I attend a smaller SBC church. Up until recently, I was pastoring a smaller membership church. Throughout my time in ministry, though, I’ve found myself being an apologist for the large churches in the areas where I serve. In Northwest Indiana, where I live now, there are a number of large, bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches of different denominations that are healthy and impacting the community in various ways. Most of them, too, are “kingdom” minded and there is a great unity among the evangelical community here. Still, my ministry has been in small churches and to members of small churches.
Often, in conversations with believers, the ministry of these larger churches comes up. Usually, the assessment is negative and I find myself defending these churches that are doing the Lord’s work and are led by faithful leaders. Here are a few of the things I hear that I often try to correct.
1. Large churches are built around the personality of the preacher. Granted, that’s partly true. So are small churches. Churches are led by pastors and those pastors have a great influence on the direction of the church and are often loved by its members. That’s as true in a church of 70 as it is in a church of 2000. Churches of every size see a decline in attendance when a preacher moves on (or even goes on vacation).
As for celebrity pastors? Sure, there are some churches who are “cult of personality” churches that are built around the super-stardom of their preacher – but those are the minority. Most large churches are led by less than well-known preachers who aren’t published and not on the conference circuit. In our area, for example, many people could name all of the 5-6 large/mega churches in the area, but could only name the pastor of one — and that’s the prosperity heresy one that I wouldn’t send anyone to. The other churches are solid, bible-believing, gospel-driven churches doing kingdom work, and without a pastor with huge name recognition.
2. Large churches are where you go to hide. Two problems with this argument: One, most large churches have multiple avenues for people to get involved and they are constantly pursuing people to engage. In some churches, it’s difficult to hide because they are so proactive in greeting, engaging, inviting, and encouraging people to connect and get involved. Large churches often have a culture that expects participation so that it’s actually harder to hide there. (That’s also one of the reasons many of them have grown to the size they are).
Two, it assumes you cannot hide in a small church. That’s simply not true. Most small churches have a number of unengaged, Sunday morning only attendees that arrive just before the service, sit in the back, and leave immediately after the last prayer. The number of people in the building does not keep a person that wants to hide from hiding.
3. You can’t know everybody in a large church. That’s true, but you don’t know everybody in your small church. Whenever a church member makes that remark to me, I have asked them to look around and tell me if they could name everyone in the room. I have never found a person who could say “yes.” Even if I ever did find one, they would not know every person on an intimate level. Sure, large churches have to work hard to build community, but so do small churches. In many cases, the small group systems in a larger church give far greater chance for intimacy and true community.
4. Large churches are just “stealing sheep” not growing by conversion. On what basis do you assume that? First off, the numbers don’t support that claim and every church is different. Many (if not most) mega churches have grown large by both conversion and transfer growth. When people do transfer in, they often do so because they want to be part of a vibrant, healthy, growing church. Which leads to the second point: transfer growth occurs in churches of all size. If you compare the growth of small churches to large churches in the ratios of transfer to conversion growth, there is virtually no statistical difference (the only kinds of churches that seem to have a leg up in conversion growth are new church plants).
I understand the frustrations of small churches when you can’t provide all the programs that some families are looking for that the big church down the street can. But in my experience, if your small church is healthy and vibrant, you won’t lose people and you will grow. So do what you can do and do it well and don’t begrudge the big church down the street.
5. There’s a lot of politics in those large churches. Have you been to a Baptist business meeting? I’ve seen as much politics in a small church over who serves in the kitchen than anything I’ve heard happening in a large church. The point is, churches are full of people with sin natures and that is not exclusive to churches of a particular size. While large church problems have the potential to be wider known, problems can exist in any church. In every church, you will have to deal with personality differences, interpersonal conflict, and individual sin and handle those issues in a biblical way. I’ve seen no difference from one size church to another, only a matter of scale. Until the Lord returns, large and small churches alike must strive to live out a gospel-culture and pursue true biblical unity.
Are there real problems in large churches? Most assuredly so. But there are plenty of things for me to focus on in my church to worry about the one on down the road. I’m open to criticism when it is warranted and there are times when we can give helpful critique to others’ methods, models, and strategies. What’s not helpful, though, is the culture of criticism that assumes the worst of others and perpetuates myths that simply aren’t true.
I write this post because I’d like to see Christians more supportive of one another and rejoicing wherever the Lord is working. I want our church to be successful and I want the mega-church across town (and across the Convention) to thrive as well. I’m grateful for those large and small churches who work together and encourage one another in the work of reaching a community. The truth is, as a small-church guy, I love big churches. I love all churches that are doing gospel ministry and striving to faithfully lift up Christ.