Less > More: With Church, Sometimes Bigger Isn’t Always Better

I was on a larger church staff for many years. One of my favorite jokes shared among staff members was this one:

“I love the ministry. It’s just the people I can’t stand.” 

Although it was supposed to be ironic, it was probably truer of me once than I ever wanted to admit.

When I went away to college from my little hometown church, my musical skills caused me to be hired by what my parents termed “a big city church.” I was now playing for 2000+ every Sunday and touring around the country with their high-tech youth choir. We had a computerized slide show behind us, a full band with horns, and we would write and arrange our shows.

I was in heaven.

Not only had I never realized a church could be so artistically challenging to me as a musician and budding composer, but I had also never seen such money. The state-of-the-art buildings and equipment I now had access to and the homes I was now invited to were dizzying to this small-town boy.

I decided I never wanted to return to a small-time church, with its limited budget and small thinking. God had given me talents, and I told myself those talents could only be nurtured in a big church environment.

So I decided I would do everything to stay in the big time.

For many years, I did that, often successfully, but sometimes not so much. I found that my talents did, in fact, open doors for me to places with much bigger budgets and larger crowds of people. My ego really liked that, but I rationalized it all spiritually as “good stewardship” that I should be at a big church.

But along the way, there were some negative byproducts of my ambition that I repeatedly tried to ignore. And it finally took God forcing me into a small church environment before I could understand it.

Byproduct #1 – Cotton Candy goals

I finally reached the big payoff when, at age 42, I was now a member of a very elite group. I’d been included in a yearly meeting of the worship leaders from the largest churches in my denomination. This meeting was a “by invitation only” conference of people I considered the best and brightest within my denomination. I would be privy to insider info, see all the innovative things they were doing, and be challenged to do great things myself.

I had just hit the networking bonanza in my chosen profession… er, um, I mean “ministry.”

I discovered that the biggest commodity in the room was not as much creativity but pride. We all went around the room talking about how big our latest Christmas or Easter production was and all the innovative technology we’d used to pull it off. But as each minister shared, I noticed something: most were doing the same things. Their productions were amazingly similar and rarely innovative. They used most of the same music and ideas.

What they’d managed to do was instead of inspiring each other to do more creative things, they’d simply copied each other in a church game of “keeping up with the Jones.”

It’s sad to work hard climbing the ladder of success, only to realize you’ve spent your life climbing toward an empty attic filled with everyone else’s used junk. I started realizing that week that a lot of the goals I’d been reaching for were empty mirages fueled by my ambition and not the Spirit of God. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten about impressing God and settled for impressing my peers. And now I didn’t feel like a “big deal.”

I just felt stupid.

Byproduct #2 – Missed calling

From my teenage years, when I first sensed God drawing me, I felt my calling was to preach the Gospel. However, since I had musical talents, everyone around me reasoned that I should be in music ministry. I would preach, but I’d only use a song instead of a sermon. It seemed like a logical conclusion, especially since my music was immediately opening doors. Preaching would have been something I would have had to struggle to learn from scratch.

However, I continually felt I was missing something. In college, I was bored in the school of music and felt drawn to religion classes. As I served on different church staff, I kept looking at things from the senior pastor’s perspective, not just from my area. I’d get frustrated following my pastors, which I assumed was an insubordinate rebelliousness toward authority.

Finally, I went back to school and finished my M.Div. I quit my church worship leading job and planted a new church from scratch. It was the most exhilarating, terrifying thing I’ve ever done.


In the process, I lost so much. I lost financial security, health benefits, and the nice cushy church office I’d known. I lost the budget to accomplish all my creative ideas and lost any reputation I had in my ministry field.

And I lost some friends as well.

For people in the ministry who knew me, I probably became a cautionary tale against not knowing your proper place. But in embracing smaller church ministry, I’ve rediscovered something quite precious: my calling.

Now, without the big office with a secretary to keep people away from me, I found I was pretty good at pastoring people through their problems. I set up shop in a local coffee house, what I euphemistically called my “Worldwide Ministry Office.” I met hurting people there who connected with me through my blog and articles I wrote in the newspaper.

Oh yeah, and I discovered I’m a pretty good writer. Our local paper publishes virtually anything I send them. With all my attention focused before on music, who knew I had other gifts?

And then preaching became my new passion. All my creativity found its perfect outlet in my weekly sermons. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying I became the next Billy Graham. But I got more joy out of preaching than I ever did music. After years of wandering, it felt like I’d finally come home to what I was supposed to be doing all along.

Sure, the smaller crowds bother me sometimes. Starting over meant starting small, and it’s been nothing but hard work. Before, I stood in front of crowds built by decades of a church’s ministry within a community. Now, I stood in front of whomever God chose to bring in a church that was my responsibility and often my fault.

Plot Twist: I Really Love People!

Most of all, I’ve been reintroduced to one of the greatest joys of ministry: people. Sure, they are often the greatest pain of ministry, as my opening joke pointed out. But I missed building a real relationship with others for years in a large church. My motivation for friendships was often based on what I thought the other person could do in my ministry.

Of course, I’m not saying you can’t minister to people in a large church. I still love large churches and am truly thankful for the great ministry most of them do. However, something about their success becomes an aphrodisiac for too many ministers like me. If we’re not careful, we become just as ambitious and egotistical as the worst secular businessmen we know.

I visited a big church for a Saturday night Easter weekend. I had high expectations and hoped to learn from their expertise. But even though we arrived early, it took 30 minutes to register our kids in the nursery. The worship music was okay, but the sermon was meandering and frustrating. Worst of all, they had a big promotional piece in the bulletin asking for money to fund a new multi-million dollar renovation to their sanctuary.

Here I was, sitting amazed at all the theatrical lights and perfect sound during their service, just to read that it still wasn’t good enough for them! I was rolling in my sound system every Sunday into a rented space, yet all their bells and whistles still weren’t good enough. And now all these first-time guests who only showed up because it was Easter had to sit through a sales pitch asking them to give money.

I sincerely doubted many would be back for a second look.

I walked away thinking how good I had it in my small, little church. The worship was passionate, and the people knew and loved each other. And even though I’d never made a full salary and we didn’t have much, we never talked about money to new people. In retrospect, I felt a little sorry for those ministers at the big church. What a horrible beast to have to feed every weekend.

I’m thankful God saved me from my addiction to success and forced me into a smaller church setting. In the process, I stopped chasing empty dreams and rediscovered my true calling.

By God’s grace, I now love both the ministry and the people.

And I’ve learned that sometimes, less is more.

Photo by John Price on Unsplash

Dave Gipson
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