Church Size: Six Theses
A friend once left a note on my desk, in jest, saying: “Get over your big church issues.” While my critics might have phrased it differently, my writing on the topic of church size and growth has certainly been found wanting by many. And their criticisms could be boiled down to a chagrin laden and reductionistic, ‘just get over it.’ But I won’t.
Only, this isn’t another post querying what I perceive to be an unbiblical fixation on church growth and size—or what Mike Cosper refers to as the contemporary ABCs of ministry: attendance, buildings, and cashflow. You can read various iterations of that across Rekindle; or, even better, from Karl Vaters.
Instead, in this post I will list some theses concerning church size. It is my hope that these—together with the articles I link throughout—will go some way towards explaining why I won’t get over my big church issues; why I don’t believe church size is arbitrary or neutral; and why I’m convinced incessant discussions about church growth are unhealthy.
And since they’re theses, my hope for this article is that it will provide a platform for further conversations. In the West, the modern church is plagued by pragmatism. We desperately need to reclaim and reenter robust theological dialogue—not only about church size. If my theses contribute towards that in even the slightest way, I will consider them a success.
So, in no particular order, here are six theses—or propositions—about church size and the church growth movement.
1. Large churches provide many opportunities for service, but they don’t create as many spaces for the gifts.
I’ve written about this recently, developing an older post contrasting smaller churches that resemble racing yachts with larger ones that more resemble cruise liners. The bigger a church gets the more its leaders become preoccupied with promoting service that improves their adherents’ and attendees’ experience. But this is largely superficial and unspiritual.
As Timothy Keller recently put it, “Smaller congregations must make use of a greater percentage of lay persons’ gifts and talents, there is less dependence on staff and a smaller number of onlookers who only attend to observe without participating.”
2. Larger churches leave too much room for nominal adherents.
Linked with the above thesis, the larger a church becomes the more room it creates for passengers. It’s much easier to remain on the fringe of the believing community when there are 1000 people than when there are 100. Again, the cruise liner versus yacht analogy works here.
Undoubtedly, all churches have a fringe. Furthermore, if we aren’t creating space for unbelievers and nominal Christians then one might ask where evangelism is taking place. However, to knowingly leave a comfortable expanses for uncommitted ‘members’ in a church is irresponsible shepherding.
3. The desire for large churches ignores the statistical evidence that the majority of people crave smaller, tighter communities.
For some evidence concerning this proposition, read this post from Karl Vaters. Unfortunately instead of seeing large churches for the anomalies of God’s grace that they are, we typically attribute the growth of God’s church to corporate strategies, ministry models, and church growth gurus—more on the latter under my fifth thesis (below).
Not every believer desires smaller communities, of course. But assuming Vaters’ observations are correct, when church leaderships fixate on church growth they do so without considering the people God has already given them to oversee and pastor. Aiming at a bigger church is impersonal, abstract, and—very possibly—driven by a leader’s search for recognition. It imagines an ideal and faceless future, at the expense of the sheep already in the fold.
4. Church growth movements are premised on the erroneous notion of cloning success; and, worse still, on the heretical belief that people grow the church.
With a delightful and disarming turn of phrase, I was once privileged to hear Gerald Bray field a question about the church growth movement. In answering, he asked us to imagine what conversations Christian leaders might have had following Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Bray’s purpose in mentioning that event was that it resulted in the conversion of 3000 plus people. It’s a visceral reminder that God grows churches, not men or methods.
As far as we can tell from Luke’s notes, Peter was a decent enough preacher. But he hadn’t implemented the church growth coaching of Rick Warren, Thom Rainer, or Andrew Heard. Peter hadn’t attended strategy seminars. Nor was he familiar with corporate leadership principles or model-driven ministry. The gospel success at Pentecost wasn’t the result of Peter imitating what someone with a bigger church had done. Men and women build companies. God builds his church.
5. Measuring success in Christian ministry by church size has given rise to ‘growth gurus’ and ‘leadership experts.’
If you’re hosting a conference on Christian leadership, who do you invite as the key note speaker? The faithful pastor of three decades in the small, local church down your street? No. That guy is probably an unambitious loser if his church hasn’t grown in all that time. You invite the successful pastor who’s overseen signifiant numerical growth. He can teach us something; he’s worth listening to. So we’ve valorised Christian leaders on the basis of their numbers on social media and Sundays rather than their character.
My primary contention when it comes to growth gurus and leadership experts is the accompanying disregard for what God says qualifies Christian leaders—and what he commends. You can be faithful and full of character, yet pastor a small flock. Alternatively, you can shepherd a megachurch without possessing character or even faith (Matthew 7:21-23). The point is this: the pastors who most embody the virtues laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 aren’t necessarily the ones leading the biggest churches.
6. Metrics or church numbers convey essentially nothing about the health of a local church.
With some confidence I reckon most readers would instinctively say that a church of 250 is healthier than another of 40; or that a multi-service church with 1800 in attendance on Sunday is doing much better than a medium-sized church of 200. To be honest, I even struggle to resist the hard data of metrics, as I write this. But it’s a wrong instinct.
As I pointed out in one of my earliest articles on the topic of metrics, “In Christ’s seven letters to the churches in Revelation it is the unimpressive and beleaguered churches that are commended (Smyrna and Philadelphia), while the influential and powerful churches are rebuked (Sardis and Laodicea).” Numbers tell very little, if any of the whole story. And they’re awfully superficial. In the months prior to its almost apocalyptic collapse, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill was seating somewhere between 15 000 and 20 000 people each Sunday.
In the article linked above, I argued that at best metrics indicate trends. However, I’d be quick to add that a steady Sunday attendance isn’t a negative trend. Nor is exponential growth a positive one. We must resist the idolatrous idea that bigger ministries are better. It simply isn’t true.
Like Galadriel, I feel as though I have fought the long defeat in this conversation, starting almost a decade ago. And without making any promises, I imagine this might be my last entry in it. While I won’t get over my big church issues, perhaps there isn’t much more to be said. However, don’t let that discourage you. Above are just six theses about church size. They’re all yours. Do with them what you will.