Friday, April 17, 2009

Does Size Matter?

Here at a conference for pastors and church planters, I'm struck by the beauty of the facility the conference is being held in. Is it at a institution of higher learning? Or is it at a convention center? No. It's being held at a local church. The church facility is enormous, with rooms and accommodations for nearly every imaginable need in a mammoth congregation. The "worship center" accommodates over 5,000 people. The double-sized gym is fully equipped for basketball and many other sports. The education wings are supplied with extravagant space, media and gaming resources. It's the picture of evangelical success in church-building, as evidenced by a church building.

However, I cannot help but continue to wonder if something vital is not sacrificed about the church when it becomes so large. Many will argue that "authentic community" is still achievable in such a mega-church simply by maintaining small group ministries, but I remain unconvinced. Do what degree have we convinced ourselves that meaningful worship is possible "with 5,000 of my closest friends" because the numbers intuitively looks like the blessing of God.

Yet what has become our criteria for determining the "blessing" of God? Are we not willing to critique the assumptions we bring to the table when we intuitively decided this is good, but that is better? Is it little wonder that, in America, the "bigger is better" philosophy is so intertwined in both business and evangelical church DNA? Does anyone really question whether these two phenomena are related?

I cannot definitively and authoritatively say that churches as big as the one I'm sitting in are bad. However, when I voice my misgivings about whether their size represents excellence in the church, I'm often met with objections that sound like the assumptions of bigger=better are well entrenched. Little openness exists among some for critiquing whether a church can grow to such size as to hinder, merely by sheer mass, some of her classic and biblical functions.

I want to argue that it is a legitimate reaction to the mega-church movement, to suspect that evangelicalism uncritically imbibed business growth models from the Boomer generation that are not necessarily "movements of the Spirit." Again, I cannot proclaim with too much confidence that God did not use business growth models for building the evangelical church, but I bristle at the often extremely confident assertion of some that he did. Is it not also possible that Boomers unwisely adopted business growth models for defining "success" in the church? I believe it is not only possible, but actually likely.

My instincts though, it must be admitted, have been influenced by admiration for the high-church traditions (specifically the Episcopal church). While I am not Episcopal, I hold their use of the liturgy and view of communal worship in high regard. One of the great principles I have learned from my Episcopal brothers is:

Lex orandi, Lex credendi
("the law of prayer is the law of faith")

In other words, the manner of worship determines the manner of belief. People learn what they believe as much, if not more so, through practice than through preaching. Therefore, it would seem contradictory to teach community (even with small groups throughout the week), but then they worship as a swelling multitude. The manner of worship (in a crowd which cannot promote authentic community, but instead is a highly individualized experience) will lead to a corresponding manner of belief. The size is defeating the stated goal.

Case in point, when the church gathers to worship, does it take communion together? How do you minister communion to 5,000 people? If you do, can 5,000 people come to the Lord's Table together feeling the needed to "examine themselves" (1 Cor 11:28) out of fidelity to the Body? Someone will say, "For this reason we take communion in our small groups." Should you not also then worship in the same small group? Why must you then come together as a throng of 5,000+ to worship? That person may answer, "Because that is when the pastor preaches." Cannot the small group leader serve that role? Why does not the small group simply become a separate church? If it has 30, 40 or 50 people in it, why cannot the leader simply lead in all aspects of worship?

Because of this logical trajectory, many small groups simply do not perform many functions of the church such as communion and baptism. Therefore, the small group is good "fellowship time," but worship is still pursued in a crowd, where intimacy in the Body of Christ is distant myth. Lex orandi, Lex credendi. We're perpetuating to people that being a member of a Christian mob is sufficient for walking with Christ, because that is how we worship - how we "role."

Does size matter? In other contexts perhaps not; but in the Church, I believe we can bloat the church body to unhealthy levels, just like the opposite would be true too (malnourished, emmaciated bodies). But let's at least acknowledge that our cultural business assumptions have hindered us from wisely critiquing our church-growth models. Hopefully new illumination, insight and wisdom supplied by the Spirit will result.

8 comments:

Jude said...

"In other words, the manner of worship determines the manner of belief. People learn what they believe as much, if not more so, through practice than through preaching."

Huh, I thought 1 Timothy 4:16 made it clear that doctrine and the teaching of it preceded belief/action. Isn't the point of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, the second half of 2 Peter, and Jude? That doctrine is to be pure, guarded, and that from it springs the manner of belief?

"Cannot the small group leader serve that role? Why does not the small group simply become a separate church? If it has 30, 40 or 50 people in it, why cannot the leader simply lead in all aspects of worship?"

Because the new church will buy a building it can't afford, won't be able to attract new members and visitors because it appears the church is dying, and the members will all leave after a couple of years because they get discouraged about the lack of growth.

Small churches are also far more prone to become legalistic institutions that micromanage their members lives.

If splitting/separating occurs every time 50-150 new members arrive, sectarianism is far more likely. Elitism within a branch of the Church has a far higher chance to occur.

Small churches are far more likely to accept leaders who aren't qualified because they desperately need a leader.

All the Biblical examples of New Testament churches are of churches that are city wide and served the entire residency - and the population argument won't work. Corinth was far larger than Fate, Rockwall, and Royse City combined.

Small churches sometimes lack the physical resources the keep the lights on. They also don't have the platform that a preacher at a larger church has to reach outside of his immediate community - e.g. John Piper, John MacArthur. Ergo, a small church is shortsheeting its ability to evangelize.

Sorry for the excessive hyperbole, but I think I made my point. My point is not that small churches are inferior to large churches, but that both are prone to abuse. The purpose of the church is not simply to provide an arena for believers to fellowship, but be a forum for teaching and preaching the word and the evangelize the lost. I don't think that because of 5000 people go to a church it's failing its purpose. And I certainly don't think that just because a church has 80 members that the fellowship is "better", whatever that means.

Monk321 said...

I found your comment interesting - "They also don't have the platform that a preacher at a larger church has to reach outside of his immediate community - e.g. John Piper, John MacArthur. Ergo, a small church is shortsheeting its ability to evangelize."

In other words, the smaller church is not able to achieve the same level of "success" that the larger church is. Correct?

I would say that is correct, if indeed the goal of the church is to perpetuate the neo-catholic paradigm of the professional/laity dichotomy. However, I suggest an alternative. This is, to plant more churches and slow the swelling of single evangelical "theme parks." To invoke the New Testament for defending the "Gospel Mall" template developed by evangelicalism is sorely misguided. Do we really imagine that Paul or Peter envisioned the mammoth businesses called "church" today?

Surely they would lament how this pattern has contributed to the rise of evangelical superstars, along with the dis-empowerment of ordinary believers to engage in the work of the Gospel, in addition to eroding intimacy among believers by sheer bulk.

No. I am persuaded that Christianity in the West is desperately in need of more churches, not bigger ones.

Clint said...

I read many of Jude's comments about smaller churches to be focused on earthly things. For example:

"Because the new church will buy a building it can't afford, won't be able to attract new members and visitors because it appears the church is dying, and the members will all leave after a couple of years because they get discouraged about the lack of growth."

When God plants a church, He supplies the needs - including space for worship. That may sound like a really cheesy Sunday School answer, but it is a high view of God and His purposes for His church in this age.

I also do not believe that a church has to be large to attract new members. Mega-churches do not start out large. I live 10 minutes from a church that seats just under 5,000 that started with 20 people meeting in a bait shop. I don't need to mention names, but I have a friend who started out as a volunteer at a new church plant in the Dallas metroplex while he was in seminary. That was in 1987, the church has about 12,000 worshipping every weekend now. They started with 16.

As far as people leaving for a lack of growth, I would only ask what is their purpose for worship? I know it is frustrating in a small church, but I do not see a hindrance for God's power and desire for worship due to the size of the congregation. I believe that mega-churches have just as many frustrated believers as smaller churches. However, in smaller churches there isn't a mob to mask over those problems as well.

Jude said...

@ Aaron: "In other words, the smaller church is not able to achieve the same level of "success" that the larger church is. Correct?"

Incorrect. I am saying that a church that has a congregation of some thousands, radio/T.V. audiences across the world, and a pastor that major publishers are willing to publish probably has a larger audience than a church with 50 members and therefore has a greater opportunity to spread the gospel. Surely even you would agree with that?

But my point, as I said earlier, is not that one system/size is superior to another, but that the purpose the church is to proclaim the gospel. So no, western civilization doesn't need more churches (besides, I thought we only needed one Church [not Catholic] - isn't splitting churches up a breeding pit for sectarianism?), it needs churches that proclaim the gospel and preach the Bible effectively. There is no precedent in scripture where a church gets so big that it splits 'cause people are uncomfortable. However, Acts and the epistles are loaded with examples and instructions for the gospel and sound doctrine to be the core of the church.

"Do we really imagine that Paul or Peter envisioned the mammoth businesses called "church" today?" Erm, yes? While larger churches are prone to their abuses, as you've pointed out, I'm rather certain the churches they established were more similar to the larger churches of today than the smaller ones.

@ Clint: Unfortunately, I can name at least one world example for each "problem" I listed for the small church scene off the top of my head. Some with personal regret.

"As far as people leaving for a lack of growth, I would only ask what is their purpose for worship? I know it is frustrating in a small church, but I do not see a hindrance for God's power and desire for worship due to the size of the congregation."

I couldn't agree with you more - however, the reality of the situation is that people are fallen and will fail again. In the same way, the musical part of the worship service in a large (or small) church can turn into carnal entertainment but shouldn't. People shouldn't shut down/leave a church due to lack of growth if their motive for worship is pure.

My point is not that one size is best, but that all are prone to sin/failures/problems that may be unique to a certain size while at the same time all have their own blessings/advantages/strengths that may be unique to their own size.

@ Aaron (again): I just realized you may not know this, but this is Cameron. Jude's just a username.

Monk321 said...

No need to reveal secret identities here.

My point of view is (using the analogy of a body) that while the downsides of a malnourished, emaciated body make be acknowledged, evangelicalism appear to have reacted to it my making grotesque obesity a virtue.

Church growth gurus have touted the mantra, "anything that is healthy is growing." I beg to differ. Bodies are often made more healthy by trimming a few pounds here and there.

The definition of "success" must be explored for the church better. It entails more than simply having more resources, holding greater market share, having more members, more square footage, more, more, more, more, more.

Christianity can hardly be distinguished from consumerism in the evangelical sect. Walmart works for poor people who need stuff, but it makes a lousy church paradigm. I take this as one of the most powerful themes of the recent film "Wall-e."

Our mega-churches are not houses of worship so much as they are shrines to our appetites. We can indulge any aspect of religious gluttony so long as it's done "in Jesus name." We construct convention centers dedicated to our flighty emotions, televising the collective swoon, and call it "spreading the gospel." We call our "religorgasms" worship, market it for business expansion, then thank God for "enlarging our territory." The mega-church movement has become the American Christian equivalent of an "Extenze" commercial.

I may be theologically baptistic, but I'm near done with evangelicalism. We "pimped out" the glorious Church to satisfy an American triumphalism, and mistakenly blamed it on the Great Commission.

Naomi said...

Passion?! Good blog. It will raise some peoples blood pressure I'm sure. Maybe I'll send it to SBC? Hmmm? JK.

Jude said...

"Our mega-churches are not houses of worship so much as they are shrines to our appetites." Define mega-church. 500 people? 1000? 5000? 20000? When is it too big? While mega-churches may have forsaken their calling (I don't think they all have), the problem is not the volume of people. The problem is lack of focus on the Gospel.

You're throwing the baby out with the bath water. Listen to this sermon if you get the chance. It's a free podcast off of i-tunes by Matt Chandler of the Village. If you can tell me after listening to that sermon that volume of people is the problem with the evangelical church in America (which is your basic answer to why the mega-church failed as far as I can make out),then I know we have irreconciable differences of opinion and understanding of the scriptures.

Monk321 said...

The differences are unfortunate, for I truly believe that the evangelical mega-church movement has gone astray from the community dynamics and character prescribed in the New Testament. As a result, it has become an example of gaining the world while losing its soul. Are their Christians in these churches? Certainly. I would suggest that the likelihood of finding mature believers in a mega-church are comparable to finding them in a Roman cathedral. However, finding spotty maturing here and there does not negate the need for reformation. Indeed, evangelicalism needs a reformation to reclaim its soul, to find a faith older than powerpoint, older than the Boomer generation, older than evangelicalism, older than America.