Last year, one of the most popular articles at Q Ideas was on why small churches are the next big thing, in which Karl Vaters argues that the small church is the next big thing because it appeals to millennials who seek intimacy over the glitz of the megachurch.
That analysis (and its buzzword) are sound, but it simplifies our situation. American Christianity has a much more complicated, vibrant profile.
A 2007 study found that the largest 10% of churches contain half of our churchgoers. The average church sees 75 people on Sunday, but the average churchgoer shows up on Sunday to a church with 400 attendees.
These statistics create two distinct stories about American Christianity. There is the experience of the average congregation—a small and intimate community, where everyone knows your name. But there is also the average churchgoer, who is formed in a large and resourced community. Small communities may appeal to millennials, but the data suggests larger churches do too.
Peter reminds us that we are holy stones built into a temple of the Spirit and our cornerstone is Christ (1 Peter 2:5). God will work wherever His people are willing—and often despite our unwillingness. So I think a big vs. small argument is a largely fruitless dialectic, because the church isn’t formed by human hands. I’ve seen megachurch be used as code for an inauthentic, shallow faith and small church as code for a lame, old one. We judge a church based on its metrics, rather than its witness.
What if we found more imaginative, God-driven ways to talk about ourselves and our churches?
I want to suggest two ways large churches can help us do that.
Witnessing to God’s Beauty
When the church commissions artists, we invite their prophetic voice into our midst. The challenge of the Christian artist, according to Flannery O’Connor, is to make the distortions of modern life appear for what they are to an audience used to seeing them as natural. This perspective is vital.
Recently, an Episcopal church in an affluent North Carolina community commissioned a statue of a homeless Jesus sleeping on a bench for display on church property. Community members called the police to report a vagrant. Once they realized it was a piece of art, many deemed the statue unworthy of the beautiful, upscale neighborhood. The statue starts an important conversation for that community about Jesus’ word in Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Of course, it takes money and resources to commission art, whether it be a public statue or intended for Sunday morning worship. We are quick to deride large churches as impersonal behemoths that cater to stadium-style worship and shallow discipleship. But the megachurch gave us Hillsong Music, whose music has defined a generation of evangelical worship. The megachurch employs and produces the work of writers and teachers like John Ortberg, Rick Warren, John MacArthur, and Rob Bell. I worked for a church that averaged 2,000 people on a Sunday and we were fortunate to have the lead singer of the popular Christian band The Afters, Joshua Havens, as our artist-in-residence. His job with us provided a steady income for him as he pursued music in the wider Christian community.
The church loses something when we fail to listen to the prophetic voices of our artists—but those artists need to eat. They need to get paid for their work in the same way we pay our pastors to preach. And resource-sized churches are able to do that.
The small church can authentically witness to God’s beauty on its own smaller budget, but often we look to our large congregations to lead the way. They remind us that every church is called to witness to God’s beauty.
Investing in Leaders
Churches often face an enormous amount of staff turnover that often impedes ministry. Most of our church leaders work part-time because churches cannot afford to employ them full-time. In the church planting initiative I worked for, we advised potential planters to have a plan for bi-vocational ministry, because the church was likely not going to be able to fund their ministry for a very long time. The large church, by contrast, can try to counter turnover by investing in leadership development.
Large churches can employ people to develop dynamic curriculums to be used at their churches and beyond. They have the facilities to host conferences at which leaders can exchange ideas. They are more likely to fund internships for seminary students. And they are able to execute ambitious ideas, like Mars Hill’s partnership with World Relief Rwanda to provide clean water to 73,000 people in three years, because their leaders are able to commit to full-time ministry. For all the attendant bureaucracy of a large church, there is the possibility for bold leadership as well.
Many small churches are helmed by creative leaders who are faithfully serving on limited resources.Their work should be lauded. But let’s not forget that the large church can remind us to raise our standards for leadership development and to seek best practices. They model what is possible when we invest in God’s work by investing in our leaders.
Buzzwords are useful shorthand, but we need to be careful about how we define God’s church. We are not called to a specific size, but to a specific context. This call might be to the intimate, deep relationships common to smaller congregations, or it might be to the broader ministry of a large congregation. Community doesn’t look just one way—and we’d be better off embracing the different ways God shapes his people, rather than defining one type of community as God’s preferred picture of what the church looks like.
Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.