Church, Ecclesiology (Church), Theology

BIG Does Nothing for Me

According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Studies, here are the top ten largest churches in the United States:

  1. Lakewood Church, 43,500 (Joel Osteen)
  2. LifeChurch, 35,000 (Craig Groeschel)
  3. Fellowship Church, 24,000 (Ed Young, Jr.)
  4. Willow Creek Community Church, 23,400 (Bill Hybels)
  5. North Point Community Church, 23,375 (Andy Stanley)
  6. Second Baptist Church, 22,700 (Edwin Young, #3’s father)
  7. Saddleback Valley Community Church, 22,400 (Rick Warren)
  8. West Angeles Church of God in Christ, 20,000 (Charles Blake)
  9. Southeast Christian Church, 17,250 (Dave Stone)
  10. Fellowship of the Woodlands, 17,150 (Kerry Shook)

The list consists of 1,416 congregations with more than 2,000 members. (Not remarkably, there is only one in New Hampshire.) The top ten alone represent nearly 250,000 people who not only claim to be Christians but have also taken the step of church membership, however that works in that particular context.

That is awesome, and I believe that megachurches have a place in the kingdom. I say that so people who think megachurches are wonderful will not be offended by what I have to say next.

This kind of church has no appeal to me anymore.

There was a time in my life when I believed I could build a megachurch, that I would be the “next great thing” in American Christianity – like Bill Hybels was in the 80’s and Rick Warren was in the 90’s. But you know what? The appeal of that kind of thing has worn off.

I could cite lots of reasons, but the number one reason is that BIG just does nothing for me. In fact, it scares me a little bit. Almost every week, we have Christians drift in (and often out) of our doors who were part of a big church (larger than 300 congregants for the immediate purposes), and I see there is just something sadly lacking in their church journey. They might have gotten great music and wonderfully crafted sermons, but at a scale required to maintain these large congregations, they lost something far more important – intimacy.

I refer to churches under 200 congregants as intimate congregations. They are on a scale that allows people to interact on a personal level across a broad spectrum that embraces a majority of the other congregants. Sure, even at 100 people, our congregation can be easy to get lost in. We had a wonderful guy who came to worship gatherings for weeks before I had a chance to meet him, but others had. And here’s the big, I was only one relationship away from someone who had met him.

In an intimate congregation, people are never separated by more than one relationship. They know someone who knows someone else, and at that level they can be interconnected with the rest of the congregation. This level of separation is easily overcome in conversation over coffee or at a church dinner.

Relationships can remain intimate up to about 200 people, then things get messy and there are a lot of people that become two or more layers removed from others. This allows for a lot of division and the development of subcongregations.

I should emphasize as a last thought that this is not about the level of separation from the pastor. It is about levels of separation from each other. It is easier to lead people who know each other – at least for me.

I am not impressed by large congregations. They have their place, but I don’t hold them in awe as effective on the personal level because they are tend to be far less effective than intimate congregations.

The BIG QUESTION about intimate congregations is how we use the intimate relationships effectively. Far too many church leaders fail to understand how these relationships work, and (if we’re honest about it) were never taught how to work within those kinds of relationships. As a result, intimate congregations are often anything but.


3 thoughts on “BIG Does Nothing for Me”

  1. Amen!

    I see part of the reason for mega-churches (let’s be generous and not assume that they exist because of their pastor’s ego-mania) is a mis-understanding of the sort of Kingdom we are in, There is far too much “corporation” mentality and not enough “family” mentality. This leads to the mistaken idea that for the Kingdom to grow, churches must grow (i.e. get larger). This is simply not true, and the obvious counter-example is the human race: The size of the human race today is much larger than it was a couple of centuries ago, but families are smaller, not larger. The key is that there are, of course, a lot more families.

    If we apply this to the Kingdom, then what we should be looking for is not larger and larger churches, but more and more churches.

    One other benefit of smaller churches: It is harder to fall into the “worship-as-entertainment” error.

    Anyway, enjoyed your thoughts very much.

    1. Agreed. It is in the nature of our current culture to believe that BIG=GOOD. This is a flaw that has driven us to expand beyond our capacity to care.

  2. The one advantage of a big church is its ability to allow real intimacy. I’ve logged a few thousand hours as a crisis intervention volunteer, during which time people told me things they’d never told anybody. One important reason was that they didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t know who they were. You need a measure of distance at such moments that is hard to achieve in a small group. Large church or network of small ones, it takes a lot of people to give folks a welcoming place to deal with the really big issues.

    Or, perhaps, a website.

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