(RNS) — We are living through a truly epic economic boom. Half of the people in the world are now in the middle class and fewer live in absolute poverty than at any point in human history. In our own country, giant corporations have exploded with growth, especially the FANG group (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). These big companies, and all that global economic success, are ultimately about the ability to scale — to expand proportionally while staying focused on their mission.
A lot of religious congregations are under financial stress. It is tempting in such a time to tell these groups they need to scale. Some of them have certainly done so — the largest 10 percent of congregations in America contain half of all those who attend worship. That’s right: Half of worshippers go to the top 10 percent of congregations by attendance. The other half attend the remaining 90 percent.
As you can imagine, the congregations in this top 10 percent are doing fine. But even in this group, only 2 to 3 percent have more than 1,000 adult members. Only the top 7 percent have 400 or more, according to the National Congregations Study.
This means the remaining 90 percent of congregations are pretty small. In fact, the average congregation in the U.S. has 70 regular participants, including adults and children, and an average annual budget of $85,000.
A market-based solution might be for the big, burgeoning congregations — the megachurches that have “scaled” successfully— to simply replace these smaller groups by outcompeting them, much as Walmart pushed out many mom and pop retailers.
To some degree this is already happening. Each year, the slice of the attendance pie taken by the top 10 percent, or even the top 1 percent, of congregations gets a little bigger. Mark Chaves, who directs the NCS, has suggested this is because it takes a certain size to be able to provide the level of performance many people expect in preaching, music, children’s programming and the like.
A different market-based solution might recommend that several of these small groups merge so they can pool their resources, to pay pastors better or to share the upkeep of one building rather than spreading their thin budgets over the maintenance of many separate structures. In denominations that have a centralized hierarchy, those kinds of decisions are routinely imposed from above.
But anyone who understands congregations will recognize at once why market solutions will not really work here: Most congregations are more like families than businesses. Their members have shared histories and, often, shared ethnic ties.
Congregations are frequently embedded in their locales — what my late colleague Nancy Eiesland called their “particular places.” They also share theological beliefs, to be sure, but even those are always blended with other elements of their histories.
This is not for a minute to give credence to the criticism that congregations are “country clubs.” Congregations do provide a lot of services to their members other than the strictly spiritual: They help build character and teach valuable social skills about cooperation in groups. They comfort and support their members during the most stressful moments of life, such as weddings and funerals.
But they also provide multiple services to their wider communities, sometimes in direct ways, like food pantries, sometimes in indirect ones, like letting the Girl Scouts or neighborhood watch meet in their basements.
The issue is not country club insularity, but the very personal, face-to-face nature of most of these communities. These qualities are not add-ons, they are part-and-parcel of what congregations do. But these same qualities cannot often be easily merged or scaled, much less replaced by larger organizations.
Some large congregations work hard to maintain intimate, personal groups among their members even as they successfully scale their other programs. An early megachurch model borrowed from South Korea recommended cell groups — small gatherings of people with common characteristics who could meet outside the larger, more impersonal, worship time.
Megachurches, defined as those with more than 2,000 members, continue to increase their share of the pie. But for many people that model will just never feel comfortable. And even if the top 1 percent of churches could expand their appeal, it does nothing to help the very large number of congregations facing economic stress.
Fact is, most congregations provide education, therapy and support for their members at a personal, local level. They provide important services to their local communities. These are the services that are resistant to scaling — they are vitally important, but like schools or helping agencies, they are in a different economic lane from the kind of companies that supernova into Facebooks or Googles.
Small wonder, then, that the average full-time pastor makes just about as much money as the average schoolteacher or social worker. But these latter workers get a huge chunk of their support from government revenue raised by taxation, and their compensation is often hashed out in a very public, very political and not always pretty process — witness the current teacher strikes. Pay for pastors, for contrast, is always privately funded and rarely discussed in public.
If we remember the ways in which congregations are sometimes like families and sometimes like very local service organizations, we can see that we shouldn't pin too much hope on the economic ideals of greater growth, efficiency or managerial techniques.
We can use cost-benefit analysis when we buy a car — and we should. We almost never use that same analysis when we decide how to treat our children, spouse or parents — and we shouldn’t.
Congregations may look like organizations in which market-based strategies apply, but they are enough like families that these strategies are never going to capture the full range of what they do or how they can best be supported.
(Arthur E. Farnsley II is associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)