Small vs. Big Churches: The Family Feud We All Lose

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bigchurchAndy Stanley dove into a pool of piping hot water last week, with remarks pitted small churches against big churches. His comments came within the context of his explaining why he believes churches should be big:

“We want churches to be large enough so that there are enough middle schoolers and high schoolers, that we don’t have one youth group with middle school and high school together.”

Stanley wants the next generation to grow up with a passion for the local church and to connect with church members as life-long friends. In his view, the best way to accomplish the goal of making the next generation excited about church is through targeted, effective environments where students get to know people their age.

But then, Stanley criticized churches that don’t have enough members to accomplish that kind of programming:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church. I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids…I’m saying if you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church.”

After the video circulated online, Stanley apologized via Twitter: “The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.” (He followed up with a more detailed and extensive apology in an interview with Christianity Today here.)

Intentions and Assumptions

Passions run high when discussing local church dynamics and how church size impacts a church’s effectiveness. Stanley was visibly passionate in the video when he talked about the best way to engage the next generation.

But Stanley’s remarks were offensive, as he rightly admitted. He went after people in smaller churches by claiming their intentions and motivations are wrong.

But the question here is not about intention; it’s about methodology. Stanley assumes that highly targeted, age-segregated environments are the best way to engage the next generation. He didn’t question that assumption; instead he questioned the intentions of people who go to smaller churches. That’s what prompted the family feud.

Small Church Pastors against the Mega 

The criticisms of big and small churches often go both ways. Plenty of small church pastors despise the mega church and engage in the same sort of “attacking the intentions” of people who attend larger churches:

  • Those are just superficial Christians who like a watered-down gospel.
  • People at the big church just want to blend in and don’t want to serve.
  • They can’t possibly have true community in a church that big. They’re just impressed with “Six Flags Over Jesus.”
  • Pastors of large churches are self-centered and just want to build a kingdom or name for themselves.

As if, all small churches preach an undiluted gospel. Or small churches don’t have people who just sit and soak and never serve. Or small churches never have problems creating community. Or small churches never have authoritarian pastors who treat their congregation like their personal fiefdom.

It’s no secret that some small church pastors direct their own missives toward the megachurch. It’s just that they aren’t well-known enough for their rant to go viral online (like Stanley’s did). (Although, I must admit, King of the Hill’s famous “megachurch” parody was wildly popular.)

The Unfortunate Tension

Tension between smaller and larger churches is on the rise. There are more small churches than large churches in the United States, and yet more Americans are attending large churches than ever before. Many big churches are getting bigger, and many small churches are getting smaller.

As a result of the tension, silly stereotypes and bad assumptions abound. It’s simply not true that smaller churches are filled with selfish people who care only about their own personal needs. Neither is it true that big churches are filled with superficial Christians who are only attracted to “the big show” and don’t know anything of true community.

Small churches and large churches may face different challenges due to their size, but the biggest problem is the sinfulness and selfishness that is common to all humanity, no matter what type of church you belong to.

It’s fine to tailor messages for different ages, and larger churches may excel at providing great programming for children and students. But there’s also something beautiful about a senior in high school standing right next to a senior adult, singing the same worship song together – spanning generational divides in worship of Christ the Savior.

One Body, Many Members

The tension between larger and smaller churches is unfortunate, because the wrong assumptions and offensive stereotypes keep us from deeper questions:

  • What is the church?
  • What is the role of the church?
  • What is the mission of the church?
  • What methodologies are biblically faithful and contextually appropriate?

Instead of asking and answering these questions, we settle for cheap shots and broad-brush attacks on others.

The Apostle Paul’s words about the Church being one body with many members applies directly to the local church and the gifts of individual Christians. But can we not extend this application to the wider body of Christ?

Maybe, by God’s grace, we are better off when churches have different strengths and weaknesses. Maybe it’s a good thing to learn from this church about how to be known for serving the community, and to learn from that church’s vibrant international missions involvement. Maybe it’s good to learn from this church’s ability to foster accountability and community, and to learn from that church’s ability to connect the Word of God to people in powerful ways.

So, I’m making a commitment today. The next time I hear someone railing against the “megachurch” or mocking the “small church,” I’m going to speak up. I’m going to point out that we need all kinds of churches and that it’s slander to attack the intentions of brothers and sisters you don’t even know.

I’m not going to take sides against small churches or big churches. Not today. Not ever. Nominal Christianity hides in churches of all sizes. Church splits and factions happen in churches of all sizes. And the fragrance of Jesus Christ and the power of His kingdom is in churches of all sizes.

Methods shift and change, and we can debate those (and should). But we should always be quicker to question the assumptions in our own minds than the intentions in others’ hearts.

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