The other day I had an interesting conversation with a friend who pastors a mid-sized church (approximately 400 congregants) in a major city in North America. I asked him about the impact that a new mega-church in that city has had on surrounding churches. By any conventional measure this church is a “success”. It has exploded from nothing to 3000 weekly attendees in just a few years driven by energetic music teams, aggressive marketing, and a charismatic, if brash head pastor.
So it was interesting (if unsurprising) to learn that that much of this growth has come by way of siphoning congregants off surrounding churches. My friend, who keeps close contact with other pastors in the area, relayed a series of anecdotal reports: “Approximately 200 people from this church have left for the mega-church. Twenty percent of that church’s youth group no longer attends. This church has laid off two staff members as a result of the drop in attendance.” One congregant even told his pastor: “Maybe we’d start growing if you preached more like Pastor X!”
My friend recently attended a meeting of local pastors from the city in which the pastor of this new mega-church was invited to speak, apparently under the pretense of offering inspiration to the very pastors whose churches had lost members to the upstart phenom. How’s that for a cruel irony? During the Q&A my friend asked the rock star pastor about the elephant in the room: how was he dealing with the problem that he was drawing congregants from other churches? His response was, shall we say, rather brusque: If other churches can’t adapt to a shifting marketplace then they deserve to lose their members.
I couldn’t help but note the parallels with Walmart. According to one stat, on average 23 small businesses close when Walmart moves into a new town. But the church isn’t Walmart, and Christianity is not merely selling a product in a competitive religious marketplace.