Small single-service churches . . . home churches with rotating locations . . . mega-churches with thousands of seats . . . large churches with home groups . . . mega-churches with multi-services at different times and days . . . multi-site churches with recorded messages and online campuses . . . multi-site churches with live feed from the main campus . . . multi-service churches with rotating preachers . . . single-service churches with rotating preachers . . .
When it comes to American church ministry models, if you can imagine it, it exists.
In RetroChristianity, I describe six essential building blocks of a local church: orthodoxy, order, and ordinances as the essential marks of a local church, and evangelism, edification, and exaltation as its essential works. I also present a biblically, theologically, and historically-informed ideal worship model as pulpit/altar-centered—the effective proclamation of the Word (pulpit) and the effectual consecration of the worshipper (altar), centered on Christ’s person and work, and bounded by the Trinitarian creation-redemption narrative. The former includes reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), instructional music (Col. 3:16), and other forms of proclamation; the latter involves confession of sin (Jas. 5:16), prayers (1 Tim. 2:1), responsive music (Eph. 5:19–20), offerings (1 Cor. 16:2), and the communion meal (1 Cor. 11:20). The first is embodied in the leader’s sermon; the second is incarnated in the Lord’s Supper.
But how does a missionary or church planter move from the ideal to the real in a particular cultural context? Or how does an existing church move from the real to the ideal without a major upheaval? If given the opportunity for modifying the ministry model of your church, in which direction should you lead it? When evaluating your church’s ministry emphases and general direction either in setting short-term ministry priorities or casting a long-term vision, how do you critique your current trajectory?
In an attempt to think through these questions more carefully and to provide a frame of reference for discussion, I have established a graded scale reflecting a range of ministry models, ordered with what I believe to be the most ideal at the top (Model 1) and the least ideal at the bottom (Model 7). I have not ranked these models arbitrarily. The “ideal” represents a ministry model that, in my opinion, most authentically and effectively promotes a balance of the marks and works of a true local church and more intimately and effectually maintains a pulpit/altar-centered worship. (For a presentation and defense of these ecclesiological models, see RetroChristianity chapters 8, 9, and 10.)
As churches slide farther down the scale away from Models 1 and 2, it becomes more difficult for them to hold the essential marks and works in a healthy balance. Likewise, an authentic, intimate, and effective ministry of the pulpit and altar become impossible. In other words, a direct correspondence exists between a neglect or abandonment of essential marks and works of a church and the adoption of ministry models that fall farther down the scale. Simultaneously, as a church adopts ministry models farther from the ideal, it becomes necessary to re-define, modify, or downplay the essential marks and works of a church. Principles and practices are closely united as one ascends or descends the scale—either a lack of ecclesiological principles unwittingly drives a church toward a poorer pattern of ministry, or a misguided pragmatism drives out ecclesiological principles.
So, let me briefly describe these seven Models from the most exemplary (Model 1) to the outright unacceptable (Model 7). Within (and probably between) these models we can imagine numerous shades, nuances, and varieties, but I believe these seven serve as sufficient (though not perfect) “types” of modern evangelical church ministries for the sake of discussion.
Model 1: The Small Community. Small, intimate, manageable community with qualified personal pastoral presence for discipleship, accountability, and encouragement. To maintain intimacy and manageability, a single-meeting community desires to remain small—between 100 and 250 people. Among this community, the pastoral leadership strives to maintain direct relationships with church members. The pastor and elders know their flock well, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and are attuned to their needs. This incarnational presence among the community makes discipleship more intuitive and natural rather mechanical and programmatic. Accountability is a natural part of a covenanted life together. And encouragement toward faithfulness emanates from both the pulpit and interpersonal relationships. The small community model may often function as part of a larger mother-daughter network model (Model 2), and it does not preclude the possibility of denominational or inter-ecclesial associations to cooperate and pool resources for larger-scale projects.
I believe that pulpit proclamation can be more intimately and effectively crafted for a smaller group known personally by the preaching pastor. This intimacy and efficacy is lost when a large audience (or especially a non-present audience) is preached at from a stage or behind a camera without a personal relationship between the pastor and the congregation. I also believe it is self-evident that a full-bodied, efficacious Lord’s Supper is best observed in a single smaller community. Such an intimate observance can easily include all (not just a few) of the elements that should center about the Table—the confession of sins to one another, prayer for one another, material and spiritual support for one another, individual and corporate consecration, covenant renewal, corporate discipline, and a solemn community participation in the bread and wine as a mark of unity and means of spiritual blessing. As the crowd gathering around the altar grows, so will the tendency to emphasize one aspect of the multi-faceted eucharistic worship over other aspects. The altar will inevitably lose its significance, intimacy, and efficacy as a means of sanctification.
Thus, I grade the small community model as the ideal.
Model 2: The Mother-Daughter Network. Small to medium churches in a network with qualified on-site pastoral presence in each local church plant. Many growing churches have made the conscious decision to cap the numerical growth of a local church by strategically planting smaller “daughter” churches as evangelism and discipleship begin to cause membership in the church to increase and sprawl. Rather than treating all small groups as interdependent communities under the umbrella of a larger local body, smaller groups serve as seed groups for future church plants. The goal is not to maintain financial and organizational control and oversight (though this is a necessary stage in the cultivation of the daughter church). Rather, the goal is to establish a fully-functioning, self-sustaining small community bearing in itself all of the essential marks and works of a local church. In this case a pulpit/altar-centered worship can be easily maintained in all of its intimacy and efficacy. Usually the daughter churches maintain some kind of loose (or formal) association with the mother church, and they also usually cooperate with sister churches in the city or region even if there is no denominational structure enforcing such inter-church fellowship.
Model 3: The Medium Congregation. Medium congregation of smaller flocks with pastoral personnel among the flocks for discipleship, accountability, and encouragement. By “medium” I mean churches between 300 and 1000 people. The larger the church community, the more difficult it is to maintain a meaningfully intimate fellowship of the entire church membership. While organizational and financial unity can be maintained, intimate community and mutuality among all members must take place in subsets of the larger body. The smaller groups within a church variously manifest themselves as home groups, Sunday school classes, fellowship groups, or discipleship groups. The church strives to be a congregation of small groups, not a congregation with small groups. In other words, church membership implies smaller group membership. These smaller groups, then, each under qualified, ordained pastoral leadership, carry out the basic functions of the “small church” (Model 1). A generally healthy pulpit/altar-centered worship of the entire congregation can still be maintained, but often at the cost of its intimacy and efficacy, especially with regard to a loss of the Table’s multi-faceted function and significance.
Model 4: The Larger Church. Large multi-service church with voluntary opportunities for intimate community among smaller flocks under qualified pastoral leadership. The challenges toward whole church unity, intimacy, and authenticity that begin to surface in the medium congregation grow more acute in the larger church of between 1000 and 2000 members. Eventually a decision must be made to either build a larger facility or hold two or more services. Planting daughter churches as in Model 2 is not part of the larger church strategy. A move from personal pastoral presence to professional pastoral leadership occurs when trained, ordained leaders usually become disconnected from the congregation. They are often supported by lay leaders who may or may not have adequate biblical, theological, and historical training. The pulpit/altar-centered worship necessarily suffers under this kind of leadership model. Multiple services begin to function as distinct congregations. Pastoral presence and intimacy decline and the Table no longer functions as the obvious point of unity. Often bureaucracy, personnel issues, budget concerns, and facility issues take a considerable amount of time, energy, and especially finances. As such, the direction in which a church decides to move at this stage—either upward toward Model 1 or downward toward Model 7—will often determine the church’s virtually inevitable trajectory.
Model 5: The Mega-Church. Large auditorium multi-service campus with opportunities for programmed events and voluntary flocks led by less-qualified lay leaders. The “mega-church” is more of a mentality and methodology than a matter of head-count. However, the financial and facilities resources necessary to maintain the programming usually require at least 2000 people—often many more. In order to sustain the mega-church model, a typical mega-church must shape its ministries around an attractional methodology—“If we build it, they will come.” The growth strategy is usually epic—“If too many come, we build bigger.” Those who initially attend a mega-church ministry are often drawn to specific aspects of the church—youth, singles, marrieds, discipleship, worship, special programs, contemporary atmosphere, a celebrity pastor, etc. All of these various elements must therefore be maintained to sustain high attendance, which must be sustained to support the high cost of maintaining the various ministry elements. An inescapable circle develops from which there is no painless escape. Church members may become more deeply assimilated into the life of the church usually through affinity groups, which are joined voluntarily. As such, intersecting circles of social fellowship develop, and these fellowships are almost never structured around a pulpit/altar-centered ministry. Also, this model allows for many attenders or members of the church to be practically severed from discipleship and accountability. For practical purposes, many flourishing mega-churches often find themselves forced to make moves toward the multi-site church (Model 6).
Model 6: The Multi-Site Church. Multi-site church campuses with broadcast messages from main campus, local pastoral presence, and voluntary flocks. The multi-site church should not be confused with the early planting stages of the mother-daughter church network (Model 2). In the multi-site mentality the mother church has no real intention of actually cutting organizational or financial cords with the daughter church. The sprouts are not church plants but merely branches of the same tree. The multi-site campus is usually a function of three elements: 1) a sprawling church membership scattered throughout a usually metropolitan area (as opposed to a localized community church membership drawn from a neighborhood); 2) a strong devotion and dedication to a well-known, well-loved, or even “celebrity” preacher whose messages become the basis for unity between various campuses; and 3) a willingness to simulcast preaching from the main church or play recorded messages from the preacher as the sole or primary pulpit ministry. One practical motivation for the multi-site campus model may be an unmanageable exponential growth within the mega-church model to the degree that a single location simply cannot sustain multiple services nor accommodate traffic. However, this model often leads to adopting a kind of “branding” in which each branch campus functions as a “franchise.” In my opinion (and in many churches’ experiences), ultimately the multi-site campus approach exacerbates problems already inherent in the mega-church model, in which the pulpit becomes increasingly detached from a relationship with the congregation, rendering a generic “message” able to be broadcast to anybody rather than a message crafted for the focused edification of a specific body of believers. It also makes accountability, discipline, and especially a frequent and full-bodied observance of the Lord’s Supper as “one body” less practical. In short, a pulpit/altar-centered worship is not able to be easily maintained in a multi-site worship.
Since originally writing this essay, I have had many opportunities to engage with leaders of multi-site churches. It seems that some have achieved a kind of balanced approach in which the individual satellite campuses function somewhat like the ministries of Models 3, 4, or 5, though without a local preaching pastor. Others have moved away from a simulcast preacher from the mother campus and have essentially become daughter churches (similar to Model 2), a model sometimes called “multi-church” rather than “multi-site church.” In the last few years we have also seen the intentional reorganizing, forced dismantling, or even scandalous implosion of several large multi-site churches. In light of both my ecclesiological critiques and practical realities observed in multi-site ministries, it is my contention that most multi-site church models are inevitably temporary arrangements that will eventually need to be reorganized. It is not a question of if the model will eventually become unsustainable, but when.
Model 7: The Remote or Online Church. Self-styled “churches” encouraging remote (radio/television) or online-only experiences with no real pastoral or community presence. Before explaining why this model is unacceptable, I need to clarify that we should not confuse this model with any of the previous models that may have a radio, television, or online ministry. Model 7 is distinct in that these churches encourage the remote or online church experience as a full and sufficient relationship to the church. This is the otherwise acceptable multi-site model (#6) radically individualized and taken to an extreme. It completely detaches the pulpit from a real pastoral relationship with a congregation, and it utterly trivializes the biblical, theological, historical, and practical significance of the altar. Neither intimacy nor efficacy characterizes the ministry of the remote or online “church.” The marks and works of the church, if present, are not functional in any significant way. That is, orthodoxy cannot be enforced; order is non-existent; ordinances are detached from authentic community; evangelism has been reduced to a message and detached from baptismal initiation into the community; edification has been reduced to receiving information and having an emotional (or, often, financial) response; and exaltation is strictly individualistic. Though purely online-only churches are currently rare (and will hopefully remain so), many mega-churches and multi-site campus churches have incorporated online-only options into their “made to order” approach to church ministries. (For a more pointed and detailed critique of the online church movement, see my essay, “Rise of the Anti-Church: Online Virtual ‘Church.‘”)
Having surveyed this graded scale of church ministry models, let me make a few closing comments. Clearly I have a bias toward the “small church” (Model 1) and “mother-daughter network” (Model 2). The medium congregation (Model 3) is also sustainable, though in my mind it’s less ideal than the small church models. My preference for the small to medium church is not due to some incipient jealousy of mega-churches, a nostalgic yearning for a small town feel, or a phobia of large crowds. My partiality toward the small or medium church models is directly related to my ecclesiological principle of most effectively maintaining a healthy balance of the essential marks and works of a local church and protecting a meaningful pulpit/altar-centered worship.
I also have an obvious discomfort with the “larger church” (Model 4), a disinclination toward the “mega church” (Model 5) and “multi-site church” (Model 6), and an utter rejection of the “remote or online church” (Model 7). My criticisms are not a result of being a crotchety kill-joy, a legalistic traditionalist, or a member of the old guard who just can’t stand to see young upstarts succeed. Again, my cautions and criticisms are a result of my ecclesiological reflections based on biblical, theological, and historical norms.
Finally, I am not opposed to church growth. On the contrary! I wish that every year all evangelical churches in America would double, triple, or quadruple in size by conversion growth (not transfer growth, which is not real growth). However, I believe there are numerous positive ways to handle flourishing church growth while maintaining healthy marks and works as well as a pulpit/altar-centered worship. Models 1, 2, and 3 all allow for this. However, as soon as the altar is removed from its organic association with the pulpit in a single worship service, the ideal unity of one body is diminished. Models 4, 5, 6, and 7 tend to increasingly depart from the pulpit/altar-centered worship and increasingly neglect the essential marks and works of an authentic local church.
Unfortunately, far too many churches today unwittingly or intentionally strive to descend the scale away from the ideal toward a less ideal church model. Each of us involved in church leadership must not only check our motives, methods, and models against the biblical, theological, and historical ideal, but we must constantly check our church’s trajectory. Often the investment and overhead involved in moving local church ministry down the sliding scale beyond Model 4 becomes so great that reversing the trajectory and returning toward the ideal becomes practically unmanageable, pragmatically unthinkable, and, as it strikes at institutional and personal pride, emotionally unbearable. We need to move from the real toward the ideal and from the ideal toward the real, checking our church’s trajectory before it’s too late.