The Evangelical Obsession with Bigness
Recently, I was encouraged to listen to a message given by one of America’s “leading pastors” (whatever that means), a man who pastors one of the largest churches in the country, a fine pastor whose heart does beat, it seems, for the need of people to follow Christ. All well and good.
But the guy who introduced him, prior to his speaking to a large national conference, went on for the better part of ten minutes singing the praises of this particular pastor. I kid you not; for nearly ten minutes, he lavished praise and adoration on a guy who, last time I checked, put his britches on one leg at a time. A significant part of the praise had to do with the outward manifestations of the man’s “greatness”, related to the size of the church he pastors, and other size-related stuff.
It’s all about being “big”, having numbers, being able to boast (“in the Lord”, of course) about the bottom line of baptism, bodies, and bucks. Yes, there will be, at many such gatherings, some nodding acknowledgement given to “those courageous and faithful pastors who labor in the little country churches”, yada yada yada.
But we don’t believe it. And we don’t mean it.
Because what we really believe is not demonstrated by the words we say, but by the things we do. And what we do, almost without fail, is to celebrate the superstars, to insist upon parading the “success stories” of Christian ministry (defined as those who pastor the “fastest-growing churches”) before people for all to admire (and, I suppose, emulate). Because we’re addicted to bigness, and far too many evangelicals worship it more than they worship Jesus. I read recently of one conference which took a Twitter poll or something asking prospective participants to vote upon who ought to be invited to speak at the conference. Funny thought occurs to me…wouldn’t it be funny for a bunch of Christians to get together and nominate, I don’t know, Nancy Pelosi or somebody…
So here’s a suggestion for the next big denominational conference of Christians (actually, I’ve got two): Suggestion 1: Take the names of all of the denominationally-ordained men serving in pastorates in the movement, put ‘em in a hat, pray about it, and then draw out a few names and let them be the speakers at the next big denominational shindig. Suggestion 2, if Suggestion 1 is a bit too radical (and it probably is): get every one of your denominational superintendents to nominate, say, three candidates. One would come from a church of over 500, one from a church with 150-499 people, and one from a church with an attendance of less than 150 people. Put all those names into a hat, pray, and then draw out as many speakers as you’d need.
How refreshing would THAT be?
I love Suggestion #1!
We actually left our last church largely because a new pastor came and brought with him the desire to make the church “bigger and better.” Previously, the church’s vision had been to remain small and plant new churches as the Lord allowed. One of the final straws for me was when a greeter I’d never seen welcomed me as if it were our first time there . . . and we’d been a part of the church for ten years.
I never got the appeal of big churches, and I question what kind of fellowship and accountability we can have in a church where people are unlikely to know the names of the people sitting around them in a service.
One reason some churches are big is because they do their ministries better than small churches. A lot of little churches are small because they stink. Others are small because of bad location, strong local resistance to the Gospel (like in Jewish or Muslim communities), etc. I did not say that this is the only reason, or the main reason. But I do say that it is a sin for anyone to try and keep their church small.
Point granted as to big churches, but you overspeak in calling it a sin for anyone to try and keep their church small if their disciplemaking strategy entails the making of more disciples via the cellular reproduction of small churches. I see sin when people say, “I don’t want anyone to come to Christ because I like a small church”; I don’t see sin when people say, “let’s multiply small churches, keeping them small and reproducing because of the benefits of small churches.” I doubt you disagree…
I mean Christians who have no sincere interest in multiplying vital congregations, but want to create a secure, near-completely-closed-off society; or who want to pick-n-choose who is allowed to really join, and others that get run off. I also dislike it when Christians fall prey to “we’re small because we’re spiritual”. That can be a reason, but it always sounds egotistical and self-serving to me.
Agreed on all points!
But you can be sure, right?, that no pastor of a small church is ever going to be asked to be the speaker for their seminary’s “spiritual life week”. Bible colleges and seminaries perpetuate this.
Yeah, it’s all over the place.
I like my mega church. I attend a 15,000 member church and I teach ninth grade Sunday School to 7 girls. My daughter just attended a Bible Study with 11 girls. Big doesn’t define anything but the square footage. All the praying and the loving and the nurturing still happens one-on-one. My pastor responds to my Facebook posts and my emails. I also get a Christmas card every year and have enjoyed a meal with him and his wife at a lovely gathering of friends. And frankly, I am very tired of people using “big” as a excuse. Especially, when they have never even been there.
Sure, Jo Anne (and glad to have you read the blog!); it’s not that there’s anything wrong with bigness, but rather my beef is with our obsession with it as American Christians. What’s wrong is the seeming automatic assumption that “bigger is better”, (not that bigger is worse, of course). My argument is that there are good and faithful pastors in churches large and small—and there are bad and unfaithful pastors in churches large and small—but our automatic assumption that we need to hear and learn from those pastors/churches that are large (and by default, that those who are not have little to teach us) is symptomatic of a very unhealthy state of American Christianity (and when we look at the roster of speakers for conferences such as I referenced, it’s pretty hard to deny this truth). The tacit understanding that so many Americans have is that churches that are large, or growing fast, are automatically those who are being blessed by God, while those that are not are somehow second-rate. That might be a little harsh, but I don’t think it’s far from the mark. And that’s so very, very wrong.
I have no problem with a mega-church, per se; it accomplishes some things that smaller churches cannot, while it battles some problems that smaller churches do not. Mega-church pastor Rick Warren said it quite well: “it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.” I think he’s dead right, and I praise the Lord for mega-churches where the gospel is faithfully proclaimed—and for little storefront ones if/as the gospel is preached there. I thank the Lord for the suburban churches that reach thousands, and for the country churches in counties where the entire population is less than some mega-churches see on a given Sunday. I’d just like to see attention given to those ministries/pastors as well, for they have a lot to teach us, it seems to me. That’s my thing.
I have no problem with “bigness” as long as the gospel is being proclaimed! There are mega churches in this country where the pastor, when asked on national TV if a person needed to accept Christ to be saved, danced around the question so as not to have to answer it at all! People flock to his church because they can “feel good” when they listen to him preach! I agree bigness in these cases is a problem because the congregation is not being taught the whole truth of the gospel. (Don’t know if this is intentional or maybe the pastor doesn’t truely know Christ) In reply to Shannon, I heard a nationally known pastor recount an incident once about his wife walking into the church on Sunday morning and a greeter welcomed her and excitedly asked if this was her first time at the church. That greeter had recently accepted Jesus as Savior and was “excited” about knowing the Lord. That’s not a problem, that is what the “church” is to do. Reach the lost and tell them about Christ. Isn’t it “funny” how time tends to cool people off and their excitement of knowing the Savior diminishes after a while.
While visiting churches in my area I attended several “small” long established denominational churches where upon entering no one greeted me and I was given the “look” when I sat down. As if to say why are you here? Or that is Ms.So and So’s seat.
Wouldn’t it be great if all churches were filled with people like the greeter who had just recieved Christ, and were “excited” about JESUS!
Absolutely, Dennis. It’s not the size of the church; it’s the message of the gospel, the attitude of the people toward each other and outsiders, and the other vital marks of a Biblical church. But that’s the point exactly: it’s not the size of the church. The problem comes in when people assume that “bigger is better”, or “bigger is more faithful”, or “bigger is more God-honoring”; that’s the point of the post. So many have this tacit assumption that bigness equals God’s blessing, and that nonsense is perpetuated by many of our denominational agencies and conferences.
A corollary to this is pastors who want to “climb the ladder of success”. Think it doesn’t happen in church the way it does in the “secular world”? Think again; it happens every bit as much. I say the following not to “toot my horn”, but I left a middle-sized church to pastor a tiny one, hoping to help it regain health (and as proof I’m not tooting my horn, it didn’t take). Was I a worse pastor in the tiny church than I was in the middle-sized one that had a significant growth spurt at one point? Were my sermons worse, my pastoring worse, my strategizing and administration and reaching out worse? Or was I the same guy, and in one situation, God saw fit to grant sustained growth, while in the other, He did not?
So we take that out into the larger setting, and simple honesty must compel us to recognize that there are many, many faithful and effective pastors laboring in small towns, men who preach the Word and live it out, who by sheer force of demographics will never have a mega-church ministry. Were they into “ladder-climbing” (and please, I’m not saying that all the mega-church pastors are; that’s certainly not my point), might these guys do an even better job, reach more people, etc.? Are these guys less faithful, less “deserving” of speaking at the convention or conference, etc.?
I go back to my solution: want to rid Christian faith of our obsession with bigness? Have no conference in which the only speakers are pastors with mega-congregations, and include in every conference the wisdom of some guys who have labored long and hard in a field which has produced less-than-spectacular results, but who continue to plow away year after year. Until those guys are given their due, we’ll continue to be driven by this superstar mentality and worship at the altar of the massive.
I have a third suggestion: Let’s stop publishing numbers of baptisms and missions giving at annual denominational conventions. Who really needs to know this? Are we really giving God the glory by publicizing these kinds of statistics? Or are we inflating the egos of some while demoralizing those who don’t measure up?
I just posted this entry on the blog I edit for Ridge Burns, and it reminded me of this post.
Hope you’ll be blogging again soon. I enjoy the longer, in-depth posts (more than what you can put on Twitter)!