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5 Reasons Your Church 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 a 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.

There's a world of difference between adopting best practices and blindly copying. Click To Tweet

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 to our three little churches 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.

You can't effectively adopt what you don't understand. Click To Tweet

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 easier 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 with 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.

Leaders who don't own their ideas are rarely as effective as leaders who do. Click To Tweet

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.

If you can't answer a deep line of questioning around an idea, you don't own it. Click To Tweet

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.

Borrowing a promising idea can be like putting new siding on a house whose foundation is crumbling. Click To Tweet

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.

Any change usually means a systems change. Click To Tweet

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.

You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can't make both. Click To Tweet

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.

Poor leaders list off reasons something won't work. Great leaders find the one reason it will. Click To Tweet

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 a way of ensuring your new idea thrives

That’s my best advice in this area.

Want A Smart Choice For Any Church?

How is your church’s healthcare plan?

I bet I can guess one way you would describe it: Expensive

If you could get a lower price, but still get the same or better coverage, would you?

I know I would.

That is why I’m so grateful for my friends over at Remodel Health.

In the last five months alone, churches who heard about Remodel Health through my podcast have funneled $625,000 back into their ministries! I think they could help your church too.

If your curious, or want to talk to someone at Remodel Health, click here.

The Remodel Health team put together a free PDF that outlines 10 hacks that churches can use to save money on their healthcare today.

Here is the link to download the free PDF!

What churches are you learning from?

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

13 Comments

  1. Tom on October 27, 2019 at 1:12 am

    Hi Carey,
    I’m researching on church and future trends and models, and came across your site. Thank you for your insights. It seems to me this article addresses a topic whose ship has sailed. I think the current institutional Christianity church model, in all forms large and small, are confining and has led to the current post-Christian cynicism about church. And by it’s very nature the current model is narcissistic, or has a built in feature for a cult of personality leadership.

    I have been involved with ministry for the last 28 years, and am finally taking a break because of the dissonance I’ve been sensing over the last 10 years in terms of the assumed correct infrastructure (method) of the church.

  2. Josh on October 19, 2019 at 11:39 am

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

    Thanks for this great point. Another reason optimism is such a force multiplier for leaders. Thanks, Carey.

  3. Kyle on October 10, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    The link to Andy Stanley’s classic systems talk is not correct. Do you happen to have the right one? I’m interested in reading more about that. Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 11, 2019 at 3:15 pm

      Hey Kyle,

      Dillon here, Carey’s assistant. I’d love to help!

      That original link is down, but here is a separate link: https://vimeo.com/24979087

      Hope this helps!

      • Kyle on October 14, 2019 at 8:41 pm

        Awesome… Thank you!

  4. Mark McDonald on October 2, 2019 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for a great article.

    To answer your final question – I’m learning more from small church models than the mega-church. Our church building seats 120 people with no other spaces for kids ministry. So models of church that require a large multi room campus won’t work for us. At this season of our ministry we have to be the good “local cafe” rather than the “starbucks”. Perhaps in the future our building situation will change, until then we will sow where God has us.

    Having said that I think leadership is leadership so I learn from all types of leaders. That is why your podcast is so valuable, lots of different voices in the leadership space.

  5. Sam Brown on October 2, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Carey,

    How do you think this applies to Church Planting organizations such as ARC where many Churches are being planted with the same models? It seems as if many of these Churches are using a model that seems to be working extremely well despite any contextual issues. Curious to hear your thoughts

  6. Stuart Luce on October 2, 2019 at 10:36 am

    Carey, thanks so very much!! Could you write or share more about the major models that churches are built upon. I’d never thought deeply about this, but it makes absolute sense. Thanks again!

  7. Michael Hendersonson on October 2, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Great article! Thanks!

  8. Gregg Doyle on October 2, 2019 at 10:00 am

    I have 30 years of experience with a mega-church where I am a member. We tried a new program every couple of years without ever fundamentally changing our view of organization and authority. After being heavily involved with four of these programs, I realized that while the programs appeared to follow the book, there were always subtle changes so that organizationally nothing had to change. Also as a design engineer, I have been involved in over 50 church projects in four states and have heard almost every ministry growth plan there is. I have heard sermon after sermon about why the congregation should follow the next new program. Two things have become abundantly clear. The programs were only for the congregation, and there were never any mistakes. When the last program did not work it just disappeared. Sadly, whether from this, or just the general trend, my church is shrinking. I have said all this to say, follow these recommendations. If you only want to grow your church but not change how you run things, do not waste my time or yours with the next “new” program.

  9. Hope on October 2, 2019 at 9:49 am

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read! I’ve been saying this for years and applying it to my own ministries/programs. I learned early on that the details of what others do may not work for me and my organization, but if I can figure out the why behind it, the principles often do. Then I take the idea, rework it, try it out, make adjustments and apply it in a way that works for us. Sometimes it still doesn’t work or I know it will work at the right time and now just isn’t it, but more times than not, if I’ve taken the time to understand the why behind a program or model or system, I come up with something that works for my organization. We often copy what’s on the outside, but it’s what’s on the inside that matters most. Why did this church do this and why did it work? If I can answer that, I’ve learned something very valuable. I wish more leaders understood this. I really could go on and on about how I feel about this article. I’m kind of passionate about this aspect of ministry. Thanks so much for sharing this. What a much-needed message!

  10. Dotun on October 2, 2019 at 9:15 am

    Thank you Carey. Great insight as always. Appreciate all you do.

  11. Chuck on October 2, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Sage advice indeed. One size does NOT fit all. One author likens that realization to Jesus’ Parable of the Sowers. Different souls need different approaches.

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