Are pastors of mega-churches stealing sheep?

Perry Noble is the founding and senior pastor of NewSpring Church with multiple sites in Anderson, Greenville and Florence, South Carolina. At just nine years old, the church averages over 10,000 people. Perry wrote an article on why some churches don’t grow. Perry’s article can be found here:

My recent series entitled: “My response to Perry Noble’s 8 reasons why some churches don’t grow.” was not intended to be a personal criticism of Perry (I don’t know Perry and I’m assuming he’s a great guy with a great multi-site church) but because his reasons why some churches do not grow are shared by many I thought I’d respond to these popular attempts to explain why churches don’t grow and the underlining assumption that if these reasons can be corrected then the church will grow.

Below is a comment thread between me and pastor Dave Denny (who pastors a smaller urban church), not only about mega-churches, but also the issue of “sheep-stealing” and whether or not this is what the real problem is.

Dave Denny: Dave, I enjoyed your comments about “8 reasons why some churches don’t grow.” It has always puzzled me how a person in a huge multi-campus church of 10,000 could know anything about ministry in a small church – especially in a rural place.

Now that I am in a small church in a more urban place, I see a reason that Perry Noble left out of his list.

#9 – Humongous churches with high entertainment value and full professional staffing tend to rob the smaller churches of people who otherwise might be involved in your ministry. (In small churches almost everyone has to work.)

I dare say that if Noble and others like him were limited to the people who were evangelized directly by him and people actually converted in his ministry he wouldn’t have 10,000 people. Many of their people are siphoned out of other churches – large and small.

So, if they are that interested in helping other churches, let them take a pledge to be ethical about not stealing sheep from other people’s flocks.

Dave Jacobs: Your response, Dave, is a great addition to the conversation. Statistics seem to indicate that mega-churches grow primarily from transfer growth rather than conversion growth. So what’s really happening is not kingdom growth, but kingdom shift. I’m not sure, however, that accusing Perry of sheep stealing fits unless three things take place:

1. Perry has literally invited people from other churches to come over to his, or…

2. Part of his conscious strategy was to provide a church that would lure believers away from their current church.

3. Knowing that his church members would have a tendency to invite their friends who attend others churches to come and visit their church, and Perry doing nothing to discourage this.

I have no way of knowing if any of these have taken place.

I think the problem is not so much “sheep stealing” as it is the fickleness of the sheep. You know as well as anyone that a “consumer-mentality” has infected the American church which has resulted in believers changing churches on a regular basis as soon as they get offended, disagree, or find some place that offers them something better than the church they’ve been attending.

The mega-church reminds me of one of those rare restaurants you might find that have both an extensive menu along with high quality food. Smaller churches tend to have a shorter menu and sometimes, but seldom, a lower quality of food. Notice I said “seldom”. Research conducted by Christian A. Schwartz (Natural Church Development) concluded that smaller churches tend to score higher than larger churches in most areas that indicate church health. Anyways…Christians leave their church (church #1) for the one (church #2) that offers them more choices. Church #2 grows and reports how many people they are winning, or reaching, for Christ, when in reality what they are succeeding in is attracting believers from other churches, i.e. kingdom shift, not kingdom growth.

The bigger question, as I see it, is not what do we do about mega-churches, Perry Noble, or sheep stealing. The question I have is how can we correct the consumer-mentality found in much of American Christianity.

Dave Denny: I appreciate your sensitivity about accusing the mega-churches of sheep-stealing. You are correct to be gracious and cautious.

On the other hand, the whole idea of mega-churches (and your very appropriate restaurant analogy) is the spirit of modernity and consumerism that has infected American Christianity. I agree that we need to work to correct the consumer mentality, but it is deeply ingrained in our culture.

Ironically, we would agree with Noble’s eight reasons some churches don’t grow – but not with the implication that all churches that don’t grow have these problems. Meanwhile, some (many) of the mega-churches are growing through a manipulation of American consumerism more than through evangelism and discipleship.

It is very frustrating – but humbling. I guess I’ll have to praise God for the mega-churches too. They help keep my own pride in check – (no small task!) They do the advertising and book publishing and big events that small churches cannot do. And they cut down the number of consumer Christians in the smaller churches. (We may not have many people, but they are committed and they all are working hard.)

The tantalizing question is, would I – a lifetime small church pastor – want my church to become a mega-church? Pride says, “YES.” But reflection tells me that I am looking in the wrong direction. The size of a church is the least important measurement.

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