plant, we’ve had several people come and say we need to do things a certain way because that is how “their” previous church did it. They wanted to make our church like theirs. They wanted it their way and weren’t concerned about how God was leading us in this church. Pride, power and ego get in the way at times unfortunately. You’re right in that we need to live out the less is more principle… less of us is allows for more of Him.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. I have heard parents complain about not having enough activities and then turn around and complain that it costs too much to do all these activities or that their schedules are just so full. What is the right direction? I don’t know. I have cut back on activites, mainly because of resources and volunteers. I am trying to make the ones we do have more of a family focus that involves the entire family not just the kids.

    • I have heard parents complain about not having enough activities and then turn around and complain that … their schedules are just so full.

      I can so relate to that statement. They want activities, but they don’t respond and have a conflict in schedules and the church activity generally loses out. I’m not sure they know that all the planning still goes into an event even if no one responds.

      I learned a long time ago that the bottom line is that the parents will do what is important to them. It doesn’t what night you meet, what you do, if it is important to them, they will be there.

      I’m not sure where that balance is either, except that I try to offer a variety of activities so at the end of the year, I can say we offered all of these things (yes, I know at times my motives are wrong in this regard). The other thing I do is to try to visit the kids in their activities. This way I’m meeting them where they are and building relationships with them and their parents.

      So the balance may mean the scale is tipped heavy on us. Take the time to show the kids that their lives are important to you inside and outside of the church. As you show that you really care, the parents will “love” you. Of course that is harder in a larger church than it is in a smaller church. We also can’t worry to much about what parents say, as long as we are following where God is leading us.

      I appreciate your thoughts.

  3. It is something I struggle with every day, as I watch us grow and grow. I used to know 99% of our children’s families by name, parents and kids. Since we have doubled our children’s ministry. I am lucky to know 80% of the regulars and 50% of the not so regulars.

    When we were building our sanctuary, and everyone was so excited for the growth, I was worried about how I would continue to have relationships with the kids and families. The relationship is important. Our relationship with the kids and families help them develop their relationships with Christ.

    I wish I knew the answers…for there are issues on both sides of the fence. Great post.

    • Thank you for your thoughts Darci. We all want our churches to grow, not to count the numbers, but to reach people for Jesus. Relationships are key and that is what churches of all sizes focus on and as a church grows, building those relationships can be a struggle. There are pros and cons to the large church and the small church but ultimately, we need to follow where God is leading our individual churches.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and comments.

    • Darci — I understand that same struggle of knowing fewer and fewer people. But I would make a case that this is a good thing. Leaders need to be developing leaders. We need to helping to raise up people who are themselves raising leaders.

      While it is a change to narrow our focus, we need to remember that our impact will actually be wider, since the people we develop and pour into can have a cumulative wider impact than we can.

      I talk about this concept here:

      http://differentway4kids.blogspot.com/2010/11/how-churches-can-fall-short.html

  4. Hello, My concern is that although mega churches appear to be reaching multitudes, they are shutting out the people in the inner cities who need the Gospel. It’s like the church people peek out of their doors in the inner city, ghetos, and say, dopies, gangs and mentally ill, oh my. The next step to this scene is shutting the doors and move the church out to the subburbs. Jesus went out into the streets, he met with the drunkards, the prostitutes, and the low class of his day. Jesus was criticized by the church people of his day, scribes and pharisees. The early church was started by these same people he reached out to, not the religious sort. Why don’t we get back to basics and do as our Master Jesus did? Go into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in. Check out my new witnessing tool, “Life’s Secret”, at http://terrydornbooks.com/books.html Sincerely, Terry Dorn – Chaplain to the Streets

    • Terry, I agree that the mega churches tend to cater to the “upscale” person with cafe’s comparable to Starbucks and other commodities and they have left the “least of these” to fend for themselves. Churches, both big and small, sometimes get comfortable being a “Christian community” and are bothered when a someone comes in who doesn’t know Christ and “misbehaves” or doesn’t fit in to the community. Churches need to reach people and as you state, you do that by being in amongst the people who need Jesus.

      Thanks for your comments and I’m looking forward to reviewing the resource you mentioned.

    • I’ve worked with churches in inner cities for almost 20 years and some of the largest churches are in the inner cities. To those churches though people drive in from the suburbs to attend and have little contact with those of whom you are speaking.

      There is much more that The Church can be doing.

  5. Thanks Commander Bill, For your instant and personal reply. Keep up the good work! Terry Dorn

  6. This is a Great post Bill! We are a smaller church that got caught up in wanting bigger. We changed our focus and began to pray! So many great things are are happening! Better before Bigger! Focus on the ones you have and help them to grow. God won’t give us bigger until we can handle the smaller!

    Awesome post!

    • You’re right Leisa, we shouldn’t just focus on growing “numbers”, but on discipling people. As we do the things that God would have us do, He will bring the increase, not us, but we need to be following His will.

      Thanks for your thoughts and sharing!

      • I agree that focusing simply on number is wrong. However, I do think that we should focus on ways to reach more people. Jesus could have stayed in one spot and said, if I do a really good job of discipling these 12, then others will come. That is now, however, what he did. He was very focused on growing His disciples, but he also travelled around so that he could reach as many lost people as possible. It should never be just about the numbers, but likewise the numbers should never be ignored.

  7. As I read this I worry a little about I and reading. Many of the comments seem to suggest that it is either/or; big or small; that there is a perfect size for a church. I believe that every church should be looking to grow. If there are any lost people in your community, then your church should be growing. Now, I will agree with Bill that sometimes this growth can be through the planting of a new church (or even a new campus) but we should be growing.
    For some people the right size church is measured in the thousands. For some it is measured in the tens. For some communities it might be right to have a single large church while in others a number of smaller churches might be right. I think that what really matters is that we stay focused on what matters. I know that the 5 purposes as outlined in the Bible and as written about by Rick Warren have almost become cliché, but I still believe in them and I believe that our focus needs to be on these things. If we focus on Membership, Discipleship, Worship, Ministry and Evangelism instead of how big or small the church down the street is then we might stand a chance of changing this world.
    The truth is that there are some big churches that do amazing things for their communities and there are small churches that try to lock themselves inside their safe little building and ignore the hurting just on the other side of the doors. There are small churches that do such a good job with discipleship that the effects are felt far beyond their walls and there are large churches that think that Sunday morning is all there is.
    As I see it I belong to the biggest church of all. My church has millions of members around the world. My church meets in big buildings and small buildings, in buildings we own or ones rented on Sunday morning, in people’s homes, in warzones and even in prison. My church sings everything from hymns to rock and roll. My church has services on everyday of the week. My church speaks many different languages. My church has people that risk their very lives just to attend. Members of my church have been raised to great heights in society and some have been martyred just for being a member. Members of my church are old and young, rich and poor, and of every race and nationality on earth. Members of my church are doctors, lawyers, soldiers, teachers or maybe unemployed. Members of my church serve their community. Members of my church minister to one another. Members of my church love people. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “on this rock I build my church”. That’s the church I belong to. That’s my church.

    Matt N.

  8. If we concentrate on discipleship then natural growth will happen. As members grow in their walk with the Lord their family, frineds, neighbors will see the difference and want to know why they are changing.

    I actually experienced this – it was amazing to see the church grow with mostly new believers.

    It is easy to get lax when things are going well (per God’s warning in Deut. 6)and stop the continual challenge to grow.

    Matt – Jesus did travel around, however the majority of His attention was given to the 12 and ultimately to the three. I believe this should be our plan. I believe we can learn from Bill Hybels “confession” – the lack of growth amongst his people.

    Large or small – each has its blessings and each has its difficulties. In both it takes strong leadership with a vision to disciple believers so they will become emissaries into the world. A church I attended has signs as you leave the parking lot, “You are now entering the mission field.” We must give our people this vision, this challenge.

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