I remember the first time I stood in the ruins of an ancient Jewish synagogue. I was shocked at how small it was. As a modern-day suburbanite, I had always imagined that the synagogues of Jesus’s day were about the size of a mid-sized church. I hadn’t factored in that Jesus ministered in an era without easy mobility or that everyone who attended had to live within walking distance.
I also used to wonder why the New Testament never said anything about small groups or the importance of building and maintaining community. I failed to consider that the early church met in homes and that most people lived in well-defined neighborhoods they seldom left. A house church is a small group. It doesn’t need to focus on building community. And the anonymity and superficiality that ail our modern-day churches are hardly problems in a small and stable neighborhood where everyone knows everyone—and has since birth.
But as we all know, that’s no longer the world we live in. The neighborhoods of the past no longer exist. They’ve been killed off by our mobility and replaced by new connection points: the workplace, special interest groups, and our station-in-life.
The change in our relational patterns has been so profound that we now value anonymity more than interconnectedness. So much so that the right to privacy has been deemed a constitutional right.
Big is the new normal.
Now I’m not bemoaning the loss of small. There are some good things that come with economy of scale. I like having choices. But big does have some downsides.
The Downsides of Big
The first downside of larger cities, stores, and churches is found in increasingly shallow relationships. When everything grows huge, everyone becomes a stranger. Even in our churches, the quality and depth of relationships that the New Testament considers to be normal have become increasingly rare.
The New Testament lists more than 30 “one anothers” that describe the type of relationships and behaviors that is supposed to be normative in a local church. They include things like loving one another, bearing with one another, confessing our sins to one another, praying for one another, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and songs, and a host of other things that can’t take place as long as our meetings and groupings are too large.
The second downside is lost perspective. We think of historically large churches as being small. In the past, any church over 200 was considered large. A congregation of 400 would put you on the map. It took just 800 members in 1920 to be included in Elmer Towns’s classic church growth book, The 10 Largest Sunday School Churches in the World.
Now here’s the problem with thinking you’re small when you’re not. It’s easy for numerical growth to become priority No. 1. That’s because when a church thinks of itself as small, it tends to assume that the community and relationships are already among its greatest strengths. And when that happens, adding more people quickly becomes more important than finishing the discipleship task.
The truth is that any church over 150 is not the close-knit family it thinks it is.
More often than not, it’s a core of worker bees at the center that know and love each other deeply while everyone else circles around trying to connect.
That’s why when the church I pastor reached 180 in attendance (kids and adults), we cut back on our large group meetings to focus on relationships and small groups. We realized that most of our relationships were casual and superficial. Not because there was something wrong with our people, but because we had too many people.
When People Become Numbers
Now I’m not saying that large churches are bad. I pastor a massive church with well over 10,000 people showing up each weekend. I’m simply saying that the moment our primary focus shifts from developing biblical community and iron-sharpening-iron relationships to growing the church larger, genuine discipleship becomes nearly impossible.
And the first sign that biblical community, life-on-on life relationships, and the discipleship that flows out of it are no longer a priority is when we stop keeping track of individuals. People become numbers. Somewhere around 125 to 150, we start to ask, “Have you seen Jason and Amy?” And no one can remember.
Churches at this size often try to institute some sort of system to track individuals. But I’ve found that somewhere around 300 to 400 most churches throw up their hands and decide that tracking individuals is too complex and difficult to do.
So they quit trying. Total attendance replaces individual attendance as the key metric. And when that happens, there’s no longer any way to know if they’re fulfilling the Great Commission or simply cycling an ever-changing crowd through a revolving door.
If we don’t know who’s coming, it’s impossible to know who’s growing.
Consider how misleading total attendance figures can be.
If all I track is total attendance instead of individual attendance and my church grows from 400 to 500, I’ll see it as a great year. But if what really happened was a loss of 100 people and a gain of 200 new ones? That’s a lousy year.
One calls for, “Hallelujah! We grew by 25 percent!”
The other calls for, “Oh No! We lost 25 percent!”
This subtle shift from tracking individuals to counting numbers leads many churches to think they are healthy and growing when in reality they are simply a revolving door with a bigger front door than back door.
Staying Focused on People
I’ve never been willing to accept the inevitability of shifting from tracking people to tracking numbers. That’s why back when North Coast Church was less than 200 in attendance, we made a decision to do whatever it took to carefully track our small group and weekend attendance.
Frankly, it wasn’t long until it became clear that it was impossible for us to accurately track individual worship service attendance. Even with a strong push each weekend, the best we can get is a 50 to 60 percent response. Nonetheless, 50 to 60 percent is better than 0 percent. So we take what we can get and carefully record and track all the cards that are turned in. It’s a laborious task. But it’s well worth it if we really believe that people who come are more important than the money they give.
As for our small groups, it’s much easier. Since we treat them as the hub of our ministry, we have high participation. This year it’s equal to 94 percent of our average weekend attendance. And I can tell you in real time who was in a group last week.
How do we do it?
It starts with the conviction that tracking individuals is more important than money. If we didn’t really believe that, we wouldn’t go to all the trouble to chase down those who forget to turn in their attendance.
Keeping People in the Bull’s-Eye
Admittedly, it’s no easy thing to accurately track individual attendance and involvement. In light of the difficulty and complexity, it’s understandable why so many churches make the shift to counting numbers instead of people.
But we can’t settle for numbers if we want to fulfill the Great Commission. Numbers can’t be discipled. Only people can be discipled.
Fortunately, along with the huge increase in churches with more than 200 attendees, there has also been an explosion of church management software and programs that can make what once would have been a gargantuan task, manageable.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how we do it. We can use old-school pen and paper. We can use the latest and greatest software solution. We can intentionally plant smaller churches that multiply. Or we can grow massive megachurches with complex tracking systems. But one way or the other, we have to ensure that our people don’t become mere numbers. Because when they do, it won’t be long until discipleship is something we talk about but have no earthly idea if it’s actually happening.
Larry Osborne is one of the senior and teaching pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, California. Under his leadership, weekend attendance has grown from 128 to over 10,000. Recognized nationally as one of the Ten Most Influential Churches in America and one of the most innovative, North Coast Church pioneered the use of video worship venues and is one of the leaders in the multisite movement with over 31 local worship options each weekend – each one targeted at a different missional demographic. Over 90 percent of North Coast’s average weekend attendance participates in weekly sermon-based small groups, a concept that is spreading across the nation as an alternative to traditional small group methodologies. Larry’s books include, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, Accidental Pharisees, Sticky Teams, Sticky Church, The Unity Factor, A Contrarian’s Guide to Spirituality and 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe.
To learn how North Coast Church tracks small group attendance, read the full chapter in the FREE eBook Mission Creep: The 5 Subtle Shifts That Sabtage Evangelism & Discipleship by Larry Osborne. Download it here.