Interview with Kent Fillinger

By Brad Dupray

As Kent Fillinger read the first few megachurch reports in Christian Standard years ago, he began to wonder how the success of those churches could be translated into help for smaller churches. With research partner Ben Simms, he began studying what was behind the numbers. That led to the founding of 3:STRANDS Consulting, a church coaching and consulting ministry conceived to “cultivate enduring relationships with churches and church leaders to enhance strengths and generate a better future.” Much of Kent and Ben’s assessment of this year’s megachurch list is highlighted in this issue of the Standard. Kent also serves as outreach team leader at Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana. He and his wife of 14 years, Ann Marie, have been blessed with three beautiful daughters.

How do you answer people who say the focus on megachurches diminishes the work of smaller churches?

We need to learn from each other. I think seeing how churches have reached the heart of their communities with spiritual and numeric growth is of value to churches at all levels. Our goal is to present the data in such a way that it’s transferable and helpful for the church of 150 or 200. I remember the first time I saw Southeast’s (Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky) number of baptisms, I thought, where do I get value from that to help me in my ministry?

How did you answer your question?

We need to look at more than the number of baptisms, so we created the baptism ratio. If you see a big number from a church that had 750 to 800 baptisms and you’re at a church of 200, it’s beyond your comprehension. But if you know the average megachurch hovers around 7.25 baptisms per 100 in attendance it means the church of 150 should have about 11 baptisms to have the same ratio. Regardless of the church size you serve, there is value for you in that ratio.

Another way of looking at it is what I call the “baptism per buck award,” or how much churches spend per baptism. We found the average church is spending a little over $27,000 per year per baptism. That’s the price of a new Honda Accord. The most any church spent per baptism last year was $83,000. The best is in the $6,000 to $7,000 range. A person in a church of 200 can say, “How much did we spend per baptism last year?” He can get a better sense of his congregation’s health and progress than by just looking at a total number.

Is there acrimony from smaller churches toward bigger churches?

In his book The Present Future, Reggie McNeil said the cruise ship has swallowed up all the dinghies in the water. There is some of that, and that has created some of the animosity or disdain from the smaller church. But at the same time the megachurch has benefited churches in a variety of sizes. I served at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the church grew from 450 to 650 at the time I was there. People had been introduced to Christ, or their awareness of Christian churches came from Southeast, and that made them open to coming to this Christian church on the other side of town, especially if Southeast was “too big” for them.

How are megachurches influencing our fellowship of churches (for good or ill)?

Without a doubt, the leaders of the megachurches—the senior ministers and the churches themselves—have changed the shape of Christian churches and churches of Christ. They have heightened the awareness of growth. They have changed expectations and broadened horizons for all of our churches to continue to reach the people in our communities. The megachurch movement has changed the shape of Christianity in America.

Is a smaller church a completely different animal from a megachurch?
The church of 2,500 is dealing with different complexities than the church of 250. Megachurch leaders have had to navigate the complexities of growth. What they have been willing to share of what they have learned on their journey has added value to Christian churches of all sizes. Not every church can or should be a megachurch, but every church can apply the growth indicators or growth factors that megachurches have encountered.

But is the church’s mission just about size?

Each leader in the church has to have a heart for lost people and a steadfast commitment to being creative in his or her approach to reaching lost people. With that, you’re going to see spiritual and numerical growth. Our concentration is on enhancing strength. Every church has inherent strengths. The idea is to identify those strengths and then use them to reach your ministry region. How can we use the strengths God has blessed us with to make an impact in the place God has put us? Don’t look at your weaknesses—focus on your strengths and make the most of them.

What can megachurches learn from smaller churches?

Christian Schwartz, in his book Natural Church Development, says the smaller church is more effective. It has a higher percentage of growth or baptisms—his research backs that up. The large church can learn how to foster relationships and connections. I know many megachurches have upped their game in that regard—to ensure that there are relationships within the church that extend beyond the worship experience. That’s what smaller churches do really well. I think recognizing how community takes place in those smaller venues can help larger churches.

Do megachurches lend themselves to “soft” Christianity?

I would disagree that megachurches are soft on Christianity. They are reaching people at various stages of growth. There is a wider spectrum in a larger church, so it uses more tools to reach people across that spectrum. The megachurch preaching is still at a high level of commitment, but there is recognition that there are people at various levels on the spiritual continuum who might gravitate to a megachurch. In a megachurch, because of the size, there is a greater opportunity to come and explore anonymously. At a smaller church you often have a greater percentage of core believers.

What do megachurches do best?

Respond to changing culture. As opposed to criticizing culture or saying, “This is who we are and if you like it come join us,” megachurches do a great job of adapting—adjusting their ministry approach to fit. Not changing the truth, but adapting their ministry approach. The multisite movement is an example of adaptation in the last three to five years. Now churches that are smaller are dabbling in that—sampling the multisite movement. When a megachurch reaches a plateau, it adapts the ministry methods to stay current with culture and to keep growing.

What do they do poorly?

Just maintaining the infrastructure can make it difficult for megachurches to make changes as quickly as they did in their more mobile days. They can lose some of that responsiveness because they’re spending so much energy to keep the ball rolling. That’s where you can see a church spending a lot of money on ministry but it is not gaining as much traction as it did at one time. It’s the double-edged sword—the church settles in and doesn’t continue to take the same level of risk.

When you reach a certain size there is a tendency to risk less than you did in those earlier days. Some are reaching a potential stage, and it could happen at any level, where they say we’re satisfied or secure at 4,000 or 2,500. And that may be a reason why we’ve seen some growth trends declining for some of our churches.

Are our churches still growing?

We are seeing a declining growth rate of our churches. The growth peaked in 2001, and since 2004 it’s kind of been on a gradual descent. We saw a fast explosion of growth in the late ’90s for a lot of these churches and in these last three to four years we’ve seen a continual down-trending of growth. That is a concern. Another is the dip in baptisms this year; from a decade-long average hovering at 7.25 (per 100), it dropped to 6.4 this year. I would argue that baptisms are the best indicator of church growth, so the decline this year is significant. There was only one new church added to the emerging megachurch (1,000-plus) list. The conclusion we drew from that is the 500 to 1,000 churches aren’t growing as fast as they were previously. Last year we added 10 to that list. Those are things I’m concerned about and will continue to watch.

What is the future of the megachurch? Will they still be with us 50 years from now?

I think megachurches will continue to be with us just as other “big box” environments will be with us—like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The look and the feel may change somewhat. The multisite movement will continue to change the landscape of the megachurch. The megachurch of the future will look different than the megachurch of the past, and the multisite movement will be a part of that. Across the generational spectrum there is still an attraction to large churches and the multiplicity of spiritual growth opportunities and connections to people that megachurches provide will continue to be a draw.

And what about megachurch leadership?

We will probably see 20 percent of the current leaders from this year’s 113 churches retire in the next decade. The impact that will have on the movement is critical. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of churches that had created a succession plan. I would caution that churches need to have the right succession plan in place. I don’t think we can underestimate the impact that has. We looked at churches that hired a new pastor in 2007, and the average decline was almost 3 percent. Transitions and succession planning are going to be the biggest hurdles for the megachurch successfully turning the corner.

Are megachurches typically too dependent on a single, individual leader?

By and large, most of these churches have grown under the leadership of a visionary leader. The tightrope he must walk is to let his ego subside enough to transition right. There can be an “icon dependency.” Churches without a teaching team grew faster. The second fastest was churches where the senior minister spoke 41 times or more per year. While we would like to say that there is not a dependence on the “icon,” there is, and the numbers bear that out.

A piece in the March 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review asked, “What do you do when your growth stalls?” Eighty-seven percent of Fortune 100 companies have experienced a stall at some point. Those companies that didn’t turn it around in a couple of years turned to stagnation and decline and never experienced moderate or high growth rates again.

As we see this first generation of megachurches come to an end in this next couple of years, the transition and succession pieces will be crucial to maintain vitality.

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