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Religion / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

In the Shadow of the Giants

With the success of the megachurch, some small congregations feel pressure to measure success by the numbers. But others emphasize participation and intimacy as marks of a healthy community.

April 28, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many leaders of small congregations in Southern California, Pastor Doug Webster walks through the valley of the shadow of the megachurch.

Saddleback Church, one of the country's largest congregations, looms just two miles down the road from Webster's Mountain View Church offices in Mission Viejo. The 20-acre Saddleback complex welcomes 15,000 worshipers each weekend, has more than 55,000 names on the church roster, and is run by celebrity pastors whose books are bestsellers.

Despite that considerable shadow, Webster has steadily grown his small church over the past four years from a 20-person group that met in his living room to a healthy, medium-sized congregation of 450.

And now he's helping other pastors of small congregations do the same, through monthly meetings, pooled resources, a fledgling Internet site and occasional visits to neighboring churches.

Webster and his loose-knit, growing group of 10 South Orange County pastors share similar problems with colleagues across Southern California, the land of the megachurch where bigger often seems better.

Huge congregations flock each Sunday to Solid Rock Christian Center in Ventura, the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Their dizzying numbers can leave pastors of small churches wondering exactly how big their church should be--or worse, thinking they have done something wrong.

Such thinking is "a bunch of hooey," says the Rev. Thomas Frank of Emory University's Candler School of Theology. The United Methodist pastor in his recently published book, "The Soul of the Congregation," says that each church needs to discover its unique character and its own calling, rather than being infatuated with membership numbers.

"I don't understand why a church that's existed for 10 years and has only had one pastor should be the model for how all churches should be set up," said Frank, alluding to the megachurch phenomenon and the books that have followed it. "Especially when you have denominations here that are 200 years or older and still going strong. That's madness when you think about it."

Webster puts it more gently.

"We need to stay true to our DNA, which is different than a megachurch," said Webster, who has worked at five large churches in Orange County. "I respect those guys--God did an incredible thing with their churches. But we can offer more personal attention and give people a chance to get off the bench and into the game."

Fewer than 10% of churches in the country have more than 1,000 worshipers, according to a study by the Hartford Institute of Religious Research. And half of the churches have fewer than 100 members, the study revealed.

Webster, a hip 41-year-old who wears aloha shirts in the office, admitted that taming his pride was one key to running a successful small church.

"The first thing anyone asks you is, 'How big is your church?' " he said. "And that hits the ego."

For example, when Mountain View drew 50 teenagers to a youth event, Webster was thrilled. But at Saddleback, in neighboring Lake Forest, major teenage dances attracted more than 5,000.

"My enormous ego leaves me feeling like a bridesmaid," Webster wrote in a manifesto on living alongside a megachurch, which appeared this week in the Leadership Journal, a Christian trade publication. "Truth said, comments such as 'size doesn't matter' come from pastors of small churches."

But there are better ways to judge a church's success, Webster noted. How many volunteers per 100 church members do you have? Or how much money does your church raise per member?

"Those are the marks of a healthy church," he said.

Heading a small church, where you're often the only paid employee, can be lonely, even for those with denominational ties such as Mountain View, an Evangelical Covenant church.

Webster meets monthly with pastors from neighboring start-up churches for "prayer and share."

"We all have inter-church associations that help us," said Bill Faris, pastor at 1-year-old Crown Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Rancho Santa Margarita. "But I really treasure this group of guys because we're here voluntarily for no other purpose than to give each other a hand."

Faris and Webster became friends during the Vineyard's initial meeting when the Mountain View pastor showed up uninvited.

"I was worshiping, and I feel this arm slip around me and it's Doug, a guy I had met one time," said Faris, who has a congregation of 60. "He told me he felt like God was really with us. A quick word of moral support--that's how we got started. And we've fought for each other ever since."

Megachurch pastors, usually entrepreneurs who also started small, have a fondness for small churches. They often serve as unpaid consultants to rookie pastors and even provide the congregations with free meeting space.

The Saddleback has spawned 25 affiliate churches in Orange County and extends a hand to any pastor who asks, said executive Pastor Glen Kreun.

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