Why Most of our Governance Model’s No Longer Work in a Larger Church

I often say that we’re all a lot like fish in water. If you ask a fish, “How’s the water?” it will say, “What water?” because it’s all the fish has ever known.

The same holds true for many of us. We (pastors, lay leaders, and church members) don’t realize how relatively new and radically different our modern day churches are. It’s all we’ve ever known. But it’s not the way it’s always been.

My parents were married at the church they attended in southern California, First Baptist Church, Montebello. It was a massive, trendsetting, nationally known, bellwether church. Sunday attendance was around 500. Most churches had 80 to 120 attending.

Fast forward, and today none of us would call a church of 500 massive.

What happened? The automobile.

From the dawn of history whenever people wanted to gather together, they had no choice. It was either gather with those nearby, or don’t gather at all. But with the advent of the automobile, choice became an option. Leaving the nearby behind to head off to the better and preferred became an option.

And while it might seem like the automobile has been around a long time, up until the 1950’s, people commuted only a few miles at most. But in the late 50’s and early 60’s the automobile became ubiquitous. And that changed everything.

Suddenly shopping malls, big box stores, and large citywide churches started popping up everywhere. And eventually, mega stores and mega churches.

The automobile created a problem for both businesses and churches.

With increased size and complexity, the old models of communication, customer care, leadership, decision making, and governance began to break down. Though deeply ingrained, they weren’t designed for a large and complex organization. What was needed were new methods, programs, and leadership structures designed for the new complexities that came with growth. But, because we’re all like the proverbial fish in water, few of us actually realized that things had changed. And in many cases we clamored for the old ways that work so well in another time and place.

A Leadership Question You Need to Wrestle With

What patterns, assumptions, expectations, decision-making processes, and governance policies made a lot of sense back when:

  1. Everyone knew everyone
  2. There were just one or two worship services on a single site
  3. Your pastoral staff could fit into the pastor’s car to go to a meeting

These three made sense years ago, but they no longer make sense for anyone today.

Make your own list or patterns and assumptions.

Are there any that are specifically hindering your ability to fulfill the Great Commission? They need to go, no matter how well they worked in the past or how deeply they’re ingrained into your traditions and history. You can check out Acts 6 for an example of how the apostles and the early church created new structures and patterns of relationships to get back to the Great Commission.

Over the years, I’ve seen church after church refuse to even consider changing the traditional way they’ve made decisions and their governance structure. And in each and every case, I’ve watched as they inevitably shrink back to a size that perfectly fits the model of governance and decision making that they insist upon.

How about you and your church? In this relatively new world of larger churches and ever increasing complexity, what path are you choosing? Are you choosing to become a glorified historical preservation society or a powerful force for reaching the lost and discipling the saints?

The choice is yours.


By: Larry Osborne