Scale Gracefully

Worship services are the least enigmatic aspect of church life. We know how to do worship services. We’ve been doing them for millennia, and there’s plenty of standard, pre-packaged formulas for doing it in a way that makes sense in your context. And yet they are the thing that usually takes the most time and energy to keep pulling off every week.

So naturally, if unfortunately, most of the ‘shop talk’ among church planters has to do with Sunday. Similarly, most of the questions from the uninformed public revolve around the logistics for doing Sunday worship at the small scale and then moving on to bigger things. Just tonight a woman from another church asked me what our plans were to build a building for worship, anticipating that we’d be growing.

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In the entrepreneurial world, there are basically two steps:

1. Identify a distinct product that a group of people needs and has proven they’ll play money for. This is called innovation.

2. Figure out how to find many more people who need that same product, and how to produce and deliver that product to those new people. This is called ‘scaling up’ or just ‘scaling’.

Back to the church world. Most people think that ‘scaling’ in the church world means figuring out how to fit more people in your worship service, or add an additional service. Always have your eye on larger real estate. Always be recruiting new “volunteers” (the dumbest word in the ecclesiastical vocabulary by far—that’s another post for another time) to handle the growth. Bigger! Faster! Stronger! More!

Two problems:

1. We can be so obsessed, or at least preoccupied, with priming and preparing our churches to ‘scale’ on Sunday that we give scant attention to how to effectively disciple a handful of people, who are then equipped to disciple several handfuls more people. By being so Sunday-centric, we are positioning ourselves to scale up into a big mass of undiscipled consumers of religious goods who (in sociologist Christian Smith’s words) may never end up having their default “moralistic therapeutic deism” challenged at the ground level. Meanwhile, we’ll be missing an opportunity to figure out the hard but incredibly fruitful rhythm of life-on-life discipleship—a whole different (and much more sustainable!) way of ‘scaling up’ that is ultimately not dependent on you, the church planter, being there to do it all the time.

The real thing we should be anxious to get right, and then to scale, is disciple-making, and obsessing about the worship service is not the way to get this done.

2. As many small church folks have finally had the courage to suggest, smaller congregations have some strategic advantages—even, or especially, on Sundays—over large, fast-growing “attractional” churches. Chief among them? The feeling of Family.

Still, growth itself is not bad. But why is it that we overlook one of the most obvious ways to scale up? Why not plan, from the outset, to keep your Sunday gathering small enough where it still feels like family? Instead of getting a bigger building or adding more worship services, why not avoid all the headaches of high-production (which usually means high-anonymity) and plan to ‘scale up’ by creating new, distinct, congregations in different parts of your city?

You can have growth and maintain family. You just have to plan to scale accordingly.

Scale. But scale the right things for the right reasons. Don’t just scale in order to scale. Your “product” is a family of disciples of Jesus Christ who can make disciples in their families and among their friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Don’t grow. Grow in grace. Gracefully.

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One thought on “Scale Gracefully

  1. It’s interesting that you wrote this a couple days ago, and then Josh linked to that article on worship. I think one of the results of focusing on growing the “Sunday experience” is that type of happy-clappy “worship” that is so prevalent in evangelical churches. You have to keep the customers, er worshippers, happy.

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