Competing with big box churches

There’s a “big box” church in our town that’s all the rage. If you live anywhere in America that’s even slightly urban, there’s probably a big box church in your area as well.

By “big box” I mean the kind of huge generic conservative evangelical congregation that is analogous in the church world to Walmart or Best Buy in the retail world. Walmart and Best Buy are “big box” retailers because they establish enormous retails spaces and cover such a diverse inventory. Big box churches build themselves on drawing worshippers from other smaller congregations and always having the latest, whiz-bangiest stuff. And they’re always more hip than other churches.

One of the problems with Walmart and Best Buy and other big box retailers is they tend to shut out existing smaller retailers. For good or for ill, that’s just the fact. The same is true with big box churches. It’s hard for a small- or mid-sized church to sustain a viable youth ministry when the big box church nearby has all the energy and magnetism and technology.

So what are other churches to do?

My brother-in-law is a business consultant. He’s one of those MBA-types who hires out to various companies to become the outside voice to tell them what they ought to do, which has taken him into a wide variety of business applications and systems.

The other day, I asked him this question: “What is the suggested course of action when a business begins to lose market share to a big, innovative, fast-growing competitor who moves into an area and sucks up customers from all the smaller, more established shops in town?”

His answer: “The most successful way to compete with innovative superstores is to highlight your own specialization.” So think for a moment about the practical application of this truth. When Walmart moves in to town, the local grocery store, clothing store and even hardware store may quake in fear. But there is another way. And that is to figure out what your store can do really well that Walmart can’t do. Maybe it’s customer service. Maybe it’s carrying specialty items. Maybe it’s being easy to access. Maybe it’s having staff who are friendly and knowledgeable.

Faced with similar challenges, the answer most Protestant churches in America have chosen over the last 20 years is to try to compete with the big box church by adopting its style and feel. We’ve been told that the only way to compete with the new contemporary worship, seeker-driven, big-box churches is to copy what they do. The reasoning is, if it’s working for them, surely it will work for us.

The reality, however, is that while changing worship styles or program formats does work for some congregations, it doesn’t work for many others. Putting on the kind of programming and worship the mega-churches offer requires resources far beyond what most American congregations have.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Jason Wollschleger, sociology professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. Professor Wollschleger and a colleague were interested in the effects of conservative evangelical mega-churches on other existing churches. The results of their inquiry were recently published in the Review of Religious Research.

One of the things they discovered was that “having a mega-church in the same county was going to have a negative effect on congregations that occupied a similar religious niche.” Evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist churches located in the same counties as mega-churches were all slightly worse off than they should be, compared to U.S. averages.

The second thing these sociologists learned was that when a conservative evangelical mega-church moves in to an area, it actually helps the churches that are seen as dissimilar to the mega-church. The researchers believe that “the mega-church’s presence might spur competition and provide leaders of other kinds of churches with a kind of foil against which they could identify themselves.”

Professor Wollschleger also draws on a Walmart analogy. “When little stores could create a unique identity and offer something that Walmarts can’t … they do well,” he reported. In counties where conservative evangelical mega-churches have taken root, the rate of decline for Mainline Protestant churches was found to be about one-third the rate of decline for similar churches elsewhere in the nation. Churches that are clearly different than the mega-churches are benefitting.

The third thing the research showed is that congregations that try to compete with the mega-churches on the same turf with the same techniques and style don’t fare well. To quote Professor Wollschleger precisely, churches that attempt to do what the mega-churches are doing but don’t have the size or resources to do it as well are “getting slaughtered. It looks like they’re just being wiped out.”

My own congregation is large by most standards but is not a mega-church and certainly isn’t a big box church. What we are is a “boutique” church, a label I use to explain that we’re not trying to be all things to all people, that we’re not like Walmart or Best Buy or Target or Sears. We’re more like a large specialty store that knows what works in its context and can easily be contrasted to the mega-church down the road. We’ve found Professor Wollschleger’s advice to ring true.

The old axiom that if you can’t beat ‘em you should join ‘em isn’t always true. Sometimes you just need to be different.

Mark Wingfield

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Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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  • Jeff Walton

    While I do not directly contest the Wollschleger data, it doesn’t line up with observations about megachurches in my own metropolitan area. I’ve observed megachurches essentially serving as “clearinghouses” for either new converts to Christianity or new arrivals to the area. People connect with seeker-sensitive services and programmatic offerings, then usually depart in 2-3 years as they are effectively “farmed out” to smaller churches specializing in something the families find appealing (deeper teaching, smaller but tighter community, possibly sacramental or historic traits). My congregation has about 400 persons on a Sunday, but we’ve certainly benefited from the ministry of nearby megachurches.

  • 49erbear

    Mark, I remember you so fondly when we were members of the same church while you were a seminary student. At the time I knew you were destined to be great, as you are. This article is one of many examples of your wisdom and talent. Best wishes and prayers as you continue.