The Next Round?

Michael Metzger

The next round of closures might not be car dealerships.

Since 2009, there have been an estimated 2,000 car dealership closures, costing an estimated 100,000 people their jobs. Especially daunting is whether anything can be done with empty showrooms surrounded by sprawling lots. But this might be a prelude to the next round of closures—shrinking mega-churches surrounded by sprawling parking lots.

In October of 2010, Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy protection, citing declining donations and debts totaling $48 million. The survivability of the 55-year-old church is now at stake. Founded by Mr. Schuller at a drive-in theater, the church owes $12 million to creditors and holds a $36 million mortgage.1 But it’s not alone. The Crystal Cathedral is often cited as progenitor of the American mega-church. Over the last few years, declining donations and mounting debt has hit many mega-churches. Growing numbers of them are closing their doors.

Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that, according to real-estate services firm CoStar Group, Inc. Analysts and bankers say hundreds of additional churches face financial struggles so severe they could face foreclosure or bankruptcy in the near future. “Churches are the next wave in this economic crisis,” says Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., whose organization PUSH helps struggling churches negotiate better terms with their bankers.2

Bankruptcy problems are rooted in four realities: bonds, balloons, boomers, and big boxes. Many churches for example used bond financing to build bigger houses of worship to accommodate forecasted growth. With a “Build it and they will come” mentality, churches bought compound-interest bonds, where they pay nothing until the bonds come due years later, but then have to pay both the principal and accrued interest, which often doubles the debt. Other churches took out loans requiring interest-only payments in the initial years with balloon payments later on. With bonds and balloons, churches hoped growth would outpace debt. In most cases, the forecasted growth never occurred but the bonds and principal are still coming due. “In 2011 and the next couple of years, we’re going to see a big maturity wall hitting these churches,” said Scott Rolfs, head of investment bank Ziegler and Company.

Boomers and big boxes compound the bankruptcy problem. Before boomers, most American churches were urban, local, and small—around 100 to 150. With the mushrooming of suburban life and automobile use after World War II, boomers morphed “local” to mean anything within a day’s drive. They demanded big malls and big churches. “The mega-church mirrors the big-box retailer,” writes Dave Browning in Deliberate Simplicity: How the Church Does More by Doing Less. Mega-churches are one-stop stores featuring visitors’ centers, coffee bars, professional bands, counseling services, and multi-level age-segregated ministries. Running an operation of this size requires a large physical plant as well as significant numbers of staff incurring outsized expenses. But as debts come due and growth doesn’t happen, boomers are becoming disillusioned and heading for the door.

Research by George Barna indicates there may be as many as 20 million Americans—most of them boomers—who no longer view the church as the locus for their spiritual experience. They’re leaving, but subsequent generations lack the financial means and inclination to pay for big-box expenses. In her book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Colleen Carroll Campbell studied young people and discovered many leaving big-box churches for smaller, more traditional expressions of faith.3 The net effect is big-box facilities that become unaffordable.

In the past, when urban car dealerships or churches went under, their facilities were converted to shops, condos, or art galleries. Mega-church facilities occupy sprawling parcels, much like suburban car dealerships. It’s the paradox of ambitious pastors wanting to achieve high growth, warns Larry C. Farrel in his book The Entrepreneurial Age. He writes how high growth “produces a burgeoning bureaucracy and slower growth.” Farrel has studied how pastors become “professional managers” instituting high growth programs where “streamlining and controlling the enterprise becomes the new order” and “meetings, reports, and bureaucracy proliferate on every front.” These ministers unwittingly assume the mantle of Coleridge’s ancient mariner: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross?, about my neck was hung.”

The lethal brew of bonds, balloons, boomers, and big boxes suggests the next round of closures might be mega-churches. “There is a growing sense that the mega-church ladder is leaning against the wrong wall,” warns Browning. He suggests smaller churches. As Christian Schwartz reports in his book Natural Church Development, the evangelistic effectiveness of smaller churches is statistically 1,600 percent greater than that of mega-churches. This is why Browning, Schwartz, and many others, including Malcolm Gladwell, say that the most effective church caps growth at around 150 congregants. “The Rule of 150 says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church…banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals need to be particularly cognizant of the perils of bigness,” writes Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. “Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference.”4

“Bigger is better,” Peter Drucker warns, “turned out to be another 20th century myth.” The church is called to make a big difference, so the next time you pass a shuttered car dealership, consider the legacy of baby boomers and ask yourself whether returning to smaller churches might be the better way to make a big difference.

1 Tamara Audi, “Crystal Cathedral’s Cracks Show in Bankruptcy Filing” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2010.
2 Shelley Banjo, “Churches Find End Is Nigh,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011, A3.
3 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2002).
4 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000), pp.182-183.


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  1. Twenty years ago, I chose to go to one of those smaller churches of about 150 members. The church never set out to be a mega-church, but merely to do the will of God. Many others followed and the church now has over 3000 members.

    I concur that large churches have a special set of challenges. This includes avoiding the same financing traps that claimed many victims in the recent mortgage bust. At its core, this was simply an issue of good stewardship. As your examples illustrate, faith communities were not exempt from the same faulty logic and poor choices of many other Americans.

    However, it is at this point that I must respectfully disagree with your premise. Bigger may not be better, but neither is smaller. Given your contention, it may be necessary to point out the obvious: Bigger churches got bigger because they grew.

    Undoubtedly, bigger churches have challenges not experienced by smaller churches:

    – They may struggle to provide intimacy.
    – They may unintentionally invite a “consumer” mentality whereby congregants are there “for the show” without being otherwise invested in the body of Christ.
    – They may lose focus as they are forced to consider building and investment decisions to accommodate the growth.
    – They must constantly reinvent themselves (new organization structure, new roles, new service schedule, etc.) to deliver their services as demand increases.

    In spite of these challenges, I would suggest that mega-churches be evaluated on the same merits as any other church:

    – Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully proclaimed? Will congregants hear sound biblical doctrine?
    – Is this a place where discipleship is occurring? Am I growing more Christ-like through my participation and involvement at this church?
    – Is this a place where I can use my gifts to the glory of God?
    – Is this church effectively reaching out to a World in need of the love of Jesus?

    I will be the first to say that I am cautious and suspect of church growth because it can be gained just as easily by “tickling the ears” through an incomplete or inaccurate presentation of the Gospel. But that does not describe all mega-churches. Some are growing because they are doing things right.

    The issue of smaller versus bigger is clearly more nuanced. As for me, I’ll more enthusiastically embrace a vibrant and effective faith community that is growing like crazy than one with 150 congregants that has hovered around that number for decades.

    Living things grow.

  2. Greg:

    I like your questions but suggest you overlooked one option: church planting. Healthy entities reproduce – they don’t necessarily grow exponentially ad infinitum (in fact, the fastest growing cells in the human body are usually cancerous). From what we can observe, healthy humans only grow to a certain size and then reproduce other human beings. They don’t grow and grow into giant human beings.

  3. Mike,

    Excellent metaphor!

    Church planting certainly does provide a context for “growing” while still remaining small. It also avoids some of the pitfalls of size, albeit with some risk that the strengths of the original congregation are lost in the translation. I might want to quibble with what the “right” size is for a faith community, but at least I understand your point now. Church planting provides a mechanism for replicating healthy environments rather than the stagnant environments I pictured when considering traditional 150 member congregations.

    Thanks for educating me.

  4. Hello Michael,

    Thank you so much for saying what needs to be said. This truly is the 800 pound gorilla in the leadership conference room.

    Our founding fathers studied prior republics, what made them great and what caused them to fail. There was only one common cause of failure – envy.

    We need to get this word out, so that church leaders will not fall prey to this. I, myself, being in the financial world, and having shared these concerns at two churches I have attended which eventually were lured to the “build it and they will come” prohecy – have been shunned. I am finally starting to touch the hem of the garment of Jeremiah’s inner thoughts.

    Having Brethren to lean on in these times helps the human side of this walk on this side of glory.

    Praise be to God.


  5. I don’t disagree with the conclusion that you two have reached. I’d just point out that church planting doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the growth of the sponsoring congregation. Our church has planted close to a dozen churches (40+ years), and the number of people contributed to the new works have typically been replenished within a few months (leadership takes a little longer). Perhaps it could be argued that this just means that we’re not planting churches fast enough. But I think it’s also worth considering that there are some limits to the analogy of humans reaching a certain size and then reproducing. Some humans grow larger than others. We don’t say to Shaquille O’Neal, ‘Hey you’re unhealthy and too big because you didn’t reproduce soon enough or often enough’. Some churches are larger because God has grown them large (Living things grow – Greg). Perhaps the problem of the last 25-30 years is that we have made it a goal (idol?) to be big… whereas we should have just made it our goal to preach Christ and love people. If this is the point, I’m in. Big, for the sake of big, is the wrong “wall”. There are probably some other lessons to be learned here as well– like about debt and fiscal responsibility.

    As a Pastor, I’d love to further explore the implications of the large church movement on our sense of calling (more about the albatross and the pastor vs. manager issues).

    Thanks for stimulating our thinking (week after week:-). -Dan

  6. I am not a fan of the maga church, but your commentary makes me ask a question: Is the problem church growth or THE WAY we are growing our churches? We think growth must be accompanied by larger staff and larger “worship centers,” as our church has dubbed its larger worship addition. Didn’t Spurgeon pastor a church of thousands with two staff, himself and his secretary? Couldn’t an alternative to church planting be lay leadership development? I have seen few churches who do this well or do it at all.

  7. An unspoken assumption behind this conversation is what constitutes success? Numerical growth cannot be the final measure for success. We get too easily trapped by Attendance, Buildings, and Cash as the final indicators of success. They can just as easily be measures of failure. If assisting the center institutional flourishing within one’s community is the measure of a church’s effectiveness, then many different variables are involved in assessing success. It all depends on what one measures and counts as success.

  8. It’s my understanding that the early Christians saw themselves as the church. Church was not a place you went to our a program that you participated in. Church was you and your “oikos” (network of family and friends. It happened all the time–at work, at home, 24-7. It was naturally integrated into the society, not a fragmented weekend event. Jim Petersen and I cite in our book “More Than Me” an interesting book by Robert Banks titled “Paul’s Idea of Community.” In that book, Banks writes: “Paul sought to build up enduring relationships of an organic, or only loosely organized, rather than institutional, character. . . It is in the Spirit of Christ, then, that the early Christian communities sought to become communities of love, to become familial and familiar settings in which the art of love could be learned . . .” He adds that the small, home-based setting was purposefully valued as “the most conducive atmosphere in which they could give expression to the bond they had in common.” This highly personal and intimate form enabled them to help one another grow and be transformed, mainly because you couldn’t hide your real life from all the people who knew you so intimately. There was built-in accountability, forgiveness, grace, love–all of which helped people grow. In short, they had a form that fit with God’s design for people, a form that filled the deepest human needs–intimacy, love, acceptance, healing, service. Rodney Stark says inIt was that personal expression of faith, says Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity,” dramatically changed a very impersonal Roman culture. In our highly impersonal times, perhaps we have something important to learn from the early church.

  9. There is much to learn from the early church, but we dare not evaluate their effectiveness in cultural influence by evaluating their practices through a pietistic, therapeutic, and individualistic lens. If we do, we’ll get the story all wrong.

  10. (Glenn) – amen.
    Get the godliness right first. Get the orientation to the creator of the universe correct, then look to scripture to see what & how things are to be done. Not the vain traditions of your fathers as Peter wrote.

  11. So what needs to get measured to give some indication of success or failure? John mentioned that it shouldn’t be the traditional ABCs, I mostly agree, and I believe the metrics discuss is VERY complicated and is thus avoided.

  12. To clarify my previous comments about the early church: I agree with John that cultural change/influence was not exclusively dependent on the personal, relational character of the early faith communities. We know that the medieval Christians established institutions that dramatically transformed law, science, and economics. Nevertheless, I think that the New Testament church and it’s emphasis on “love one another” established the soul and core motivations of what happened institutionally later in history. My comments that emphasized the importance of personal relationships were not meant to exclude the importance of building healthy institutions that bring “shalom” to a culture.

  13. The problem is not one that will be solved by church planting any more, if it ever was a valid solution at any point. As it stands, every year over 4,000 churches close down for every 1,000 churches that start. Megachurches grow not by converting adults, but by simply gobbling up other congregations. It’s a consolidation effect, not growth.

    The largest generation ever, the Millennials, at 77+ millions strong (compared to the Baby Boomers’ 75+ millions), is the generation *least likely* to be found in any church. The solutions that apparently worked with previous generations will not work now.

    In generations past, the church functioned as a social hub, particularly in smaller towns. If you wanted to be part of the town’s social community, you had to join the church. This is a subtle coercion, but coercion nonetheless. Now that more people live in urban areas than in rural areas – a first in our country’s history! – there are many different opportunities for socializing. The church can no longer force people to choose between joining or being left out.

    There will be no going back. Each generation has been less devout than the generations before, and nonbelief and noncaring-about-belief are growing, while belief is fading. Christianity has only itself to blame – beginning with the Protestant Reformation, Christianity began splitting and shattering into ever more, ever more irrelevant, ever smaller sects, most of which stridently declare they are in sole possession of “truth” and everybody else is going to hell, those in those other “less Christian” or “lukewarm” Christian sects and churches included. This isn’t an attractive attitude, and it turns people off, though what a lot of Christians seem to like best about being Christian is the superiority they feel their belief bestows on them and the right to lord it over everyone else. But I digress…

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