Is there anything wrong with being big(numbers wise… that is)?

I might catch some flack for what I am about to write but that is why you write in the first place, to expose the world to ideas and then see what the response will be.  Sometimes people are encouraged and helped by what you write.  Other times, people are offended and angered by what you write.  Either way, not everyone will be happy!  Now that I have that out of the way, time to commence with some thoughts I have been having lately.

I pose the question in context to ministry.  Not that I am looking to build the next Metropolitan Tabernacle or run over 1000 in Sunday School when I finally land in vocational ministry, but I am noticing some things lately that concern me.

I have been a Christian for 22 years now and have seen a lot from my perspective.  I have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  I have been a member of three churches in these last 22 years.  One church consistently had attendance over 1000 and is a vibrant ministry (although I may disagree with them on some issues, we have a good relationship).  One church was consistently running between 3000-4000 and when I left they were in the 2000-3000 range.  I saw a lot of pragmatism and politics at work here, but at the same time I learned a great deal as well.  The church that I am currently a member of runs about 600 in attendance.  For me, it is the smallest church that I have ever been a member of.  That does not bother me, in fact I find it to be the perfect size church.  It is not too big that you are just another number or member, but yet it is not too small where you know everyone.  It takes effort to get to know people and enjoy fellowship with them (another post for another day).

I repeatedly have heard this statement in different contexts from different people and ask myself why?  ” You will never pastor more than 60-80 people”  Okay, that might be true, but can we apply that with a broad brush to everyone looking to go out into ministry?  Several years ago, while employed with a independent Baptist mission agency, I had the wonderful opportunity of traveling here in the United States and overseas.  I also have had the opportunity to visit many churches of varying sizes, yes, some of them were less than 100 people, but some were large churches as well.   Being a part of what I term the “conservative” wing of fundamentalism, I find that most people in this wing are very fearful against pragmatism and certain types of methodology; that is a good thing, but on the same side, by being so fearful, are we setting ourselves up for failure?  Yes, it is good to be on guard against pragmatism and against 1-2-3 easybelievism, and the overarching emphasis on Bible versions, dress standards and the like, or in some cases the lack of any standards which results in a theological free-for-all.  I think the key here is balance.   I have been on both sides of this issue.  I have been in the large church where it can take the form of a “numbers racket” and where the emphasis is on “getting someone down the aisle” etc.   I have also been on the other side where the concern is not as intense and could almost be mistaken for apathy in some cases.  Others would say that some churches are large because they will let just about anyone in and there is no “guarding of the flock”.  They would also say that some churches are filled with unsaved, unregenerate people.   I appreciate churches that check people out, meaning, they have to give some kind of verbal testimony, etc before they are admitted to membership.

It is true that too many times people associate large numbers with the following:

  1. Cults
  2. Extreme pragmatism
  3. Mega-churches

Somehow people get the notion that you have to compromise something to get a crowd and that is not necessarily true.  Look at Spurgeon and you will see that he by no means pastored a small church and I do not think that anyone has the guts to call Spurgeon a compromiser?

What is wrong with a church that has a large attendance, or multiple services, or multiple campuses?  I recently spoke with a Pastor back in June and talked with him about their recent switch to two-services.  He told me that it was going well and that they could not go back to one service because their building would not hold all of the people that are attending.  This church is in a unique situation because they are landlocked in their current situation, so two services made sense and the Lord has allowed this church to grow exponentially.

When I think about the latest rage or craze in Christendom is the multi-site or multiple campus phenomenon.  A lot of churches are looking at this from a distance and wondering about it.  Personally, I like the way that Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY approaches this.  Their website clearly states “One church… seven locations”.  Each location has a lead pastor and a preaching pastor and they all are under the leadership of Kevin Ezell, the senior pastor.   I think this is the way to handle a multiple campus option.  Highview is also unique that all campuses worship together once a quarter in a combined worship service (If I got this wrong, someone from Highview, please let me know so I can get it right).  What I think is flawed in the multiple campus format is where you have a pastor and multiple campuses and the pastor is preaching at one campus live and in the flesh, but the other campuses have a video feed to watch the pastor’s sermon.  I think that this serves the pastor’s ego more than the needs of the people.  Call me old-fashioned or sentimental, but I do not get a whole lot of coming to church and watching a video-feed.  There is something about being able to interact with people.  We deal with enough impersonal stuff in our lives, our interaction with people grows narrower (we can pay for gas at the pump without talking to anyone, some banks charge a fee if you want to talk to a live teller, etc)  We have to be intentional about our interaction and watching a video feed seems to be very impractical in an institution such as a church that prides itself on things like ministry, worship, fellowship, etc.   Paige Patterson once gave some advice on How to Judge a Sermon, he said that it consists of three elements:  Ethos – Is the person speaking credible?, Logos – Is he saying anything?  Is there substance?, Pathos – Is there any passion?  Does he believe it?  Well, if I attend one of these tv or video feed churches, how can I or anyone else know the answers to those questions if we have no interaction with the pastor?  Someone once said, that is the difference between a shepherd and a rancher!

Are we setting people up for the status quo, underachievement, failure and ultimately mediocrity by telling them “you will never pastor more than 60-80 people”?

What is wrong with going to where God has called you, wherever that may be and dedicate yourself to the following tasks:  Preaching/Teaching – the ministry of the Word,  Shepherding/Caring – ministering to people (this involves evangelism) Observing/Learning – learning the who, what, where, when of your particular ministry.  Asking God to give you a heart for the people in your community and doing your best to reach as many people as possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Southern Baptist Convention is experiencing a transformation of sorts in recent years, they are seeing the move from staunch liberalism, back to a conservative leadership and base.  Recently, the chatter has been about a “Great Commission Resurgence“.  Even though I am not a Southern Baptist, I applaud what the SBC is doing in this regard.  They are recognizing that many of their churches are either declining or have plateaued and are committed to seeing those churches reawakened and revitalized to the glory of  God.   I think maybe a few Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches could use a Great Commission Resurgence!

I feel like I have been “all over the map” so to speak, but I have been thinking about these things for several weeks now and felt that it was time for them to come off of the pages of my moleskine notebook where I have written them to the world of the blogosphere.  I expect to be attacked and criticized and mischaracterized.  Lest I am misunderstood, I am NOT in favor of pragmatic means of church growth, I am NOT against small churches, I am NOT against large churches.  I am for people being obedient to Scripture both individually and corporately.

There is nothing wrong with being big just as long as it is done in a Scriptural manner and avoiding the common cliche of  “the end justifys the means.”  Remember the words of the Lord Jesus Christ when he said in Matthew 16:18, “… and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”(NKJV)

Do not look to build another Metropolitan Tabernacle, but if God allows it to happen in your midst, do not run away from the task either!

As always I welcome your comments!


3 responses to “Is there anything wrong with being big(numbers wise… that is)?

  1. Good thoughts. Large churches have to be able to feed the 5000. Too often, they depend on the “Fast Food” of the day instead of asking Jesus to break some pieces of themselves off, bless those broken pieces, and then feed the multitude.

  2. Take 2 cities (or towns): Antigo WI (population 8000) is a city and so is Plymouth, MN (70000).

    There is no one right size for a city. Some cities are larger than others because of strategic location, natural resources, whatever. Some cities are dying (Detroit and many others).

    There is no one right size for a church either. I have a friend who Pastors a church in Boy River MN (population 40). You would not expect that church to grow to 1000!

    Factors impacting church size: the skill of the leadership, the vision of the leadership, the degree of dedication of the people (evangelism, etc), the size of the community, the property resources available to the church, etc.

    Another issue impacting size is the degree of tolerance towards various issues. An extreme example: I know a church where the Pastor preaches (too much in my view) against birth control and for large families. That church is a small church!

    I our own community you have the New Hope Evangelical Free Church and of course 4th. The EFree church is probably 10 times the size. Issues that are important to us at 4th (music style, attend multiple services, eschew movies, alcohol abstinence, etc) are not issues at New Hope. It should not surprise us that that church has broader reach.

    Use of resources also impacts church size. 4th has a school, houses a seminary and a radio station, and has a 300 acre camp. All those ministries consume resources that could be directed into other ministries. (I am not evaluating the worth of these ministries here!). New Hope has none of those ministries and is a better able to focus resources that directly impacts outreach.

  3. How to tell when a church is too large:

    When a church is not effectively organized to leverage the giftedness of its people (people (with their gifts) are spectators) it is too large.

    When a church is unable to recognize the needs of people it is too large.

    When a person can miss church and no one knows or cares, it is too large.

    Some very large churches are able to effectively organize AND meet needs.

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