Nithin Thompson serves as the Teaching Pastor at Liquid Church, a large multi-site church in New Jersey. He earned his MDiv degree at Alliance Theological Seminary and has been in ministry for over 10 years. He is passionate about preaching, theology, the Church, and culture. If you have a chance to meet him, you will find that Nithin is a loving husband, dedicated father, and an expert in heavy metal music. Follow his personal blog at Sojourn Into Exile.
This interview is about exploring the core differences between a traditional small church and a modern large multi-site church.
Gene (Sun Support):
Nithin, I’m excited to hear your thoughts on different church models. Before we dive in, I’d like to take a walk down history lane and learn about the different kinds of churches you grew up in and served at before Liquid Church.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. My dad was a Methodist pastor all his life and so that is where I began. Those churches that we were a part of were small, family-like environments, community oriented and totally passionate about social justice and social change.
In high school I had a conversion experience and started to get more involved in non-denominational/baptist churches. These churches were also small (around 200-300 people) but intentional about studying the Bible and sharing the gospel. Again, very community focused and outreach oriented.
The first church I interned at was a small church in northern New Jersey. It was a small staff, and the church was around 100-150 people but growing. The church was probably one of the most conservative I’ve been in, but had a wonderful pastor, incredible community and I learned a lot about ministry.
After that, the next church I worked at was a bigger church of around 500+ people. In a bigger church you don’t know everybody, rely on systems to get things done. And there is a lot of changes that have to take place to continue to grow. Looking back, I think that we were still trying to run the church like it was a church of 200 when we needed to start looking at how to scale for maximum growth and impact.
Now, I’m at a church of 4000+. It has been called one of the fastest growing churches in New Jersey. To add another element of complexity, we are also a multi-site church. We have 6 locations throughout the state of New Jersey. In many ways, it’s like we have different sized churches that are all connected.
Gene (Sun Support):
Before we dive into the crazy world of multi-site churches I’d like to hear your thoughts on the core differences (if there are any) between small churches (100-150), medium size churches (~500), and large churches (1000+). By core differences, I mean, do you see philosophical differences in how to run and grow a church and even theological differences (i.e. different focuses)?
In churches from 100-150, the pastor is the shepherd. He knows everybody, and everybody knows him. The pastor does everything! He preaches, runs the volunteers, runs Sunday School, cleans the church, runs the youth group. Everything is pastor centered. The theological focus is mostly on the spiritual formation of the group, and also evangelism. Growing the church.
When you get to 200+ you need to start changing. Hopefully the pastor can make another hire. A volunteer leadership team is put into place that can help the pastor and staff care for the people. The church is still pastor centered, but the pastor is hopefully raising up leaders and spending more time developing them.
Once you get larger (300-500) than that, the structure of the church changes. You’re focusing more on managing teams and people. There are more paid staff that oversee different areas, often still wearing multiple hats. The church, where everyone knew everyone starts to change. Multiple services are added. People don’t know everyone, and this is the stage where systems need to be put in place. Systems will help scale the church from 500 to 5000 and beyond.
When you get to 1000 and beyond the pastor is a rancher, not a shepherd. He oversees a team of shepherds. He doesn’t have as much connection with most attendees (although, great pastors still manage to connect with people), and is focused on caring for staff and vision/mission. He or she has empowered their leaders to care for people. Most decisions are no longer going through the lead pastor or the elders, but the staff are empowered to run with their own ideas. It’s results oriented.
Gene (Sun Support):
The strengths and skill sets required for a pastor in each size of church really differs. Let’s take our focus off of the pastor a bit and on to congregants. In your experience, do you see churches of different sizes being able to minister better (or attract) different types of people? Basically, I’m asking why some people will choose to attend a 100 person church verses the mega-church down the street, and vice versa.
It depends. Based on my experience folks that attend smaller churches like smaller churches. They like the family feel, they like knowing everyone’s names. They like their group. There is a sense of safety and security.
People that like bigger churches may like the variety and quality of the programs that are offered. They like the gathering of the crowd. They may like feeling like they are part of something bigger than themselves. They may have experienced something that the larger church was able to accomplish that smaller churches on their own couldn’t (during Hurricane Sandy, Liquid Church was able to mobilize thousands of volunteers to help with clean up, relief and construction. Smaller churches were able to be part of it, but we had the ability to help with the logistics).
It could also be the season of life. I’ve talked with folks who when they were young and single will attend a larger church because they like the stadium like worship and the prospect of finding a mate. Usually after getting married and then looking to start a family, their needs change. This may not mean to look for a smaller church, but they look for a church that will meet their needs (great youth ministry, other young couples to connect with, opportunities to serve).
Gene (Sun Support):
Let’s finish with a hypothetical scenario. Michael is a young pastor of a medium size church. Since he started serving as their lead pastor five years ago, the church has really grown from a small church to its current size. There’s great sense of excitement among the congregation that God is doing something special. Michael loves his role and plans to be at this church for the long haul. The elder board, including Michael are taking the next season to pray about and map out a long term plan for the church. They are thinking about everything from expanding the current building, to building a new and large facility, to planting new churches, to going multi-site. You’ve been hired as a consultant to help them with this planning. How would you guide them? What would you want the group to explore?
Questions I would ask.
What is your mission/vision/goal?
Is it to evangelize your community? See more unchurched/unsaved people come to Christ? Is evangelism the HIGHEST priority?
Is there more emphasis on growing Christians deeper? More Bible studies, small groups, growth opportunities.
How is your church's health? How do you measure health? Numbers, small groups, community engagement?
What systems do you have in place? Is there a preaching system, giving system, evangelism system, discipleship system? Are these systems scalable?
What is your community like? Is it post-Christian, haunted by Christendom (ex-Catholic or over-churched Protestant)? What other types of churches are out there?
How is Michael’s soul? Does he have the spiritual disciplines, relationships and community in place to pastor and minister for the long haul? What are they?
Perspective I would give.
There is no ideal church. Be faithful to who God has made you to be, the limits he’s given you and the convictions for life and ministry.
The things that grow are scalable. Look to see how you can put in systems, repeatable actions and processes. These can be automated and that way you can focus on what God wants you to do. Systems are anything that will Save You Stress, Time, Energy and Money (S.Y.S.T.E.M.).
Prioritize health over numbers. A healthy church will grow in the long term. Don’t ignore numbers, but pay attention to church health. Health will not be perfect, but it must be a priority.
Pay attention to the seasons in your church. Everything from growth cycles, to what God is doing. Is your church going through a season of growth, a season of pruning, a season of suffering, a season of renewal and revival? That will depend on what the next steps and actions you need to take.
Next Actions to Recommend.
Field Trips. Look around to see which churches are doing the things you want to be doing. If it’s multi-site visit a few multi-site churches. If it’s missional communities, visit churches that are missional. See how churches that you want to emulate are doing it and take some of your leaders to visit them and see what you could implement.
Streamline your systems. Start developing systems that are simple and replicable. This will help with scaling your ministry and expanding it.
Identify areas of spiritual and emotional dysfunction and address them. If your church and leadership is not healthy, begin to get healthy. Otherwise, when you grow you will multiply dysfunction.
Prayer and Vision Cast. You need to cast vision for your leaders. And you need to lead them to pray through these things. We can do nothing without the power of God. Therefore, make sure that you are praying through everything.
Consider getting a coach. If it’s me, I’d say let’s set up an official coaching relationship for at least a year. Coaches can be a great resource throughout the process.
Gene (Sun Support):
I like how a large part of your advice is focused on spiritual health. It’s so easy to look at external factors in church growth (i.e. facilities, first impressions, music, etc.) and forget Proverbs 16:9 and what’s really important. Thanks for sharing your wise thoughts on church culture and growth at different stages of a congregation’s life. I look forward to seeing God continue to develop you as a pastor and how you’ll be a part of building the kingdom of God.