Church: Is bigger better or is smaller more sacred?

Posted on October 8, 2012 by

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In the course of my life I have attended, been part of, and served at churches of different sizes, from a couple internships at 1,200+ member churches to a few weeks with a house church. I have seen some huge productions done fairly well, and I have seen groups of believers meet on the fly and spend hours praising God. I have been part of a staff of 15+ and been at a few churches that employ no staff at all. Right now I am serving at a church that lands just above the national median for attendance at around 130, the median is 70-80, the national average is around 185.

One discussion that keeps coming up, both within the church and outside it, is what size is right, and more specifically what budget is right. When you hear about people arguing about the size of churches they may bring up ability to “assimilate” people, discipleship, effect care, community engagement, missions, etc. But it often comes down to how much money is being spent on ministries vs. how much is going to help the poor and to fund missionaries.

Since my greatest area of experience is in the Worship ministries I’ll focus on that instead of spreading myself too thin.

One area of criticism of larger churches, by the public and smaller churches, is the expense of the equipment and facilities. Think large projectors and screens, large lighting rigs, quality sound systems and equipment. The general quip is “how many orphans could you feed with what that ______ cost.”  (insert – screen, speakers, microphone, sound board, computer, etc.)

On the other hand, when I have been around those who work and serve and worship at these big churches the general consensus is that the smaller churches haven’t figured out the right formula to reach/attract/grow their congregations to the point where they have the budgets to do the fancier things. Normally most people are sensitive enough to not say that outright but it comes out in some conference sessions for small churches that are solely about growth methods, in the way that some large church staff carry themselves around leaders from smaller churches, kind of a big brother attitude.

As I’ve said, I’ve been at both large and small churches. And I’ve been guilty of talking down to leaders from smaller churches, and thinking how wasteful and irresponsible large church leaders are. Recently, however, I’ve been beginning to see that all of these models fit into the biblical picture of the church.

The case for small churches is pretty easy to make when you look at the New Testament. You see believers meeting in houses and being locally focused. But it’s not much further until you see Paul writing to the church in the city of (name your epistle). And we know that the church in most cities met in the synagogue to pray and worship God together. And in those larger gathering we see the beginnings of the larger church.

You can also look into the Old Testament and see the temple as another picture of large numbers of believers coming together in worship. But there is still the fact that those meetings happened a few times a year, while people had local places of worship for the rest of the year.

We all have a role to fill whether it’s the local intimate gathering or the large gathering of believers. But governing all of this is the overarching picture of the people of God; we are individuals that need local community to serve one another and to be accountable in striving for godliness. But we are also part of a global community of believers that span generations and geological boundaries.

As far as what the larger churches spend on their worship facilities, the test is in the motivation. In the Temple they used the best materials to gild the furnishings, make the priests garments and they gave those things freely because it was in service of the one true God. And He is worthy of the best, of all that we can give. So in our worship of God it is worth it to make sure that our offering of praise to him is done to the highest quality. So if the motivation for the screens and the lights is that they speak of the greatness and the beauty of God and are an offering of the best that we have, then they truly add volumes to our praise. But if they are done because they are cool, or the next fad, or make us feel sweet, then we have put created things above the creator and made our worship a battle between our affections between the one true God and our idols.

But we must remember that the temple and these large city wide gatherings were not the daily norm. People met in houses, they met in local synagogues. And in these places not only could they not afford the finest gold basins or lamp stands, they weren’t allowed to have them. At first it was to hold that place of sacrifice and worship as holy and set apart. Later it was a testament to the simplicity of the life and example of Christ. Today there is still a sense of the simplicity of the Christian life being the impetus for the frugality of the church. But when it turns to a moral superiority or an excuse to not personally give to the work of God we have found our idols in pride and comfort.

Throughout history the church has existed in both incarnations. From the massive cathedrals to the simple chapels, the grandeur of the cardinals and the pope. From to the vows of poverty taken by monks in secluded monasteries. And today, from the high-tech mega church to the hymnal toting country church. We all have a place, and we can be faithful to our call whether we sit in a multi-million dollar facility or we meet in our homes.

But we also need to be careful not to neglect the other side of the spectrum within our own communities. Large churches need to have a healthy and lively small group/home group/ life group ministry that meets regularly to make space for those close relationships to take root and flourish. And small churches need to connect to larger groups of believers to show that the gospel is being spread far and wide, and that we are not alone in our communities.

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Posted in: Praxis, Theology