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Are America’s Megachurches Too Big to Fail?

June 11th, 2019 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

(UPDATE: In September of 2020, charges were dropped against Matt Tonne, who was the defendant in the abuse allegations involving the Village Church.)

2008 introduced us to the idea of something being “too big to fail.” In that case it was our nation’s largest banks. They had grown so large and played such a decisive role in our nation’s economy that our national government decided that it could not let the banks fail, even if those banks had made mistakes that should’ve ended with their closure.

So the banks got bailouts, the bankers paid very little for destroying the economy, and thousands of Americans had their lives transformed in destructive ways.

But the banks still stood.

Several months ago I heard a pastor friend explain his philosophy of church planting this way: I’m a shepherd, he said. When my flock gets so big that I don’t know all their names, I’ve become a rancher. Once I’m a rancher, it’s time to plant a church.

To be sure, this is an extremely idealistic vision of church planting. Planting when your church is smaller than around 400 people is difficult because you feel the losses more and you have less money to commit to the plant. The planter of the new church will also have a harder job because his start-up funds are likely to be smaller, which may force him to minister bi-vocationally for a time. All of this is to say nothing of the problem with meeting space, as more congregations means the need for more buildings. What’s more, if the plant fails (as many do) you run the risk of losing an appreciable portion of your congregation because many who attend a failed plant will not return to the sending church. So there are plenty of dangers involved in such an aggressive church planting strategy.

I can’t help wondering, though, if the rewards outweigh the risks.

In a recent interview on Mere Fidelity, Joe Carter mentioned near the end of the show that when churches become larger, it is harder for pastors to know how individual parishioners are doing spiritually.

In the context of the show, Joe was specifically talking about parishioners who are at a heightened risk of online radicalization. In such cases, a smaller church may be helpful if only because the pastor has fewer people to shepherd and thus has a better chance of actually knowing what is going on with them and what responsibilities he has in a given situation.

That said, I had a similar thought yesterday while reading the latest #ChurchToo story in the New York Times. This story came from the Village Church in Dallas, TX, one of the most influential churches within the young reformed movement as well as Acts 29 and the Southern Baptist Convention. It also came on the heels of major announcements from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission about plans to organize a conference around church abuse and the launch of, a site dedicated to educating lay Christians and pastors about the dangers of abuse in their local congregations.

To the Village’s credit, there are a number of points here that distinguish this story in good ways from earlier SBC abuse stories. The church filed a police report. They did not question the victim in ways that suggest a lack of confidence or desire to self-protect. They helped to provide counseling resources for the family.

In all these ways, TVC handled the tragic situation in their community far better than, say, the handling of serious allegations against Paige Patterson last year or past allegations of abuse in missions circles.

That being said, two things in particular were still alarming in the reporting from the Times.1 First, it took the church three months to organize a follow-up meeting with the victim’s family after the family reported. Later, when the family attempted to have another follow-up meeting with Matt Chandler, his assistant only offered them dates several months in the future.

In both cases, the prolonged delay in addressing the issue communicates something to the family. They are not in a position to know what is happening behind the scenes, after all. They only know that it took months for the church to follow-up and even then the follow-up only happened at their request.

Second, the role of MinistrySafe was not adequately explained to the congregation. The victim’s family was under the impression that the organization was there to assist victims and churches dealing with cases of sexual abuse. In reality however the organization’s employees assisted at the Village Church by providing legal counsel to the church in the aftermath of the accusations, which created a conflict of interest for them when the victims wanted to consult with them.

That isn’t MinistrySafe’s fault, but it can still feel quite cruel to the victim and her family. They already were feeling uncertain about the church’s response. And then they wanted to work with MinistrySafe and found out that that wasn’t possible. When you put yourself in the place of the family, you can see how devastating that would be. (UPDATE: MinistrySafe has issued a statement about the NYT’s story in which they say that the piece is inaccurate on several important points.)

In one sense, these kind of communication errors are not that surprising. The Village is a ten thousand member congregation. Communication issues are to be expected.

It’s also true that anyone who has been in church leadership long enough can tell you stories of complicated, horrible situations that landed in their lap and that they had to, somehow, address. And in many cases they had to respond without the benefit of distance, hindsight, and in-depth third-party reporting.

That being said, while it appears that TVC was quite active in trying to address the issue, it also seems, again based on the reporting, that they were extremely slow in offering simple, human kindness to the victim and her family.

It’s an odd oversight when you think about it: It is far easier for a pastor to pick up a phone and call a family in his church than it is for a church to build out extensive abuse policies, connect with local counselors to provide aid for victims, gather and identify funds to be given to victims to assist with care, and so on.

But here the issue may be that we are thinking as ranchers rather than shepherds. In a larger enterprise it is actually easier to work in systems than with individuals because the massed group of individuals is so large.

In his writing about agriculture, Wendell Berry (and he may have taken this from Wes Jackson) has said that healthy farms require a certain eyes-to-acres ratio. The point here is that once an community reaches a certain size, it becomes all but impossible to provide humane attentiveness and care, not because the leader of the community is evil or vicious, but simply because the community has outgrown the leader’s capacities as a single individual person. Berry applies this lesson to farms, but it works elsewhere.

We recognize the need for humane scale in some enterprises already. Schools with low student-to-faculty ratios make much of that in their marketing material. We actually require daycares by law to have a certain teacher-to-child ratio. We recognize that when a work is scaled up, the humane is necessarily lost because simple human connection is time-consuming and relationally demanding.

Berry rightly notes that land is much closer to being like a child who requires adult attention than it is a widget factory that can be automated and made efficient. Pastoral care is the same way. (It is worth noting, by the way, that the leadership at the Village would agree with all of this which is why they are trying to shift all five campuses of TVC into autonomous congregations by 2022.)

So what happens when an institution is too large to fail, when it is so large that it both struggles to perform its primary function but also has no easily discerned path toward becoming small again in a health way?

The banking saga tells the tale. A still-larger social entity sweeps in behind and cleans up the mess so that the organization can survive. The government did that for the banks in 2008.

Historically our churches that are too big to fail have been saved by our own version of that entity: a combination of great wealth (which is made more effective by favorable tax policies) and latent vestiges of Christendom. Often people struggled to leave Christianity entirely but simply moved to another church community. Sometimes, as in Rome’s recent history in the USA, the losses are offset by major growth from elsewhere. The money and the traces of Christendom provide the social capital that too-big-to-fail churches can draw on to rescue themselves.

The trouble, of course, is that this larger, older form of social capital cannot last forever. Rome is experiencing this first-hand. It would seem that evangelicals are not far behind.

We will choose to be smaller in order to better care for the spiritual needs of our church members or we will be made smaller.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).