The term sheep-stealing or sheep-swapping refers to a phenomenon many feel is taking place across the nation, specifically used to describe what happens when congregants leave a small or medium-sized church to become part of a megachurch. This, in turn, has caused small or medium congregations to suffer in their attendance numbers.
Conversely, megachurches keep getting bigger and bigger. Many believe the two trends are related or that one is causing the other. However, it likely isn’t as cut and dry as it seems.
Generations ago, when megachurches started to explode, the size difference between these “mega” congregations and medium or “regular” churches was minimal. Megachurches would have enjoyed perhaps a few hundred more congregants when compared with smaller congregations. Today, the difference numbers in the thousands.
The size difference between small and medium congregations and megachurches used to mean a slightly larger choir, or perhaps a few more choices for Sunday School classes. Today, megachurches can offer substantially more than their smaller counterparts. The end result is an almost gravitational pull towards the “planet” of the megachurch down the road.
Although churches aren’t supposed to be in competition, as they are on the same side, it’s only human nature for it to seem like that’s the case. Small churches frequently find out their potential members, as well as past congregants, drive right past their doors on a Sunday morning only to worship at the mega-church down the road. This feels like a personal slight, though it likely isn’t.
According to Pastor Karl Vaters, who has pastored a church for over 25 years that is within close proximity of original megachurch Saddleback Church, megachurches aren’t really out to get small congregations. In fact, he believes small churches can still thrive. In fact, he says the key to their success is to avoid competition altogether. He says when small congregations try to do this by offering a massive array of programs that their congregation size can’t sustain, it will only prove ineffective and frustrating.
Instead, small churches need to recognize a few things. First of all, according to Vaters, small churches need to realize they can survive and even thrive even in the shadow of mighty megachurches. Secondly, they have to stop blaming the nearby mega churches for their lost members.
Thriving as a small congregation takes a real inward look at how things are going. If people are leaving in droves, the question why needs to be posed and honestly answered instead of just assuming it’s because there is a megachurch nearby. There also needs to be a renewed focused placed on healthy alternatives to what the mega-churches are offering for those who appreciate the smaller setting and more personal environment of a small church. After these elements are considered, congregations must embrace the truth: there is a need for churches of every size in America’s Christian community.
In actuality, there are more unchurched people in the communities around churches than even all the churches combined could hold. In other words, there is no need to compete or focus on “winning” congregants back. The real focus shouldn’t be on whether members are moving from small congregations to big ones or vice versa. Instead, it should be focused on how to get unchurched people interested in coming to a place of worship.
“We’ll never reach the world of our neighborhood for Jesus if we’re keeping track of which church is winning at Christian Musical Chairs,” Vaters said. “We need to pay attention to how well–or how poorly–the congregation God has placed us in is reaching the lost, the hurting, the lonely, the outcast and the sinner.”
He goes on to explain that megachurches will be more effective at ministering to some people. Perhaps, they need the resources such a church can provide. In other instances, the strengths of a small church will win out. For example, if a family is in need of personal attention, they want to be known and for someone to care about them as individuals, a small congregation is likely best. Therefore, instead of looking a the megachurch as the enemy of the small church, it is better to look at them both as serving a vital role in their communities.
~ 1776 Christian