Small Church - Big Church

This last summer I’ve been busy with a full load at school, getting my daughter ready for her first year of college, trying to enjoy something about our summer, and doing some great ministry at my church.

But for this blog-isode, I wanted to concentrate on some things that I’ve observed and thought about from one of my courses this summer. The course is entitled, “Shepherding the Small Church.” Even the title is a bit controversial because for the majority of the people reading this blog, they likely go to a church that is classified as medium to large, even “mega-.” One might even be tempted to ask: why should anyone learn to pastor a small church?

First, it is still true that the majority of churches in the U.S. are “small” comprising a membership of 75 or less. Second, in spite of some rather noteworthy movements towards large churches, there is a powerful ‘small church’ movement that uses terms like, “house church,” “cell church,” “missional community,” and so forth. Third, for people like me who have spent most of their spiritual lives in larger suburban churches, it is important for me to recognize and appreciate the very different sub-culture that small and rural churches represent.

Let’s start with that idea – small church and large church are very different cultures. One of the biggest mistakes that an inexperienced minister can make is attempting to exercise large-church suburban values in a small-church rural context. This is understandable as most seminary graduates are from larger churches in suburbia. When they take their culture with them, they experience culture shock and profoundly ineffective ministry. So this course is helpful to see the differences and to do effective ministry within (for me) a new culture.

What I hear from some, however, is not just “small church is different from big church,” but “small church is better than big church.” I think this is a profound error. This error states, like most errors claim, that small church values are “biblical” and so the trump card is thrown down right away. Second, and confusing, the accusation will be made that large churches use “man-centered,” “innovative” (meaning not biblical), and use otherwise non-biblical techniques and processes. This makes small churches of God and large churches heretical. Personally, this really bugs me. My experience has been with larger churches so these comments are a back-handed attempt to invalidate my spiritual environment. I think we can admire Hybels, Warren, Stanley, Piper, or Driscoll – all leaders of large churches – and show appropriate distain for T.D. Jakes, or even Joel Osteen who pastors the largest church in this country. Why? Because the first group honors God, Jesus, and the Bible. The last group – in my view – does not. Folks, honest to God – let’s not bash bigger churches merely because they are big!

On the contrary, the biblical evidence – what’s in the actual text - is that the church in the first century was in an urban environment. Second of all, the biblical church was large – these were not ‘house churches,’ these were city-wide, large membership churches that would meet in houses for logistical purposes. Third, there was innovative and situationally responsive ministry happening – the very ‘office’ of Deacon was invented out of thin air pretty much on-the-fly in response to a very specific ministry challenge. The biblical evidence is that New Testament, first-century, ‘biblical’ churches were large, urban, and innovative!

Now, in reality, I am NOT advocating that large churches are godly and biblical while small churches are not. I’m merely rebutting the "only small is godly" argument. My position is that small, medium, or large – the church has many ways of existing. Much of that, by the way, is a function of the culture that the church finds itself in. In large urban or suburban contexts, its rather natural to see churches be large or medium sized. In small town or rural environments, it is also predictable to see medium to smaller churches.

By the way, the society’s culture has a big role to play in the size of church. Let’s continue our conversation by noting that the Bible isn’t very specific at all about how church is done. There are a few parameters and the rest is, well, left to our discretion. In Russia, they do church leadership very differently than we do – but that’s a reflection of Russian culture and when well-done can fit within the parameters that the Bible gives us. In Zaire, they do church way differently than we do, but it’s a reflection of their culture and can fit within biblical parameters.

Here’s the thing! Why are we so quick to condemn our churches? Let us be good observers of our own society! We are Americans; Americans are big-corporation people; much of what we all should recognize as ‘best’ in doing church are done in churches that are well-aligned with the parent culture: in the American case, a bit corporate and large.

Additionally, look at the age and background of the people who have formed these large churches. They are mostly in the 50’s and 60’s, children of Modernity and corporate structures. They grew up hearing that ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for America.’ Now look at the new crop of seminarians – they are absolutely entranced with church planting and missional communities. Why? Are these more biblical? Not particularly. I suggest that the current emphasis on church planting has more to do with the decline of American corporations and the rise of American entrepreneurship in the 1980’s and ‘90’s than any newly-discovered biblical ecclesiology. That happened to coincide with Schmacher's "Small Is Beautiful" movement (1973). Several of you have just turned me off, but from where I sit with a perspective granted by several decades, that’s what I see.

A small biblical church is a good thing. So is a large biblical church, as well as a medium-sized biblical church. Let’s stop evaluating based on externals (walking by sight) and look to the core matters.


Are Karlsen said...

I don´t think the case is small church vs. big church. The case is about biblical values vs. values of this world.

One of this worldly values are hiararchical power and structures, which are bad suited to communicate the gospel of our God who gave himself on a cross as our servant.

The church has a huge communicative problem, because her body language tell another story than her mouth.

Doug said...

I'm not sure people who say small church is "better" necessarily do so for the reasons you suggest. While I believe that community, connectedness and (insert third "c" here) are easier at small church they can be done at big church, but only if you break it down into smaller "churches" that are part of the bigger church. I am more and more convinced that smaller groupings of people meeting in facilities that already exist (houses, coffee shops, work places) have an advantage that larger churches with larger infrastructure demands cannot ever have.

I enjoyed your post, but would love to hear more on your assertion that the first century church was a large church, that just met in homes for logistical reasons. Yes, it was large, but I think you are mixing the Church at large (big and growing) with local congregations (small and splitting when growth got them too big) and while they may (as persecution allowed) get together for common purposes this did not make them one big local church with "home groups" but small church's with unity based city wide gatherings.