I’ve been wrestling with something for a number of years now, and particularly the last few days. As I’ve studied and grown in my faith, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the concept of large churches, for a number of reasons. I know that there are a lot of people who will disagree with me on this, but please hear me out.
I think that the largest problem related to big churches is the huge opportunity for people to fall through the cracks. I’m not only talking about new people that arrive and leave without ever really being noticed, but also people who had been attending regularly and then stop attending for some reason. I think that this is especially problematic for churches with multiple services, where the assumption is generally that if you haven’t seen someone for a while, they’re just going to a different service. I’ve experienced both in my life numerous times, and it’s very difficult for me as a follower of Christ. I can’t imagine what kind of impact something like this would have on someone who wanted to know more about Christ and the supposed Christian community, only to be ignored and dismissed. Christians are called to be a close community that cares deeply for each other, and not just on a surface level. We are called to speak into each other’s lives, know what’s going on, and help each other out. And, not to just have surface-level relationships, but to have deep, thriving, knowing relationships of each other. I’m not saying that we’re supposed to pry into each other’s business, but rather we’re supposed to be so close that we can tell when someone is struggling and putting on a facade. Even when it’s a really good facade. And not just to know about it, but to do whatever is in our power to help. Not just individually, but as a community. And through that tremendous relationship with each other, not only do we get to have a tangible experience of God’s community within Himself, but we get to show His tremendous love and compassion to others outside of that community. By doing so, not only are we able to speak God’s love into their life, but we are able to speak to their deep need for Him. It is through our community that we reach others. Not through empty words, but through actions and relationships [James 2:14-26].
When we have this level of community, the absence of a member of that community is tangible. However, when churches get too large, it’s easy to let people fall through the cracks. As an example, the last church I attended, I was a member for over 5 years. When I left, no one followed up with me. No one checked up on me to see how I was doing, called or texted to make sure everything was ok, or wrote to say that they missed me. After a few months, I got a form letter saying that they had noticed that I hadn’t been signing into the attendance pad for a while – from someone that I was friends on Facebook with, who I’d regularly talked to and worked with at church nonetheless. I know that some people wouldn’t think that this is such a big deal, but when you consider how involved I was in many different aspects of the church, how many people I thought I was friends with, and how much time I spent there, it was really troubling. Some of the people there I’d thought I had deep friendships with, and two were even groomsmen in my wedding. And yet, I somehow vanished from their lives without being noticed, or followed up with. Some may think that I’m bitter about this, but in reality, I’m not. I’m deeply concerned. Because if I was so involved with the church and my absence wasn’t noticed, what about the hundreds of other people who just go sporadically? That is not community. And I know that this isn’t a sporadic problem. It’s pervasive, systematic. This is not how Christian community is supposed to look.
In addition to this problem of anonymety, larger churches are very prone to the development of cliques. This isn’t just a problem with churches, but a natural outcome of our social nature – we naturally gravitate to those that we know. But the problem with this is that it serves as an effective barrier at keeping other people out, even if it’s not intentional. However, when the group stays smaller, while there will be a natural cohesion between the members of the group, and it’s much easier for someone new to blend in with the group.
Furthermore, when the group stays smaller, we have the added benefit of learning from each other’s experiences, both good and bad. I truly believe that if we hide our struggles from one another, we are robbing others of something we all desperately need – the knowledge that we aren’t the only one who has struggled with it. A lot of things that we experience in our life aren’t meant for the rest of the world to observe and know about. However, when we have a smaller group of believers that share life together, we can be comfortable sharing the icky parts of life, knowing not only that it will be held in confidence, but also allows us to encourage one another that they’re not the only one who has gone through what they’re struggling with.
Another problem with churches growing too large is that it allows people to stagnate in their faith. When we have close relationship with each other, we not only learn more from each other, but it forces us to grow in our faith. When we constantly have someone else feeding us, we don’t need to learn and grow and think for ourselves. We just take whatever we are given, just like infants. But when we have to step up, it forces us to grow and learn. We inspire each other to keep pushing forward, just like runners in a race pace off of each other. [Proverbs 27:17] One of the coolest things about scripture is the fact that it’s not just a book. Many refer to it as the “living Word of God” – more than just words on a page, but that the Holy Spirit will give us insights and understanding into the meaning behind scripture and its implications into our lives. The cool thing about this is that when different people read a passage of scripture, the Holy Spirit may speak something entirely different to each person about the meaning and implications of that passage for their lives – all of which are true and based on that piece of scripture. And sharing this with each other can be profound. The problem is that when we allow someone to just feed us everything, we’re robbing God of the ability to show us really cool and amazing things through His Word. We also cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to deepen our faith and understanding of scripture. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the church is so weak and fragmented – people don’t actually know why they believe what they believe. All they know is that someone told them something, so they stick with it. They don’t digest it, dig in, understand the history or cultural meanings behind the piece of scripture, or even try to even check it for validity. And as a result, when someone challenges them or asks questions (and they will,) one of two things happens – they either become hostile, or they give up. They can’t hold a reasonable conversation about legitimate questions or doubts someone may have.
The danger with having such a limited understanding with scripture and our faith is that when we have only one person telling us what to believe, if we just accept whatever they tell us, it allows us to be led in completely wrong directions. In scripture, the apostles went so far as to say that even if one of them were to say something contrary about who Christ is, that they are to be disregarded. Scripture is the be-all and end-all authority in the church, because it is the inspired Word of God. We need to be so comfortable with scripture, that if someone were to tell us something contrary to the truth, even quoting scripture itself, that our spirit is able to be nudged by the Holy Spirit to realize that that doesn’t sound correct, and for us to further investigate what we were told. This is how the early church stayed accountable with the accuracy of scripture – rather than having one person dictate what they were to believe, they all held each other accountable, and challenged each other when someone tried to veer off in the wrong direction.
Large groups of any kind also allow people to slack off. This was true in school, and work, and it’s true in faith as well. When the group gets larger, some people naturally lead and take on responsibility, and some people naturally shrink back and take it easy. I don’t know why we would think that faith would be any different. When a congregation gets larger, it allows an increasing number of people to stand by the sidelines and merely be consumers, while an increasingly few people step up and work. The problem with this is that it weakens the church. The Church is compared to a body in scripture, with different parts (head, eyes, legs, noses, toes, etc.) Taking this comparison literally, if I don’t use one of my legs, it will become weaker and weaker, until it is basically useless – a drain on the rest of my body, merely consuming energy and resources but not actually doing anything useful. While that will force my other leg to work harder and get stronger, the weakness in my unused leg will ultimately prevent me from being as effective as if both of my legs were strong. And worse, it can allow disease to take hold much more easily than if my body was strong. Likewise, in the body of Christ, if one of us atrophies from sitting by the sidelines, we become a dead weight, dragging the rest of the body down. Instead, we all need to work together, strengthening each other and helping each other out along the way. When a community of believers stays smaller, not only does it encourage everyone to contribute, it also necessitates it.
It seems like one of the biggest stereotypes of Christian churches today is the animosity of members against each other. Churches seem to be a breeding ground for all types of cancerous problems like gossip and pride. And while it’s been this way ever since the early days of Christianity, the concept of a large church only serves to exacerbate this problem. When the group is small, if someone starts to cause a problem, there are guidelines in scripture with how to deal with the problems in a way that not only helps to nip the issue in the bud, but in a way that helps people to live in harmony and grow in their faith through the problems. However, when the group gets a lot larger, this isn’t realistically able to be done, and allows the problem to spiral out of control. And like any cancer, when left unchecked, it continually weakens the body until it is destroyed. This is why the apostles were so deliberate about taking care of the problems that arose quickly and in as sensitive of a way as possible. [Matthew 18:15-17]
As churches grow larger, they are increasingly limited in their outreach into their own communities. As I’ve commented above, for the most part, people are brought to know the Love of God through Christ through the community of Christ-followers who are living out their faith in their lives and relationships. The best way to show others this is for them to experience it themselves. But when people tend to live out their faith inside a building blocks or miles away, they drammaticaly cut down on the reach that they have within their own neighborhoods. It also cuts down on the level at which we can be involved in each other’s lives. Because, if I only see someone a couple of times a week, it’s much easier to have a surface-level relationship with them and know them only in passing. But if I run into them every day as I go about my normal routine, I’m much more likely to maintain a relationship with them at a level that allows me to actually be involved in their life in ways that truly matter – and for others to notice the way that we interact with each other.
It seems to me that the underlying problem in today’s world is that when churches grow, buildings grow and services multiply. But when we look at scripture, when the Church grows, it splits. And, it ultimately grows as a result of the splits. Now, normally when you hear of a church split, it’s the result of one of two things – either the church is heading in a direction contrary to part of its membership (whether good or bad,) or people are fighting about something stupid. Granted, there may be other reasons, but in today’s world, those are the general cause between most splits. When we look at the early church though, they didn’t meet in buildings. They met in each other’s homes. And when the group simply became too large, it split. By so doing, a lot of things happened. It kept the groups smaller so that people could still really know each other (point 1.) It forced people to grow in their faith and take on roles that previously they may not have been comfortable doing (point 2.) People had to step up to contribute to the work of the group (point 3.) It kept people accountable to each other, and allowed problems to be nipped in the bud (point 4.) By splitting the groups and staying smaller, the depth of relationship between the members of the group was able to be maintained (point 5,) and their outreach into their communities was expanded because their interaction with each other was much more visible (point 6.) And, even though the groups split when they became too large, they didn’t stop interacting with each other, or start competing with each other. Instead, they pooled their resources to maximize their outreach, and when one group struggled or suffered, others would come to their aid. In this way, not only were the individual groups strengthened and cared for, but the whole Church in general looked out for each other.
As an added bonus to this, it also enables the most efficient use of the resources that are available. Billions of dollars have been spent on church buildings – on sound systems, air conditioners, pews, stained glass windows, and coffee bars. And yet, scripture doesn’t tell us to build magnificent, comfortable buildings with our resources. Rather, we are told to be good stewards with the resources we’re blessed with, to help others in need. How many hungry people could be fed with a billion dollars? How many people without sufficient clothing or shelter could be protected from the elements? How many people struggling with losing their jobs could be cared for? And yet, rather than living out our faith in a community that uses its resources to pour into the lives of others around our community and around the world, large churches squander valuable resources on mortgages, comfort, and entertainment. They strive to be a destination enjoyed by a multitude of people who arrive to be comfortably entertained for an hour or two a week, and then go about their lives as if nothing happened. That’s just not how it’s supposed to be.
The bottom line is that the focus of being a Christ follower is not checking off a set of rules, about going to a church, or even about doing good things. It’s about being in a relationship with Him – about not only knowing some things about Him, but about us sharing our life with Him and allowing Him to know us. This naturally extends to and is lived out through our relationship with other Christ-followers. And by living in this way, it causes others to be curious about how we’re acting, and why. And it allows to speak His love into their lives through the best, most effective way possible – by us flawed, broken human beings caring enough about other flawed, broken human beings to be in a deep, caring, vulnerable, self-sacrificing relationship with them. To show others that they are valued, noticed, and loved. And the only way we can do that is by actually being involved in their lives.