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copy a mega-church

5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Copy a Mega-Church

If someone asked you who you’re following in today’s church landscape, you could probably answer with a list of 3-5 church leaders and perhaps 3-5 organizations to whom you’re paying close attention.

Even if you say you don’t have a list, chances are you do.

Your list might simply consist of critics of mega-church leaders or mega-churches.

We all follow someone. Especially in our hyper-connected era.

I am actually exceptionally grateful for what God is doing in many mega-churches and have deep respect for many mega-church leaders. Critics who say “all mega-churches are ______” in my view simply haven’t done their research.

I’m also a massive advocate of adopting best practices from anyone and anywhere (business, church, thought leaders etc).

After all, no one learns in isolation. Very few of us ever come up with an idea ‘no one has ever thought of before.’

In fact, the church at which I serve is a mega-church strategic partner. We have borrowed a TON of insight, strategy and branding directly from North Point and a few others.

And it works. Even in Canada.

So why this post then?

Because there’s a world of difference between adopting best practices and blindly copying.

Here’s the difference.

copy a mega-church

5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Blindly Copy a Mega-Church

So why wouldn’t you blindly copy a mega-church?

Here are 5 reasons I’ve both experienced personally and observed widely among other church leaders, and 5 ways to better adopt the practices you see and admire.

For context, I have adopted a TON of learning from mega-churches and many sources over the years, both through transitioning a church (leading three tiny mainline churches into one, growing church that grew to 800) and through church planting (founding a church plant that now reaches 1100 each weekend).

But here are the traps you’ll fall into if you blindly copy your favourite leader or organization:

1. You’ll mix up models

Even back in the dial-up days, some of us used to watch other churches.

I cut my teeth in the late 90s as a budding church leader watching Saddleback and Willow Creek.

Then I went to a conference in 1999 and where I met James Emery White. He asked me about the changes I was making our our three little church and I explained that we were taking best practices from Willow and Saddleback and a bunch of other churches and combining them.

I’ll never forget what he told me.

He said “You don’t understand church models. Those are incompatible with each other. They aren’t the same thing. Carey, you need to become a student of models.”

Guess what? He was 100% right.

So I became a student of models.

While churches like North Point, LifeChurch, Elevation and NewSpring look the same on the outside, they approach ministry differently in many areas: groups, kids ministry, how they structure staff, how they reach out in the community and even the programs they offer.

When you study church models, pay attention to the differences.

Otherwise you might be adopting what you think made them effective, but didn’t. You might end up implementing a fake version of whatever you thought was the original, like buying a Pollo shirt rather than a Polo shirt.

You can’t effectively adopt what you don’t understand.

2. You’ll create an incompatible hybrid

When you mix models, as described above, you can easily end up with a hybrid model that just doesn’t work.

Each effective church you’re studying (be it well known or not) is the product of years of development, prayer, trial and error and fine-tuning until it finally all worked together powerfully.

If you strip a part off one model, borrow another from a second church, randomly select something you like from a third and THEN try to combine into something effective at your church, you’re headed for almost certain failure.

Why? Because there’s a good chance the components you borrowed don’t work well together.

Think of it this way: you can’t easily fix your Android phone with iPhone parts, or your iPhone with Android parts. They’re both phones, but they’re not the same.

If you put most Ford truck parts into a Tesla, it won’t run. They’re both vehicles, but they’re not the same.

In the same way, all the churches you study are churches, but they’re not the same.

You want a compatible system.

Naturally, once you see that certain parts will fit into your system beautifully because you understand the ‘part’ and you understand your system, you can adapt them.

3. You won’t own it

This one’s huge.

It’s easy than ever to attend conferences, read books, skim blogs, follow leaders and borrow a bucketful of ideas.

The challenge, though, is two-fold.

First, the ideas you’re borrowing from the leaders in question was a hard-fought idea. They developed it, revised it, changed it again and reworked it until it finally became an idea worth sharing. It was a part of them before they shared it within anyone. They owned it.

Second—and obviously—you haven’t owned that idea at the same level. And until you do, it might not prove nearly as effective for you as it has for them.

All of that leads us to this: leaders who don’t own their ideas are rarely as effective as leaders who do.

Can you own an idea that you didn’t come up with?

Of course you can.

But usually first, you need to

Wrestle with it

Rethink it back to first principles

Revise it

Test it

Adapt it

Then it’s yours.

Often we steal ideas because we think they’ll work, but we don’t know why they work.

And if that happens, when people ask us questions about an idea, we usually can’t answer them well, if at all.

“It worked somewhere else” is not a convincing line of reasoning.

If you can’t answer a deep line of questioning around an idea, you don’t own it.

4. You won’t change your system

When you’re borrowing ideas from other leaders and organizations, the change you ultimately need to make is deep and structural.

Borrowing a promising idea can be like putting new siding on a house whose foundation is crumbling. It looks great, but you really haven’t solved anything.

As Andy Stanley explains in his classic systems talk, your system—more than anything else—drives your outcome.

Often the change you need to make is deep, systemic and permanent.

As I explain in Lasting Impact, a bad governance system or other structural barriers will restrict the growth of your church.

A pastor who insists on doing most of the pastor care personally will permanently stunt the growth of your church (I explain why here).

If you’re not willing to re-invent everything in your church, you’ll never be satisfied with the change.

Any change usually means a systems change.

5. You’ll ignore context

I’m a little hesitant to mention context because about 99% of the time I hear leaders misuse it.

How? Most church leaders use context as an excuse, not as an explanation.

If you want to be completely ineffective as a church leader, please use your context as an excuse.

I could say more about using context as an excuse (I’m super-passionate about the subject), but I’ve written more fully on it here.

Here’s the bottom line: you can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

That said, there are two contexts leaders routinely miss: theirs and yours.

Think of borrowing ideas the same way you’d think about transplanting a tree: if you want the plant to thrive, you need to match the soil and nutrients of the transplant location to the soil and nutrients of the original location.

And not all plants thrive everywhere. Palm trees tend to do less well in Alaska than in Florida.

Study the source context for the idea:

Is the context a business context?

Is the church in the bible belt or a heavily unchurched area?

Is the church rural or urban?

What’s the ethnic makeup of the organization?

Is it a church plant or an established church?

What makes the leader I’m studying different from me?

Take notes and simply compare and contrast their situation to your situation. This will help you understand the why and the what of the idea or best practice.

Then make any adaptations you need to so the practice or idea thrives in your context.

But don’t use the differences as an excuse why something won’t work. Use it to gain understanding on how to make it work.

Poor leaders list a million reasons why something won’t work. Great leaders find the one reason it will.

Be that leader.

Borrow All The Best Practices and Ideas You Can

So what’s the bottom line?

Borrow (even steal) all the best practices and ideas you possibly can. Especially from successful organizations and churches.

And make sure:

You understand the models you’re studying

All the components of your strategy work together seamlessly

You own it

You’re making the deep system changes you need to

You understand context as way of ensuring your new idea thrives

That’s my best advice in this area.

What are you learning?

I’d love to hear from you. Scroll down and leave a comment.

Do These 3 Selfish Leadership Motivations Describe You?

More Better Different

I wish I could remember who it was, but years ago someone told me that accumulation and success has a cycle.




This is true among the rich, but–stay tuned–it also has application for leaders.

Here’s how it looks when it comes to wealth. As soon as you see it, you’ll recognize this pattern immediately. Each motivation surfaces as you become more successful and gain access to greater resources. Which is something many leaders do.

Let’s just use cars as an example.

More. When one car is no longer sufficient, the aspiring guy buys two. Life is just so much easier and better with two, or three.

Better. Two well-used minivans are, well, so suburban. Because more won’t do anymore, he upgrades to an SUV and a german-engineered sedan.

Different.  Eventually, even the wealthy notice there are an ‘abundance’ of SUVs and german engineered cars on the road. So the cycle moves to another level. What better than to fly to Germany, tour the Porsche factory, have your vehicle custom delivered, try it out on the Autobahn and fly home while your Porsche is shipped back with you? (Seriously…Porsche offers this.) There. Now you’ll have a different, rare, unique and exclusive experience to talk to your colleagues about over lunch.

See the cycle?

And before you slam the crazy rich who like cars, just realize most of us live this out daily. (If you haven’t seen Andy Stanley’s Comparison Trap series on how comparison hurts us, you should…)

From starter homes (do we really want to raise our teens in this starter home?) to your appliances (note the rise of commercial grade appliances in custom kitchens, even when most people have no idea how to cook anymore), to that pair of shoes you got from that website none of your friends have discovered yet. If you haven’t fallen prey to the more/better/different cycle in some way, kudos to you. Most of us aren’t that fortunate.

But this also surfaces in leadership.

Keep reading this post…

Stoked About Sunday?

So it’s tempting as we head into the weekend to say things like "so stoked about Sunday" or "so pumped about our next (fill in the blank for the service or event here). 

But why are we stoked?

Are we excited:

  • because we’re speaking?
  • because we organized the event?
  • because we’re trying to get or we have momentum?
  • because we’re trying something new?
  • because we did a killer job planning it?
  • because we just like the things we create?

I know that’s a tad cynical, but honesty is a good policy.  Many of us who have led ministries or events have had some of those thoughts (or all of the above). Personally, I think I’ve been guilty of all of the above.  

There is one reason to be stoked about Sunday: because Jesus Christ is risen and interacting with people He loves.  

You can phrase it differently, or maybe even better.  But the bottom line is the same. He is the one who draws people to Himself. 

Now I’m still excited about a great band, some intriguing video, and a message that I hope inspires and helps people. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

But Jesus is the deal.  The only deal.  The only One worth doing this (or anything) for. 

The more I keep that front and centre, the more there’s actually something to be stoked about. 

What Happened Christmas Eve

So we rolled with our Christmas Eve services and I think our Service Programming team (the sweet team that creates our services) did a great job straddling the tension between giving people what they want and delivering what people need.  As last week’s post pointed out, Christmas is an especially tough service to plan.

So what did we do (many of you were asking)?

  • We opened the service with Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll.  The band did a great job, and people hung in the tension of liking what they were hearing but realizing this really wasn’t Christmas music.
  • We had a ‘producer’ interrupt the band two minutes in the song and tell them they couldn’t play it because people had come for Christmas.
  • The band then regrouped, and starting playing Rock and Roll again, only this time subbing in Christmas lyrics.
  • I got up, cut them off and told them they had to play real Christmas music (at one of the services, people started calling out for more Zeppelin)…welcomed everyone and launched into some Christmas tunes.
  • Musically, we then did some rearranged Christmas carols (like Chris Tomlin’s version of Angels We Have Heard on High).  We brought out some dancers who did a couple of kid versions of some Christmas songs to actions, and closed the service with Robbie Seay Band’s Go Outside and O Holy Night.
  • The message was simple and fairly short (20 minutes).  Everyone got an invitation that was handwritten by someone at Connexus.  It simply said “My name is _______ and I want you to know that you are invited to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”.  My message was simply that Christmas is the greatest interruption in human history accompanied by the greatest invitation in human history.  We invited people to respond to the invitation.

What I loved about the service this year was how the opener surprised people, caught them off guard and got them engaged in the first few minutes.  It was a bridge for people with little church background, and in many ways, modeled the message.  We interrupted the song…God interrupted history… we handed out a personal invitation…so did God.  We hoped it would work, but as usual, you don’t know until it’s all happening live.  I loved the kids’ dance too because it helped the kids stay engaged and gave the younger kids music they loved.  Plus it helped families see that we sink some significant time and resources into families.

I was so thrilled with our community…we asked people to invite friends and family and they did.  Being a portable church is hard and when you can’t even meet where you normally meet for Christmas services, it makes it even more difficult for a crowd to find you Christmas eve.  But our Christmas eve attendance has doubled in the last two years and was up 50% from last year alone – all because people told their friends.  We’ll plan for over 1000 attenders next year.

So that was Christmas.  If you were at Connexus, what did you think?  If you weren’t, please share some thoughts or share what your church did.  We’re always learning and would love to hear.

What I Learned About Church from Bono – Transcendence

U2 is the biggest band in the world, and their latest 360 degree Tour makes you aware of that. 

Constructing what many believe to be the biggest stage set in concert history, their stage is gigantic.  Check out this video for a tour of the set.  I’m pretty sure that at the Rogers Center, they needed to open the roof because the set didn’t fit in the stadium.

There’s a theological word for something that big: transcendence – something that is magnificent, huge, incomparable. 

And that is in the nature of God.  God is transcendent.  He’s bigger than we can comprehend. 

Most of us want to be part of something bigger than we are.  We want to worship.  If we don’t worship God, we’ll worship money, or work, or family, or a rock band.  We’ll find something that is bigger than us to bow down to.

And while U2 isn’t worthy of anyone’s worship, their concert was transcendent.  You knew you were dealing with the biggest band in the world.

Now wait for the final post Monday…because the temptation would be to think that proving you’re the biggest band in the world was their goal – it wasn’t.

But it leads me to a question: in what ways are we doing church that points to a God who is transcendent? Sometimes church can be so banal, so mundane, that you would have a hard time believeing anything supernatural or bigger than us is involved.

In the music we use, the way the band plays, the way the preacher points to God, in the things that are happening in church, in what ways does that show the insider and the outsider that we are part of something far bigger than ourselves?

That’s transcendence.  And people are drawn to transcendence.

Great Ideas

I love getting around leaders who make me think.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to be at the North Point staff meeting where Reggie Joiner spoke. 

After serving at North Point for over 10 years, Reggie left the staff there to devote all of his time to ReThink.  As part of that move, he's traveled the country meeting church leaders.  Yesterday, he shared some of his learnings.  Here are a few highlights that got me thinking:

  • People who are anti-mega church tend to be the people who already go to church.  That hit me pretty hard.  Obviously, large churches do a pretty good job of attracting unchurched people.  Church people find large churches too big.  I'll chew on that one awhile.
  • Maybe the job of the communicator is not to resolve tension, but to create it so that people leave having to wrestle with what was said.  I love that!  I think that happens a bit already in good preaching, but what would happen if we made that a goal?  In family ministry, we say that what happens at home is as or more important than what happens at church.  Maybe that's true of big church (when adults gather) too.  
  • You can tell people they are significant, but until you give them something significant to do, they won't feel significant. Okay, that's just way too true. It made me think – maybe the problem of burnout in churches is not that we have given people too much to do, maybe it's that we've given people too many insignificant things to do. 

What do you think?  Do we need to create more tension – more wrestling, in preaching?  Do we ask people to do things that are not really significant?  Is there anything wrong with a large church?

PS. If you want more stuff like this, you might want to get down to this conference where this kind of sharp thinking will be all over the place.

Your Favourite Christmas Music, Please…

Okay, this will just be fun for a Friday.  It's pretty much officially Christmas season.

What's your favourite Christmas music? I'd love everyone to weigh in one:

  • Your favourite current Christmas CD
  • Your all time favourite Christmas CD
  • Your favourite Christmas song to sing on Christmas Eve

Here's mine:

  • Current: Relient K – Let it Snow Baby, Let It Reindeer
  • All Time:  Charlie Brown's Christmas (love Vince Guiraldi)
  • Church: O Come All Ye Faithful (O Come Let Us Adore Him) – Passion (as in Louie Giglio) version

There we go.  Can't wait to hear yours.