Missional Obstacles: MEGA-ISM

Mega-ism is the obsession with size as the measure of a successful church or ministry.

In America, size matters. Americans are obsessed with size and it has become the measure of all things. Bigger is better. It is unfortunate, but true, that this obsession with size has crept into the Church. Churches continually evaluate themselves based on numbers of people in seats. And then, “because we think that the number of people is a sure sign of fruitfulness and success, we do everything we can to keep people.”

We seem to have gotten so hooked on numerical church growth that we missed the idea of growth by multiplication of churches, which we know from nature and biology is the more organic/natural way to grow! The result is that we have large churches that have to manage the people, in part by building large, expensive, one-dimensional buildings, with an increasing emphasis on administrating programs.

Mega-ism presents a serious obstacle to Missional Christianity. For example, if your church is small, you are tempted to conclude that there is something wrong. Books, seminars, and conferences have been designed to address the problems associated with failing to grow. Francis Schaeffer, an American theologian and philosopher and founder of L’Abri community in Switzerland, stated twenty-five years ago: Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught up in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but he even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered me.

I used to think that since there was a book in the Bible called Numbers, it was okay to count up how many people attended our church every weekend. I think it was mostly to massage my ego. If attendance was up, I would feel great! However, if it dropped, my entire psyche could be negatively impacted. I have been trying to abandon this preoccupation with size as the measure of success, telling myself, “I do not care how large the church is.” While I really want to be able to say that authentically, I cannot say it yet. I like to count. I have been counting for years. I count heads. I estimate numbers. When my wife goes to a women’s event at our church, I always ask her, “How many people were there?” Almost every time she does not know. I cannot understand that. Often times I will try to ask her again in a different way, “How many people do you think showed up?” She will not even guess. I find myself trying to offer her my own guess and I hope that she will confirm it. She never does. She really does not care how many people showed up. I want to be like that. I wish I did not care, but I do. Somehow in the fabric of my perspective on what really matters in ministry are these fibers that determine value based on size. Bigger is better. Size matters. More and larger and increasing means that the event or activity is successful and good and valuable. When my kids go to youth group on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, I find it hard to resist the temptation to find out how many kids were there. I often cannot resist it. I always ask. Sometimes I even want to know the names of all the kids that showed up. My kids hate this inquisition. Why am I obsessed with numbers? Why do I determine value based on how many people show up? I am messed up. And the sad thing is that a lot of pastors and church leaders are messed up, too. We focus our energy and resources toward getting more people to come rather than on the transformation of those who are there. A change is necessary. “Mission is not evaluated first and foremost by the growth of the church either in numbers or in power and influence but primarily by the difference the church engaged in mission makes to the world.”

Mega-ism needs to be abandoned. “The goal of church growth is not to get bigger. The goal is to equip more people to live as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ Enlargement is a by-product rather than the focus of growth.”

What is the ideal size for a local church? Oftentimes when pastoring, I felt that it was just a little bit larger than whatever size we were. David Garrison believes “churches must remain small enough to be manageable by either one or several lay leaders. It is when churches exceed 20–30 members and begin using a separate church building that the task becomes too big for a layperson to lead without leaving their secular employment.”

Churches would be able to multiply much faster if they abandoned a model that focused on growing larger. Professional clergy and buildings consume financial resources that require more people to support the institution. This economic demand often forces churches to focus on drawing more people to worship and give, rather than focusing on how to reach their community for Christ. It’s not about size; it’s about impact. Can you imagine the difference it would make if the more than 340,000 churches in North America all measured their effectiveness by external measures (impact on communities) rather than internal measures (attendance)? Can you imagine the difference it would make if every church around the world did the same?

Dwight Smith shares his personal struggles with mega-ism in Invading Secular Space:I believe God said to me, “Dwight, do you think that my church is a warehouse which exists for the sole purpose of filling it with people to listen to you talk?” I remember thinking, “Well, God, yes, as a matter of fact that’s exactly what I thought you wanted. Doesn’t that make you happy? Aren’t you overjoyed to see so many people sitting there listening to the truth of the scripture preached with power?”For the very first time it dawned on me that perhaps that was not what made God happy, that just possibly, gathering people to sit and listen to somebody talk about the Bible was not the primary reason for the existence of the church, that more people, happy people, bigger budgets, more programmes might not be the main reason for the existence of the church. Success by numbers was seductive. That experience caused me to ask some fundamental questions about what God actually did want for his church. My intentions were good but the basic mistake that I had made was to confuse the growth of numbers in the pew with the success of the mission of the church. That is not to say that the growth of the church might not be a good and desirable outcome of the success of the actual mission of the church but it is not and can never be the same thing as mission itself.

This obsession with size needs to be abandoned. God has used and will continue to use churches of all sizes, shapes, and colors to advance the kingdom.


[1] This word is not new; it was used in a lecture at a conference on Economic Zones: Learning from Global Experience in New Delhi, India, April 29–30, 2004, of the Foreign Investment Advisory Service (FIAS)—which advises developing country governments on how to attract and retain foreign direct investment. Rubana Huq, “Session III: Interactive Panel Discussion with Private Sector Economic Zone Promoters/Policy Makers/Users in Bangladesh,” Foreign Investment Advisory Service, http://www.fias.net/ifcext/fias.nsf/AttachmentsByTitle/FIAS_Resources_Conferences_EcoZonesIndia_RHuq.pdf/$FILE/FIAS_Resources_Conferences_EcoZonesIndia_RHuq.pdf (accessed May 28, 2007).

[2] Cole, Organic Church, 69.

[3] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things To Come, 212.

[4] Francis Schaeffer, A Christian View of Spirituality, 9; quoted in Tom Nebel, Big Dreams in Small Places, 96.

[5] Robinson and Smith, Invading Secular Space, 94.

[6] Minatrea, Shaped By God’s Heart, 112.

[7] Garrison, Church Planting Movements, 191.

[8] Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, The Externally Focused Church, 214.

[9] Robinson and Smith, Invading Secular Space, 92–93.

Today’s Missional Challenge

Abandon obsession with size as the measure of success! Focus on multiplying disciplemaking groups and serving those in need!

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Dave DeVries

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Dr. Dave DeVries is a coach, trainer, author and founder of Missional Challenge. He is passionate about coaching and training church planters and missional leaders. With 30+ years of church planting and leadership development experience, Dave brings his passion and encouragement to those he trains and coaches.
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