Problem 4: Are We Letting Big Church Inform Everyday Life or Everyday Life Inform Big Church?

A few months ago, we started looking at a number of key issues within the structure of “corporate church”. I would encourage you to go back and revisit the past premises to get a better context of what today’s blog is about. You can find them here: Introduction, Problem 1, Problem 2, Problem 3.

Sunday morning has come around again. You’re ready, right? The pastor has spent his 20-30 hours of sermon prep time. The band has practiced for a few hours this week- and just to be safe, they’re doing another run-through right now. Each of them has probably invested at least 4-5 hours on the service prior to its start time. Your worship pastor, at least double that. The children’s ministry is bustling with volunteers- at least 2 per class plus the free labor we call our own middle school children “helpers”. Their coordinator likely spent 10 hours of their week just scheduling, emailing, and putting together resources to ensure all of those people are on time and ready to serve. Greeters are at the ready, their third double shot latte in hand and a wide grin on their face (do we really need more greeters than we have swinging double-doors?). The tech team is struggling to balance figuring out the feedback issue with the microphones, test the announcement video, and input the last-minute powerpoint slides for the sermon. By this point, the tech booth has 5 people trying to do 3 jobs on 2 computers.

For any of you who have been on a church staff, you know as frantic as this seems, this is the reality of a Sunday morning. What’s more, this is still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preparing for what happens on a Sunday. And it barely touches the amount of hands that went into the cookie jar each week in handling the repetitive tasks that we tell ourselves need done. Communion. Chairs. Bulletins. You get the idea. Or, you live there.

And in a flash, it’s all over. In an hour, all the hard work and preparation has come to a head, and it’s either time to do it all over again (literally in your next gathering), or start planning for next week, where you can do it all over again. Does it ever feel like Sisyphus, forever doomed to push the rock up a hill, but never reaping the rewards of reaching the top and the promised land guaranteed on the other side?

The amount of time invested in putting together a 60 minute presentation borders on the absurd. And the amount of manpower to pull it off certainly is far beyond the absurd level. But the way that today’s church works, the big payoff is built to happen on Sunday morning. So it’s worth the investment, right?

Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. Obviously the specifics will change with every church and every situation, but hopefully we can ballpark a few numbers we can all agree on.

First, the paid staff. The teaching pastor (typically also your lead pastor) will likely spend at least 20 hours in sermon prep. Add to that an hour staff meeting every week (much of whose time will be devoted to this and coming Sunday events). Add another hour planning with a creative team to ensure elements (music, aesthetics, graphics, etc.) flow together and to build the weekly liturgy. Another hour or two in meetings if you have a multi-site church and there are multiple speakers each week to ensure continuity between sermons. Even in a highly optimized church setting with quick, to the point gathering meetings and a pastor who takes less time than average preparing his sermon, you’re still looking at a pastor who spends 20 hours of his 40 hour work week (that’s 50% for those keeping score at home) preparing for 1/7th of the week (14.2%). And ask anyone who does public speaking or preaching routinely- they’ll tell you that the drain the speaking puts on you is equivalent to at least double the time you took to give the presentation.

Which means that at the end of the week, the typical pastor spends nearly his entire work week either preparing for or presenting at the Sunday gathering. This doesn’t provide additional time for vision planning, leadership development, meeting and training ministry leaders, counseling members, handling work emails and returning phone calls, personal prayer and study… you know, little things.

Children’s ministry staff will often be one of the first to arrive and last to leave on a Sunday because of the time needed to maintain the sheer volume of volunteers and clean up the inevitable mess of, well, children, everywhere. We’ll give them a 6 hour Sunday (as all the Children’s Directors snicker) and the aforementioned 10 hours of prep time. Add the same staff meeting, and you’re looking at at least 17 hours devoted to Sunday. Most churches are only paying the Children’s Director part time, which means good luck squeezing in anything else meaningful in the remaining 3 hours of your week! Try training and developing new leaders, looking at new curriculum, or, God forbid- designing your own- and you’re working on your own dime at that point.

Worship leaders will probably have spent at least 12 hours earlier in the week planning, meeting, and practicing with the band. Add to that an early Sunday start and you’re looking at anywhere from 3-8 hours on the weekend, depending on the number of gatherings you have.

And we’ll stop there, although we all know more staff is definitely used each week. But those three roles alone total 60-80 hours of prep and presentation each week. Some of us have churches where on a good week, we’d be happy to have 60 to 80 people show up. That puts us at a staggering 1:1 ratio of prep and presentation hours per attendee. Obviously, many of you are looking at higher attendance numbers than that. But it still shows the weakness in casting a wide net into a shallow pool hoping for good results. There may be wisdom in considering how you can take even an hour or two out of your week and fish deeper with a more deliberate focus. In those two hours, you could have met for 30 minutes with 4 of your members in meaningful conversation and development. Multiply that times 4 weeks and you could be having a much more impactful, personal ministry with 16 of your members each month than they would ever get from a generic set of sermons developed for average Joe in your congregation during that same month’s time.

As an aside, for those of you spending 30+ hours every week just doing sermon preparation, it might be good to cut that back significantly and spend more time with your people. Or maybe, go meet your neighbors. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Tim Keller says the following:

I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time [on sermon preparation], however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work–that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.

Adding additional gatherings makes things look more efficient- less planning for reaching more people at a time without resetting the planning clock. Ratio of prep time to number of ears who hear the message and spend time worshiping in the building goes way down and most churches look at this as the next logical step. But what then has to double, triple, and quadruple in number, is volunteers. This is a hard sell.

For example, a church that can handle 400 in the auditorium and 100 children in classrooms operates on anywhere from 25 to 45 volunteers each Sunday service, between children’s teachers, greeters, setup and lobby teams, bands, and the audio/visuals team. That’s for one gathering. Using the high numbers, that’s 11.25% of your adult attendance (not including paid staff) volunteering each week. If the attendance creeps anywhere over 400, we have to roll over into a second gathering. (And that’s not considering the fact that once an event hits 85% capacity, statistics show people stop coming back. So realistically, we would have had to deal with this issue much sooner. But, I digress.)

Let’s say that this same church has hit 500 adults and 130 children each week. By capacity limits and the precedent already set, we’re now looking at needing 50 to 90 volunteers each week. (We’ll lay aside the fact that often many of these are the same people, now being volunteered to stay 3 hours instead of the previous hour and a half or so.) You’re looking at raising an additional 6.75% in your volunteer pool almost overnight (to get to the 18% you would now need). Sure, you might survive until you hit 800 in attendance, but then what? You start the process all over again and need 75 to 135 or more every week just to “keep the doors open”.

Is this process do-able? Certainly. Is it replicable? Probably. Is it healthy or sustainable? Not likely. Will it be appreciated by the congregation? Not at all. Why? We go back to what was mentioned previously about feeling like cogs in the ever-turning machine instead of invested, committed members of a family.

And all of this work. This planning. This preparation. This execution. This manpower drain. All of it is to connect with a thousand or so (or maybe even less!) people for an hour of their time one day a week.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the monetary weight this forces on the church, and thus, its people. A quick search on church budgets compared to their average attendance shows that most churches spend somewhere between $1200-2100 per weekly attendee, each year. Put another way, your church has spent at least $1200 on you in the last year.

The raw numbers might be even more staggering. Churches with an average of 700-800 weekly attendance budget for nearly $1 million each year, while churches averaging in the 15,000 range have a yearly budget of over $33 million.

Operating expenses cut into a huge chunk of those numbers, and paying personnel is almost always the highest categorical expense a church has. But I can’t help wondering what else might be done with a million dollars. And it’s hard for most of us to wrap our brains around even the concept of 33 million- much less have an idea of what to do with it. But certainly we can all agree that numbers of this magnitude should go incredibly far in reaching our communities and the world- far more than they do at present.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, or the fiscal year, we have to continue to feed the beast of our own making. And we face an uphill, if not impossible, challenge in turning things around to be anything other than the situation we created. But what if we could? What might it look like to have everyday life inform the way we gather rather than having the gathering dictate everyday life?

I used to be a big proponent of encouraging pastors and leaders to make their gatherings a reflection and celebration of what God was doing in the communities and small groups. It only seemed reasonable that when the body gathered, we should celebrate the wins happening around us that we weren’t even aware of. It’s encouraging, it’s challenging, and it builds up the body. But lately, I’ve realized that alone falls short if our communities aren’t also spending their time celebrating what God is doing in each of our individual lives.

As Christ works within us to say, do, or simply experience incredible things in our everyday lives, we need to have avenues to share those adventures with the people we care about. And I don’t mean with a status update on social media and a few “likes”. I mean genuine excitement and face-to-face storytelling. On the flipside, when we falter or when we’re struggling to see the miracles happening around us, it’s our community that pulls us up, turns our eyes back to the empty cross and tomb, and walk with us into a better tomorrow.

If we start here- celebrating each life, with the ups and downs that come with it- the inevitable result is that this begins to spill into everything else we do. It’s the only way to experience joy the way that James explains it:

Dear brothers and sisters,when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. -James 1.2-4

And it can only happen in community. The place that we can bear each others’ burdens (Galatians 6.2). Where we confess our sins to each other (James 5.16), forgive one another (Ephesians 4.32), and motivate each other to acts of love and good works (Hebrews 10.24). To experience true happiness when others’ needs are met (Luke 10.27). To encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5.11). To know joy in the middle of trials.

And all of this happens without the confines of a weekly machine churning. In fact, without the machine, we’re more free than ever before to live this out in every area of our lives, at and all times.

Are large gatherings anathema to fulfilling our gospel mission and call to make disciples of all nations? Not necessarily. But I’m beginning to believe that in their current iteration, they just might be. Too much time, energy, money, and other resources are being poured into a gluttonous, bottomless monster bent on growing itself rather than growing the kingdom.

The kingdom is organic. It’s planted and it grows. It takes root in places and flourishes. It struggles to hold in other areas. But it spreads. It has to- it’s alive. Let’s stop trying to build it and simply start watering.

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