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.