One of my hunches over the last 20 years or so has been that the church landscape is shifting in such a way that we are sooner or later going to end up with several very large franchise type churches as well as a large number of smaller ’boutique’ type entities. In my book I describe this as the ‘Bunnings phenomena’, the moment every small to medium sized ‘Home Hardware’ dreads, when Bunnings announces that they are moving into your neighbourhood.
Bunnings are the Aussie Behemoth of hardware and they will not be beaten. In fact as soon as they arrive you can guarantee that your local Hardware store will sooner or later adapt very cleverly or simply need to shut up shop because they are no longer seeing customers come thru the door. In my own community Fred’s Hardware closed down several years back because even the half hour drive required to find a Bunnings was still preferred over local and personal – although admittedly very expensive!
Of course in church land we have similar behemoths who can descend in a suburb with a few moments notice and put on a far better Sunday event than your hack group of locals will ever be able to. And I have heard the conversations that take place when a more attractive entity with greater capacity for service provision lobs in alongside a smaller ‘unbranded’ crew of people.
My theory is that – in ‘churchland’ the big will get bigger (Bunnings will expand relentlessly) while the small will either adapt or die – and quite honestly I pity those leading in the middle sized churches whose strategy is very similar to Bunnings but without the pulling capacity. I have floated this idea for a while now – and seen it happen around me, but recently in one of Scot KcKnight’s newsletters he made some comments on Bob Smietana’s book Reorganised Religion where he makes similar proposals.
“Consider it the religious version of the Walmart effect that has swept through America – with more and more people deciding to find religion at the spiritual version of big-box stores rather than at small mom-and-pop-style congregations.”
This from Bob Smietana’s Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, where he devotes a chapter to the current church reality in the USA. The numbers stagger.
First, most congregations are small but most people are in megachurches or bigger churches.
Second, the “median congregation had only 70 regular participants” in 2018-2019, though later I think Bob said 65. Anyway, choose your number. That’s the median.
Third, the average person going to church goes to one with 360 regulars with a budget of 450K.
Fourth, the top 1 percent of churches have close to 20% of the people and resources.
Which means church life in the USA mirrors the social conditions of America.
(I’m not sure how accurately this translates to Oz, but I imagine it must be similar)
Fifth, the megachurches are populated mostly by people who have left smaller churches for the big church.
Sixth, those in the megachurches both give less money and participate as volunteers less. The criticism that megachurches attract those who want the show without commitment hits the nail on the head. I would contend, however, that those who do participate actively in these large churches are every bit as committed and have greater resources for their active work.
Seventh, here’s a big one: the observers of this stuff contend that the shift of church populations to the megachurches is “another possible sign of the decline of organized religion.”
Eighth, the inequality of churches (people and resources) is very similar to the inequalities in the broader culture. “A relative handful of big churches have about half of the money and people,” according to the long-term research of March Chaves of Duke.
Why are people shifting to the megachurches? McKnight gives a few of his guesses:
First, many people have been burned in small churches and are looking for a safe place. (Maybe somewhere to hide is what means here!)
Second, the performance level of both music or worship, as well as the captivating speaking by the preachers attract many.
Third, the resources and the variety of ministries available at megachurches gives people a niche into which they can plug in their own aspirations and desires for participation.
Fourth, the expectations for megachurch attenders are considerably less, if also often nonexistent. Those who participate in mini-churches or small churches are expected to participate, their names and lives are known, and they are under (in some sense) a greater scrutiny about their Christian behaviors.
Its hard to write something like this without putting a value judgement out there – however I realise that is a complex and fraught thing to do. Some small churches are dreadful at making disciples while some very large churches would do exceptionally well on this front.
Perhaps its nothing more than a passing observation – the landscape is shifting… but I don’t think so. Its a wake up call for churches of all shapes and forms to keep our eyes focused on the ball – rather than getting distracted by the competition that is unavoidable when business methodologies are employed to grow brand loyalty within churches.
I have heard ‘Dunbar’s number’ cited a few times recently in discussions around how we organise our church communities. According to his theory, the tightest circle of our lives has just five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts) has been suggested as ideal church size, 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise) or those you who have requested you on FB 🙂
Perhaps the question we need to consider is at what point does the church function most effectively as the church – and is there a point where we simply have to say ‘no – this isn’t what Jesus had in mind?’