Thursday, May 23, 2013

Megachurches and Organic Spiritual Leadership

I blogged a bit ago on article last week in the Washington Post, one that described the increasing phenomenon of seminary attendees who aren't moving on to pastor congregations.   In fact, they were never ever planning on it.

Thinking on this got another old line of thought going, that peculiar mismatch between folks who are called to be pastors and congregations.   In my area, for example, there's a pastoral glut.  Lots of trained and eager pastors.   Not quite so many congregations.

At the same time, smaller congregations struggle to find pastoral leadership.   It's more an irony than a paradox, because the forces at play are easy to understand.   Little congregations simply can't pay a living wage to a pastor with a family, and in rural communities that may be economically struggling, finding supplemental work may be equally difficult.  So here there are all these folks who have been given gifts, and they end up doing little with them.

In the face of this, I got to thinking off along another line.

Church now increasingly looks like WalMart, or Nordstrom, or Target.   It's not just that new church buildings look like that, as the vast JesusPlexes of AmeriChrist Inc. spread over the land.  It's that those Big Box Churches are run and governed like corporations.

And like those Big Boxes, megachurches take advantage of economies of scale in ways that little churches cannot.  A megachurch has an internal structure that requires administrative infrastructure, but is considerably less pastor-intensive.

Oh, sure, you have plenty of folks who are tasked with support roles within the hierarchy.  But the job of providing spiritual guidance, of being the interpreter of the sacred, that role falls primarily to the Iconic Leader.

Think about this in terms of the natural state of human communities and what is known as Dunbar's number.   Anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that we homo sapiens sapiens tend to form social groups of around 150.  Across all cultures, it's the natural size of a tribe, and to a large extent, it's governed by our nature.  Up to around 150 individuals, we can grasp the complexities of social interaction, seeing the depth of relationship between those around us.  Beyond that, things become hazier.   Frayed.  Less deep.  Communities that exceed this size cannot, by the way God made us, be "organic" and relationship-driven.

Within each Dunbar-sized grouping, there would naturally be at least one pastor/shaman/spiritual leader/interpreter of the sacred.   The weird dude who arrives on a caribou with a message for you from the Spirit Realm.  Within a tribal culture, that's the natural state of things.

So here's the hypothesis: the larger gatherings made possible by our increasingly technological and hierarchical society "crowd out" this naturally occurring leadership.

Lets play around with this thought for a moment.  What would this look like?   If in natural human communities there is at least one gifted spiritual leader per every one hundred and fifty souls, then what impact does a corporate congregational structure have?  

Here's a sample of large corporate and megachurch structures, drawn from my denomination and a couple of large local congregations.  I've broken it down by number of named "pastors" serving number of individuals that comprise the community.  That's followed by a Dunbar Pastor Number, meaning the number of 150 member communities within each megachurch, and then a percentage that indicates where that congregation lies relative to what would be a human-scale fellowship:

Dunbar Ratio

Vienna PC
National PC

Peachtree PC, Atlanta, GA

McLean Bible, VA
Thomas Road

Using Dunbar's Number as a measure of an organic pastor-to-church ratio, Big Box churches seem to do to organic spiritual leadership what WalMart does to the Mom and Pop Hardware store.   Meaning, they crush it like a bug, and the bigger they are, the more they crowd out the leadership that would otherwise be naturally occurring in human gatherings.  Take Thomas Road, for instance, the largest church in my home state.  There are seven named "pastors," leading what is effectively one hundred and seven separate churches.

Of course, one can argue that such economies of scale are just part of the competitive dynamics of a spiritual marketplace.  Better leaders gather more followers and build more robust institutions that provide the faith product that church shoppers want.  It's the church, red in tooth and claw.  So to speak.

One could also argue...reasonably...that organic leadership remains healthy in larger churches, particularly within small groups, affinity groups, and "task groups."

Still, as faith communities grow larger and more Christians get their Jesus on in large venues, it seems an interesting dynamic to explore.