Thursday, September 06, 2007

Praise God from whom all economies of scale flow

So “big city church” is growing. Excitedly, I am told of growth and expansion and new building plans. Size obviously matters.

At the same time, I hear of two neighbourhood churches, small, struggling, that have closed in the last 6 months. Both have encouraged their people to attend “big city church”. In other words, growth in “big city church” has come from the death of corner church.

What does the Christian church do with these realities?


I drive home thinking about supermarkets. And the slow death of corner diaries, driven to the wall by the advent of cars, the ease of transport and the economies of scale.

And let’s be honest. We’re all part of it. We all shop at supermarkets. We all appreciate cheaper prices and greater variety and we all gladly absorb anonymous service and ease of parking.

So is this the future of the Western church? A few lucky ones getting larger and larger, filled with punters reassuring themselves that nameless growth is surely evidence of God being present and Christianity having a future? Size matters. And surely it’s easier to sit and soak in a high quality band than listen to the tuneless two-piece band at the corner diary? And surely large leads to economies of scale and ensures good programming can be absorbed by both toddler and teen.

Is this gathering of crowds of consumers, praising the God from who all economies of scale flow, really the Kingdom vision that Jesus lived and died for?

If not, what do we do? And who will lead the revolution? You?

Or the consumer next door?

For more on this topic see here:

Posted by steve at 09:19 PM


  1. In a previous job I worked with corner-markets. Super malls don’t eliminate “the small guy” unless they are trying to do exactly the same thing – THEN economies of scale kick in.

    This is further seen in the INCREASE in farmers’ markets, niche offerings, etc. If the ‘smaller’ changes to be like the ‘bigger’ then they’ll probably loose. If the smaller really is just like the bigger, only smaller, then they’ll probably loose.

    I’d have to disagree, then, with the last line of your second paragraph about big city churches killing small ones.

    Maybe the smaller churches weren’t doing anything worthwhile – any more than the way you write of the bigger ones.

    I think the situation is more dire than you write (grin). I disagree with your economics to point out how even more correct you are on your understanding of local church as expressed in this post!

    [This comment is intentionally vague as to the list of questions at the end of the originating post lest it loose the point]

    Comment by David Malouf — September 7, 2007 @ 2:42 am

  2. David,

    1. I am lost with your 5th para. can you tease it out a bit more please?

    2. I have heard the niche argument before. I find it patronising. I am not saying you are being patronising. I simply think that it can easily reduce new forms of church to being for alternative, country hippy folk. While the majority get on and consume. hence my question – did jesus really come for consumption?


    Comment by steve — September 7, 2007 @ 11:02 am

  3. I can’t help but think Noam Chomsky would have something interesting to say about this. The kind of “big flash restaurant with nothing on the menu” concept

    All the big churches offering exactly the same thing but somehow people feel they have (the illusion of) choice.

    I think part of the problem is perspective. I’ve been thinking about capitalism a lot lately cos I’m about to go to India.

    Capitalism works. 700 Million Indians are wealthier than they were before. Capitalism doesn’t work. 300 Million Indians are doing worse than they were before.

    If you step back far enough India is doing well. If you zoom into a street corner in Kolkotta then that person you meet there is not.

    If you look at Capitalism you don’t generally notice Gareth Morgan giving 50M to charity. If you look at big churches you don’t usually see relationship. But it is there. Just like there are generous capitalists.

    How arbitrary are these thoughts… I’m quite tired today – maybe none of this helps

    Comment by Randall — September 7, 2007 @ 11:41 am

  4. Tena Koutou,

    I think that in the past, modern Christendom was so much part of the cultural tapestry of our societies ( NZ, Aus, Canada, USA, Europe etc. ), church was a natural part of that landscape. That religious fabric is being worn away as our societies are moving from a modern to some kind of post- modern fashion. Another way of saying it is that once Christendom was like a sea that covered our societies landscapes and now it’s been reduced to pools, which are getting smaller, and there is a kind of amalgamation occurring – formation of mega churches. Among other things, Mega churches are reflective of our consumeristic culture where we can shop for all our spiritual goods and services in one place – a spirituality of entitlement. It also serves as a ‘ watering hole ‘ in the midst of a perceived dry , barren and dangereous landscape. What we might be seeing is the last ‘ Hurrah ‘ of modern Christianity before the pool dries up. Meanwhile, our societies are becoming more distant.

    Our context is changing and the Church along with the Gospel must be contextualized as we engage new societal fashions or landscapes that are forming.
    This is where the ‘ Emergent ‘ expressions of Church have a place. In short, I believe that we must emphasize a local – ‘ indigenous ‘ , wholistic, visible presence of Church. The local church must be recovered but perhaps more reflective of the neighbourhood that it finds itself in. By indigenous I mean we must study that context and seek to ‘ translate ‘ church and the gospel to it’s surroundings – not synchronize but contextualize, there’s a difference. I say wholistic because we need to dismantle our compartmentalized approach to faith – what we eat, where we shop, justice for the poor, environmental issues, to name a few, are growing concerns in our transforming culture – do we have a counter cultural voice here ? I say visible because we are supposed to be a shining light. for example, I personally am not in favour of house churches. I’ve been a part of one and I found it to be quite insular, self absorbed and at times elitist… Not to mention, void of eclesiology. And for the most part, invisible…. Steve I like the fact that you belong to ‘ Opawa ‘ Baptist church. It speaks of locality and it has a visible presence. It’s ongoing challenge will be to contextualize, become a indigenous expression of Church there. Steve, if your church was to close down tomorrow, would the rest of the community of Opawa miss you ?… Or even notice ?

    Who will lead the revolution ?… I’m not sure if its a revolution, maybe more of a re-definition. It will be guys( or Women ) like you Steve, visionaries and leaders who will boldly go where no modern Christian leader has gone before. I also think it won’t so WASP’y( White Anglo Saxon Protestant dominated ) and I’d also say that grass roots inititives will become more the norm.

    Those enmeshed in Consumerism will be happy with mega church and probably stay there. Some will become disillusioned and leave, others will embark on the journey, adventure, and mystery with you.

    My initial thoughts,


    Ps – David, I don’t really get what you’re saying, It seems to me that you’re missing the point…Has our ‘modern’ Christianity become so synchronized, is so ‘in bed’ with the likes of Capitalism, Consumerism and even democracy that we believe ( among other things ) ‘bigger is better’ and therefore lost our way ?

    Comment by Tangira — September 7, 2007 @ 11:47 am

  5. Steve

    Interesting and thought provoking post. My 5 cents.

    With the advent of the car, yes people are commuting across town to the bigger churches and this is causing the smaller churches to die.

    Yes classical economic theory says that peoples needs are being meet better by the bigger churches.

    However I might suggest that what we “need” is actually what we want. And what we want is not actually what may be best for us.

    We have just moved from a city to a small outlining community (where the house prices are affordable). One of the nice things is that the people who go to church, you see in the supermarket, the street and life kind of close. It has a much stronger community feel to it.

    I wonder if in our city busyness that we miss this community feel. Our friends, workmates, etc live scattered all over the city. So our church relationships go the same way, scattered and not based upon a local community.

    Don’t have the solution…. Maybe ship everyone to a small town ?!

    Comment by david whyte — September 7, 2007 @ 11:52 am

  6. My initial thought after reading the post and the comments attached is that we live in a non-community minded society. We have friends across the city, but don’t know our neighbour. We travel halfway across town to shop to get the cheapest prices for what we want/need (and justify it by saying that we are being responsible with our finances, but neglect to ask the question why something is so cheap, and who is suffering as a result of the low cost) while our local community stores struggle on. It is only natural that we will do the same for church.
    It is a challenge for me to be thinking about as myself and my family prepare to re-enter this culture after 5 years out of it. The thing I am most scared of is that I too, despite my radical thinking at the moment, may get sucked into the same thinking that the average NZ (and even Western) Christian has, namely, where is a church that can meet the needs of me and my family?
    Having been on the mission field, I don’t want to do “large” church (I put the word large in quotation marks as I have seen small churches trying to do large church in an attempt to stem the flow of people form their congregation to the megachurch down the road or across town). I see “large” church as fake. There is no engagement, no genuine concern, no sense of connectedness. And, I don’t want to travel halfway across town for a couple of hours on Sunday to get entertained – I can do that at a concert or in the comfort of my own home.

    Comment by wokboy — September 7, 2007 @ 1:16 pm

  7. I really object to being named a ‘consumer’ just because I made a choice about leaving a small church and joining a larger one.

    Some people like big churches, some like small churchers. Why can’t we all just get along? Okay, so as the leader of a smaller church you object to people saying big is better. I agree! But I also object to your insinuation that small is better. Why isn’t there room for difference? How is saying smaller churches fill a niche patronising?

    And seriously, it’s crazy to acuse larger churches of not having relationships, or being fake see previous comment. Not only is that totally ungraceful, it’s also unhelpful. So called ‘mega’ church’s have to be creative about helping people create relationships – like having many services and lounge group networks.

    Why can’t we all be a little bit nicer to each other and, you know, get along!?

    Comment by Sharyn — September 7, 2007 @ 11:38 pm

  8. Thanks for your comments Sharyn. My comment on large churches being fake comes from a disillusionment with them. I have experienced large church, having attended one for the last 9 years. I struggle to see how you can have intimate relationships at a large church. You mention that large churches have to get creative about helping people create relationships – I would suggest that you cannot create a relationship with someone in a service. It is impossible. In my experience large churches in NZ have small groups as a way of preventing people going out the back door. The average attendee of a large church (and I am generalising here) would attend on a Sunday morning and go home and probably not do anything else during the week.
    I’m also not trying to diss large church, but rather question the consumer “all about me and what I can get out this” mentality that seems to be creeping into Western Christianity – I see it more prevalent in larger churches as it is often easier for people to “hide” in them. I am also trying to question the thinking that is also creeping into Christianity of having to entertain people to get them to come to church. As I mentioned in my previous post this is not just something that can be seen in some congregations with considerable numbers, but also in smaller sized congregations. That is why I put the word large in quotation marks.
    I hope that clarifies things and I apologise if it wasn’t clear from my previous post.

    Comment by wokboy — September 8, 2007 @ 1:31 am

  9. To answer my vagueness…

    Steve – I am NOT pointing to the use of niche-as-patronizing you write of. Actually, I had forgotten that people do that – ’cause it’s a lame way to look at things (grin). I like new expressions; have been involved starting a couple over the years myself.

    Steve & Tangira – the collective of local churches (at least here in the U.S.) matches the store-analogy like this (in my small opinion): imagine a local store that doesn’t work hard at anything because there’s no where else people can go for what they sell. (1) Nothing external spurs them on. (2) Not much internally spurs them on. (3) Their concern ends up staying “open” (enough effort to keep the doors open). Then comes WalMart who pushes itself (e.g. created a shipping/trucking system unrivaled in history).

    Suddenly, the local store can realize some deep insights (but probably will just moan or try to copy part of WalMart). Specifically, what has the store been doing to the mentality, mindset, worldview of its customers?

    Parallel: what has my “small”, corner local-church been doing? Are the members of that local-church family different in action, in thought, in concern? (“Different” from a life without Jesus) Is it, perhaps, that a mega-WalMart church can simply do what I’m doing and do it better? And if I don’t like what they’re “producing” – what does that say about what we were “producing”?!?

    My 5th paragraph was that Mega/WalMart beat the locals at their own game. And in the process, give us a much cleaner look into “the game.” It is out of this, as far as I have discussed-and-read, that comes much of the house-church movements here in the U.S. (for example).

    I have no issue with larger churches and have seen a few that are doing well for the Kingdom (including, wokboy, cultivating deep relationships). And I have seen a few smaller churches that are doing well for the Kingdom (for ease of conversation, I’m currently a “church consultant”).

    What makes a local store great is when it becomes intertwined with the lives of its customers. Customer stop becoming customers and owners stop becoming SOLE proprietors and the line between employee and customer all but disappears. That’s why the small stores I worked with that did well couldn’t care less about WalMart type chains. They didn’t affect them. [There is much more to write about this, but then it becomes an economics blog and that has a whole different set of differing opinion!]

    Another angle: just because the mega-churches are all but blatantly consumerists doesn’t mean the smaller churches aren’t consumerists, also. Just because it’s a different consumerism doesn’t mean it isn’t consumerism.

    Hope that clarifies, at least some.

    Comment by David Malouf — September 8, 2007 @ 3:01 am

  10. Sharyn,

    help me please, where did I insinuate smaller was better. That was not my intention. I’m not having a go at you personally, and this has nothing to do with Opawa. I am simply reflecting on the irony that 2 small churches I know are closing and sending their people to large churches. And I am wondering aloud if the consumerism that is so deeply part of our culture might be part of our church attendance choices.

    Patronising and niche – i’ll try and explain that when my heads a bit clearer.


    Comment by steve — September 8, 2007 @ 10:36 pm

  11. Wokboy: well, you are generalising and frankly, it means that there’s not much to say. You assume all mega churches are like the one you attended. You assume all members of those churches are the same (albeit you know you’re generalising). I guess I can’t say much to you then, except that if I consigned all small churches to the same category as the one I last attended (for a good 10 years), I’d think they were all going to hell in a handbasket. Luckily, I’m smarter than that.

    Steve: re your comment “Is this gathering of crowds of consumers, praising the God from who all economies of scale flow, really the Kingdom vision that Jesus lived and died for?”, are you serious? This seems such an arrogant statement. I am one of those people you name a consumer’. It’s offensive to me. I went to small church for 10 years and after tiring of the constant demands placed on you because there’s no one else to do anything, I sought refuge in a place where many others gathered too. People go there because it’s a good church. There are nice people, good music, good relationships, sincere leadership and more than enough opportunities to serve without being manipulated into doing it. I like small churches, I just don’t want to go to one anymore. And I really, really think you need to be careful about lumping all us consumers into one homogenous pile. We don’t all look the same and we don’t just want to consume – we also want to give. But we do want to recieve. Church is supposed to be a family and a family is where you get your needs met. My needs weren’t met by small church, they were by a large church. I’m sorry if that seems offensively consumerist. Nope, I’m not sorry.

    Comment by Sharyn — September 8, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

  12. I don’t think it’s arrogant, It’s a question. Is Christianity about having our needs met? Is being in a family about having our needs met? Isn’t relationships for the sake of personal need a bit selfish? I am not pointing the finger, simply asking the question (of all churches, big and small, and of all families and people).

    Let me make another equally “arrogant” statement: that manipulation is not what Jesus lived and died for either, whether in small or large church.


    Comment by steve — September 8, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

  13. David wrote: “Another angle: just because the mega-churches are all but blatantly consumerists doesn’t mean the smaller churches aren’t consumerists, also. Just because it’s a different consumerism doesn’t mean it isn’t consumerism.”

    I agree. But can you tease this out for me. In what do you see small churches being consumers.

    Here is my thesis: that all of us are consumers (in small and big church) and bring that usually unthinkingly into our spiritual life and that the biggest challenge facing the church in the West is how we respond to consumerism.

    And here is my hunch. That denial or acceptance will not do, because we are still playing on the consumer field. We need a fresh imagination and a different set of strategies that will take church and faith to a different playing field.


    Comment by steve — September 8, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  14. Interesting discussion. When I was a kid my family owned a four square dairy in the country. Several times a week my mum took my sister and I around the district delivering groceries. Sounds kind of incarnational and as a kid its how I got to my friends houses! the supermarket 20km away caused the end of that and now twenty years later the big stores offer a delivery service at a price. Interestingly after 18 years in the rural community we were still not part of it as we didn’t own a farm. Shows there are issues in big and small of course. Am wondering if I could deliver groceries to sick preschool mums??

    Comment by Jo wall — September 8, 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  15. Sharyn, I was surprised by your final comments in your post, and have to say that your comments about getting your needs meet is exactly the mentality that I am questioning that has been creeping into Christianity. When did Jesus say that He will supply all that we want? I would actually like to challenge you (in a loving way) to question whether what you say are your needs are actually needs or whether they are more wants or would likes.
    Steve, I agree that we, in the West, tend to approach church like everything else . . . as consumers, because we have been told by society and media that that is what we are. As I prepare to re-enter the Western society I fear that I may fall into the consumer trap myself, although I don’t want to. I want to stay real and keep remembering that Christ was concerned about “the lest of these, my brethen”. May God show us in the West that Christianity is not about us, but about Him, and Him alone. May that compel us to not navel gaze, but instead go out and show the love of Christ to those that society has thrown on the scrapheap.

    Comment by wokboy — September 9, 2007 @ 3:32 am

  16. Well, likewise, I don’t understand why you think church and Christianity isn’t about getting your needs met. How can I reach out to others when my needs aren’t met? How can I be of service to others when my inner needs aren’t being, well, serviced? As for your challange, I can tell you that my experiance at my old church broke me so profoundly that I was indeed an incredibly needy person when I left it. So needy that I wasn’t even at want stage. I consider a relationship with God a need, not a want. I think as a Christian you can’t consider material needs the only essential. I’m all about sustainability, and you can’t go on without your needs being met first. Of course Christianity isn’t only about meeting your own needs but I’m not talking to idiots. I think the fundemendally outward reaching nature of Christianity can surely be considered a given. Nonetheless, an individuals needs are important, essential, including the need to worship God in a safe environment, whether that be at the beach, in the bedroom or in Church. The first rule of any ministry is self care. And aren’t we all ministers?

    Am I saying my needs are the only important thing? Am I saying church is only about my needs being met? No, of course I’m not. But I can’t do the work of God if my needs aren’t met. If I learned anything in my 10 hard years it was that. Because in the end, when my needs were never met, I ended up “like butter spread over too much bread”.

    I know the difference between needs and wants, I’m not a tweenage christian. But God does promise to meet all our needs, and he seems to like to work through the church, so yes. I do think the church should be in the business of meeting people needs, whatever those might be. At the very least, that’s what it should be doing. If you disagree, well we’re not really have a conversation so much as just talking about two different things. Phil 4:19

    Comment by Sharyn — September 10, 2007 @ 12:19 am

  17. I can understand Sharyn’s comments. They really ring a bell for me

    I attended a midsize church for years and eventually burned out because of what she describes: being part of a small group of people on whom everything fell. So unashamedly I went to a big church to hide. That’s exactly what I needed. For me it was a choice of wanting to maintain some kind of faith but unable to give anymore.

    So yes, Steve – I think sometimes family is being ministered to. It’s not ideal – but it is real.

    I currently attend a cross over church that is a bit of both. it’s small – too small. But people drive from all over town to get to it cos they feel like it’s the only thing that does what they want(need?)

    Faith at this church is about environmental and social justice issues and fighting consumerism etc (massive generalisation here) – yet they have no choice but to drive to it from far away in order to share that with people that understand it – where does that leave them?

    Comment by Randall — September 10, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

  18. Wow Steve you have really struck some kind of chord here! I just have a couple of comments. Jesus came to build one church. I thought Church was where we went to worship and be nurtured so we could go out into the world and serve.

    I once visited my brother’s mega church in Dallas, TX. It was amazing the valet parked our car, the personal attendants wisked the kids off to Sunday School, we heard some amazing singing and then heard a great sermon. No one spoke to me except my brother.

    I once visited a little Native American Christian church in Denver, CO. It was run down, in a part of town that was run down. There was a Sunday School class going on down in the basement when I first arrived so I sat up in the sanctuary waiting for it to end. It looked as if it could seat about 30 people. While I was waiting an older lady walked in with a synthesizer (piano) in hand. She set up her piano and told me her name was Hazel and twice a week she attended this church instead of her own church because this church had lost its musician. When the Sunday school class ended 8 people walked into the sanctuary ranging in age from 5- 79. I know this because we all introduced ourselves. One gentleman looked like a “bum off the streets” and I wondered which other church would he feel comfortable walking into? The service was interactive, after we introduced ourselves we all chose our favorite hymns and Hazel did her best to accompany us. The sermon was insighful and inspiring.

    Here’s my point. I think both did their best to offer some kind of worshipful experience. But I do have to say that while neither said anything about missions or how we as Christian should be living the scriptures we profess, I left one church feeling small and insignificant, while I left the other church feeling like I was an integral part of the community worship that day. At one church I watched the service and at the other I participated in the service — even as a first time visitor.

    Which one is right? Which one is better? Do small churches worry too much about their budget, do large churches worry too much about their programming? When do we start serving instead of hiding?

    Comment by Sharon — September 11, 2007 @ 5:40 pm

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