When Large Churches Get Stuck: Prioritizing Relationships Over Events


When churches are small, relationships drive everything, including discipleship. Relationships are the reason people show up to events. In fact, the more events that are on the church calendar, the more opportunities there are to develop existing relationships. It’s another excuse to spend time with people we already know. Because smaller churches naturally have smaller events, these events actually foster relational engagement. If you want to encourage deeper relationships, the win is to get people to the event.

That dynamic is different in large churches.

As we know from this recent article, there are limits to friendship. This research found that the typical person only has 5 friends in their inner-circle. Then we have 10 “best” friends and 35 people who might be considered just “good” friends. In large churches, events gather far more people than this. If they didn’t, we would either stop the event or fire the leader orchestrating the event.

But, if the goal is to encourage relationships that foster spiritual growth, bigger events actually make it more challenging. In large churches, the win shouldn’t be how many people show up to an event but rather how many people take a next step. I rarely hear ministry leaders talk in those terms, though. Instead, the celebration is typically about how many people show up.

In large churches, the win shouldn’t be how many people show up to an event but rather how many people take a next step.

Have you ever walked into a room full of hundreds of people you don’t know and tried to develop meaningful friendships? Maybe you extroverts might find that to be a fun challenge. For the rest of us who are wired up to be introverts, I can assure you that’s not an ideal environment conducive to making new friends. I can be taught in a large gathering. I can be entertained. I can be inspired. But it’s highly unlikely that a large event experience is going to help me foster relationships.

As I’ve shared before, it’s impossible to engage discipleship outside of relationships. This is one of the those instances when small churches really have an advantage. Their “big events” are still small enough to foster relationships. As the church grows, though, big events can’t fulfill that objective. Instead, our strategy must encourage other next steps that help people find environments where relationships can develop. Examples might include small groups, ministry teams, one-on-one mentoring, or some combination of the three.

Even as an introvert, I still love big gatherings, particularly for corporate worship and teaching. What I’ve experienced in larger churches, though, is that people will become dissatisfied if their only connection to the church is a large group gathering or service. Ultimately, God created us to experience community. We’ll never find that in events. We may find association, but we’ll not experience real community.

Large churches have to embrace a different strategy when they are approaching discipleship.

There are other reasons events become challenging for large churches:

  • Bigger events involve more complexity.

    The logistics are more consuming. It takes more effort to market them effectively. It takes a much bigger investment of time and resources to make the event successful.

  • Ministries end up competing with each other for time, attention, and resources.

    If every ministry is trying to leverage events to accomplish their mission, that also means you end up with competing events. More events with more promotions to encourage people to attend means there’s going to be more noise.

  • Events happen at a specific location at a specific time.

    We live in a very mobile and very busy culture. Rarely do we engage content at a specific time and in a specific place. In most instances, we now either have the opportunity of watching live events from our TVs or mobile devices, or, even better, we can stream the event from the cloud when we want. Expecting hundreds of people to attend a big event at a specific place at a specific time is very counter-cultural.

  • It’s a very church-centric approach to discipleship.

    In large events, our only option is to give people the information we think they need rather than offering a solution that addresses someone’s unique needs. We’re attempting to offer a one-size-fits-all solution. We need corporate teaching in our churches because that’s a healthy part of every spiritual follower’s journey. Jesus modeled this when he taught to crowds, but that wasn’t the only approach he used. He also shared life with his disciples in much smaller groups.


What this means is that large churches have to embrace a different strategy when they are approaching discipleship.

Instead of relying on events to grow people up, we need to encourage people who are already connected in smaller environments (serving, leading, Bible study, groups, mentoring, etc.) to take responsibility for discipling people in their lives.

I believe big events can still serve a purpose, but we probably need fewer of those events. And when we offer them, the win shouldn’t be how many people show up but rather how many next steps people take. We need to help people build relationships with other people as they take their next steps toward Christ.

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About Author

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.

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