There is this secret that pastors don’t talk about and it is a bit awkward. You know how in the ‘real world’ people say things such as ‘size doesn’t matter?’ And there is even certain assumptions made by folks when a man drives a really pumped up truck or car that he is overcompensating. ‘People’ say these things, not me… Well, when it comes to church work, we have similar issues. Sometimes we get insecure about our congregational size and about how others view us.
I was recently asked about the size of my congregation, and I was tempted for a brief moment to exaggerate and aggrandize the numbers. I worried that people would judge my abilities as a leader based on the size of my congregation. You see, I work at a multi-site church and I am the preaching pastor of the smaller site. We aren’t big at all. We are your average ‘mid-sized’ church, if not dipping toward the smaller side. I am blessed to get to speak at various functions and conferences, and often times the question comes up: so how big is your congregation? And every time I feel a little pause before I respond. A lot of factors play into making a church larger: location, timing, and the make up of the church itself. Are these excuses? No, but the question still remains – are we supposed to feel shame for having mid-sized churches and not having attendance that is in the 1000’s and broadcast to other sites?
The obvious assumption is that we should want large churches because that is the way we know the gospel is being spread and people are in a healthy community. But I had an experience this weekend that made me think about the implications of having a big church. But first, let’s talk fantasy versus reality.
I have always thought about how great it would be to be on staff at a large church. Picture it – one where I had a large staff, and my main job was to do what I feel God made me to do. I feel like I was designed to preach, teach and offer sacrament. But at a mid-sized church, my job has so many pieces that if I were to list them all, I am afraid I would fill this page and it would cause me to have a panic attack. Let’s just say I am not above plunging toilets when a plumbing emergency arrives or greeting folks on Sunday morning when greeters don’t show up. As I craft my sermon, sometimes I am interrupted by things that most larger church pastors never even hear about. I find myself wearing so many hats; I am not always positive I do any of them well. And my creative side doesn’t always get time to express itself fully. People have asked me to come and talk to their art teams about art in worship, and on occasion I have felt like a fraud, because in my own setting I don’t always get to implement my passion or have the kind of team I would need to pull off the grand visions I have. The dream includes a massive multimedia team where I could actually have a production staff on retainer to create the imagery I have locked in my head.
Most weeks I clean up the lobby before people get to church. I help create and run events. I have a media team of folks that are awesome, but really they just record the service – there is no fancy editing and our already over-worked visual guy doesn’t get a chance to make the videos we both dream about. Our flyers are often just photocopies. We have tried to move beyond clip art but we have a multigenerational congregation and that’s where some of them are at. If our facebook gets updated, it is usually me or our overworked volunteer. Our twitter stopped tweeting around the time my plate got packed with not just running the church, but with being an author and speaker and a new home owner as well.
Why it’s okay
So how did this weekend make me pause to be grateful? I went with my friends to my dream church, where the hipness oozed out of the walls. I mean from man bun to elderly lady, they had it all. And the media was insane! The welcome video alone looked like it was directed by Spielberg (okay that is an exaggeration). At the time of the sermon a screen dropped behind the pastor, so not only was the giant wall behind him providing imagery but he looked like a weather man as he pointed out Greek words and other things right beside him. I was turning green. The music was the kind of music that I actually listen to. It was great and I was starting to feel frustrated by all the ways that this lucky pastor gets to do just what God made him to do. But then we had communion. In order to serve the size of the congregation they had, little cups and tiny chicklet sized bread simply got passed around and everyone individually took communion on their own. I call this an Ikea communion. Our own little self-sufficient communion. There was no shared liturgy around the meal, nor did they share the story of the first meal. As I reflected after taking my quick communion shot, I began to laugh at the thought of the crumbs on our church carpet that I sometimes have to clean up after communion. I am grateful for them because they are a symbol of the fact that we all walk up and take communion together; that I am blessed enough to know the names of everyone who has contributed to the pile of Jesus crumbs. Sure it’s messy, but who knows how long I will have the chance to be a part of such a tight knit and known community.
I have visited mega churches with that kind of media and felt like it was more entertainment than worship. Perhaps it reaches younger folks, but it seems too staged to be real to me. I love our smaller congregation where as you said, you know everyone by name.
I agree with Marcia. I love our small church, and our wonderful pastor Sarah. When my daughter was in high school, we would occasionally go to that very large church in Lake Forest and it felt staged. Yes, we were entertained with the wonderful singers and band, but were we really feeling God in that large church? I felt as thought it was more of a “who can be seen at the church” for the South County residents. Keep up the great work Sarah!
Thanks for sharing this Sarah. Whenever I am asked , “How many did you have in worship on Sunday?”, I say, “Probably more than Jesus got.”
Believe me, I hear you, but who made it a competition? We United Methodist pastors are called to be who we are, where we are appointed. And, while it may never seem like enough, or our dream pastorate, the people in the congregation are usually appreciative. Plus, I believe God smiles, the Spirit moves, people are healed, and redemption occurs.