Should churches be small, or should they be massive? Are churches with 100 members or less failures? Are they worthless? Should they be shut down? Should there only be “megachurches”? Is it God's will for every church to number in the thousands? These are some of the questions I would like to consider in this article.
Recently, in a truly nauseating interview with Russell Moore, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley attacked small churches (and the word of God) by saying that if he had his way all “dying churches” would be shut down and their property given to thriving churches (as he would define thriving). Stanley also encouraged pastors to “take the spotlight off of the Bible” in their preaching and focus solely on the resurrection of Christ. While such a damnable attack on the Word of God is dangerous, I want to focus instead on his arrogant insinuation that all “dying” churches should shut down; and that the “megachurches” of the world are the only hope.
Stanley incorrectly equates “small” with “dying.” While there is no doubt that Christianity would be better off if some churches closed; is it always necessarily the smaller churches that are dying? To the contrary I would argue that a megachurch that downplays the importance of God's Word would be a much better candidate for closure. In fact, the ironic aspect of Stanley's claim is that it might actually be his church that is a true hindrance to the gospel and sinners coming to TRUE saving faith. But closing his church is not for me to decide. Nor is it for Stanely to decide which churches are “dying” and need to be closed. To assume such a position is unspeakably arrogant. Yet Stanley does it.
This isn't Stanley's first attack on the small church. He recently stated that any parent who took their child to a small church was being “selfish” and didn't really care about their kids. The false assumption he makes here is that bigger means better. That numerous children's programs equates to true Godliness. And that children are too young and immature to comprehend deeper truths. These are colossal errors.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with programs per se, nor is there anything wrong with kids having fun at church; it should be noted that dodge ball will not save their souls. Children need to hear the glorious and deep theological truths of Scripture. And they need to hear them at a young age. I have marveled over the years at how much children hear, comprehend, and pick up simply by sitting through a sermon that is supposedly “over their heads.” In this regard they are no different than adults. We must be taught truths that we currently don't know if we are to ever grow in the faith. As John Piper recently noted, the English language is "over the heads" of toddlers; yet we don't seek to keep it from them. To the contrary, we immerse them in it. We teach it to them as though life depends upon it. How much more so the Word of God? It is not “uncaring” to take your child to a small church. It is “uncaring” to take your child to a church that doesn't emphasize God's Word and accurately preach the gospel. Sadly, many parents will live to regret the days they wasted frolicking when they should have been discipling. A child who grows up in a church devoted to entertainment will become an adult who demands entertainment. And adults who demand entertainment have no stomach for a church that seeks to transcend a “feel good” culture by preaching the “glorious gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
Now, back to the original question: How big should churches be? The fact is that the Bible does not give a numerical answer to this question. A church can be tiny and yet faithful in God's eyes; and likewise a church can number in the thousands and still be faithful in God's eyes. The true measure of a church is not seen in the size of it's attendance, but rather in it's faithfulness unto the Lord.
For example, in the 1800s Charles Spurgeon pastored one of the largest congregations in the world and he was committed to Biblical preaching. He was maligned by many for being too confrontational and too theologically focused. Yet he did not shy away from proclaiming the sovereignty of God over all things, including salvation. He was a far cry from seeker-sensitivity, weekly proclaiming the glories of Heaven and the miseries of Hell. He called out pastors and churches that sought to please the world rather than pleasing God and was famously censured by his own denomination during what became known as the “Downgrade Controversy.” Spurgeon's “sin” in the denominational leaders eyes, was to be divisive in his defense of the Bible. But Spurgeon knew that this wasn't about him. Indeed the gospel was at stake. God used him to build a massive church; yet amazingly there was no gymnasium, no coffee bar, and no laser light show. Not that these things are bad, in and of themselves; but these things are not requirements for a true church.
The book of Acts tells us exactly what the New Testament church was devoted to. The text says, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42) The “apostle's teaching” for us would be the Word of God. We don't have the apostles, but we do have their writings. Amazingly the very thing Andy Stanley says preachers should avoid, is also the thing the New Testament church was “CONTINUALLY DEVOTING themselves to.” They were also devoted to “fellowship” which means they held spiritual truths in common and they edified one another by discussing them. The “breaking of bread” could mean a fellowship meal, but also is a clear reference to the Lord's Supper. And no church will last, apart from devotion to prayer. It is not only very telling what the early church was devoted to; it is also very telling what is missing from the equation.
The vast majority of modern church growth tools, that leadership gurus tell you that your church MUST HAVE to reach people are missing from the Biblical account. It seems the people were satisfied with Christ alone and didn't need pyrotechnics nor slapstick shenanigans masquerading as worship. And this early church grew in numbers; but not all healthy ones do. The canard that “all healthy churches grow” has been peddled for decades by the likes of Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) and Bill Hyblels (Willow Creek); megachurch pastors who pridefully assume their big churches are the result of their own clever methods. Such men have written several books encouraging pastors to imitate them and experience growth. Some churches have copied and seen increase, many others have copied and fizzled out. Regardless of which experience your church has had; numbers do not necessarily equate to success. And in fact, often times large numbers come about by an “ear-tickling” model of ministry that seeks to give “consumers” what they want. As opposed to a Biblical ministry that gives dying sinners what they need.
The Apostle Paul warned, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NASB) In other words, people will shun Biblical preaching (as Stanley encourages them to do); and they will crave “myths” which is to say they will long for clever and cute stories rather than theological depth. How many modern churches brag about their “relevant” sermons? Which are in actuality nothing more than a trendy-dressed snake oil salesman giving a “conversational discussion” that is half stand up comedy routine, and half self-help psychobabble, with mere lip service paid to actual text of Scripture. This is what many modern megachurches are devoted to; and the faithful preacher who keeps his hand to the plow by weekly expositing the Word of God will be mocked, ridiculed, and slandered by the church growth gurus who deem him a loser in ministry because he doesn't amass a crowd.
In a slice of bitter Biblical irony, the Apostle Paul was just such a “loser” and the false apostles of Corinth mocked him as such saying of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) But Paul refused to take the bait and play their game. They no doubt accused him of lacking skill in how to grow a church. Yet Paul knew full well that TRUE church growth only comes about from by a sovereign God's hand; as does salvation itself. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) In other words, men cannot truly grow a church because men cannot create “new creatures in Christ.” Only God can do that.
Indeed, we are required to preach the truth, but only God can change the heart and save the soul. The modern church growth fanatics largely reject this theology of the sovereignty of God over salvation having reduced a supernatural act of grace to a mere sales pitch and a pathetically coerced attempt to convince a sinner to pray a magic “sinner's prayer.” A prayer, I might add, that is never found in Scripture. Biblical theology is tossed aside when the ultimate goal is a big church with flashy numbers. Humble pastors, relying upon God's power and God's Word alone, will be shown the door in favor of glib charlatans who dazzle with their “church growth plans” and their charismatic public personas. When “numbers” become the ultimate goal, then faithfulness is easily discarded and even criticized as not being “relevant” enough for today's crowd. “Modern people want entertained” they say. But even today, it is not entertainment that saves. It is Christ Jesus alone.
Many church growth experts will point to the early church as their example of the megachurch model. Since 3000 were saved at Pentecost, some assume that this is the norm for every church. But Pentecost was not normal. Such a massive amount of souls converted in one day is rare. We praise God when it happens, but it is rare. Likewise, the “megachurch” model is not the norm in Scripture. It might surprise you to know that the vast majority of New Testament churches were small. So small in fact, that they met in homes rather than public buildings. The early church started with a bang at Pentecost, then fanned out by way of persecution, as believers took the gospel to other cities. Early missionaries like Paul, Barnabas, and Silas planted churches; then moved on to plant more churches; most of which were small in number. These early church planters didn't come into cities with fanfare, block parties, and dunking tanks. They humbly arrived and spoke the gospel truth to those they encountered. At times they started out by going to the Jewish synagogues; and at other times they went into the market place to witness to whoever they found. More often than not they ended up in jail, or were beaten. They were publicly humiliated and amazingly rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer “shame for the name of Christ.” (Acts 5:41) What a far cry this is from the modern day glory hounds who prance around stages like wannabe rock stars; and ridicule the small church pastors who wannabe like their Lord.
Some would say that my words are merely evidence of my bitterness. I've pastored two churches in my life and both were “small” in the eyes of the world. But I have often said, and now repeat again, “I would rather have a church with 50 who are faithful, than 5000 who are phonies.” And I would much rather be a pastor who seeks to be a genuine and faithful proclaimer of truth, than a celebrity who mocks God's very Word. Pastors who are faithful to their calling should be encouraged rather than maligned. Many are the trials of those who preach the truth, and opposition is guaranteed to come. Sometimes it even comes from those in the church and those in other pulpits. To the small church pastor who is faithful in his daily pastoral duties, I would say this: “Don't be discouraged when your numbers are low. By the end of Jesus's earthly ministry he had a handful of public followers and one of them denied even knowing Him. Was Jesus a loser? Did He pastor a dying church? Was he in need of reading the latest bestseller from a church growth guru?” To contrary, the true church BELONGS to Jesus; and He reserves the right to plant them and kill them as He sees fit. There have been many recent examples of megachurches closing their doors also, modern day Laodiceas (See Revelation 3) that didn't think they needed the Lord and His Word so the Lord removed His presence.
God can squelch or bless whatever church He pleases. And often He has been pleased to bless the smaller church. Churches where the elderly and the toddlers actually know each other's names and interact. Churches where the Pastor is approachable for fellowship and counsel, rather than locked away in an ivory tower safely removed from the masses. Churches where a faithful man who has worked all week on a text, ascends the pulpit knowing that he breathes the words of eternal life and eternal death. To him this is no carnival. To him this is no game. He doesn't fancy himself an entertainer, for God has called him to preach the truth “in season and out of season.” And this he must do. Let the megachurch and denominational bigwigs scorn as they may. But let the Lord be pleased and glorified in his faithful servant.
In Biblical times we are told that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-30) Back then, God used the weak and lowly. Today, he still does. The preacher shouldn't seek to be the next Andy Stanley, with a massive following, bestselling book deal, and countless accolades. Instead the preacher should seek to be like Paul. A faithful man who spent his final days in prison. Alone. With the Lord. Rejected by almost everyone for his "poor" leadership skills and his gospel of true grace. Let us strive to be like him and consider it all joy to pastor that tiny flock.
King David's original flock was tiny also, as his brothers derisively pointed out (1 Sam. 17:28). But David was a true shepherd who cared for the sheep. May the small church pastor commit himself to this narrow road which leads to life. It is an often lonely path, but rest assured others share your burden and others remain faithful. Others suffer with you and others know your discouragement. Take heart! The world at large; and the large worldly church will not notice you, other than to ridicule you. But one day you will hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” from the only voice that truly matters in this debate. So let us press on with joy, preach the truth, and praise the Lord. Let us shun the world's ways and leave the ministry in the infinitely capable hands of the Lord Jesus Christ and His word. Rather than “take the spotlight off the Bible” let us shine it ever brighter; for this Bible points us to Christ, and apart from HIM, we can do nothing.
Note: Here's a link to a sermon I recently preached on Acts 2 called "Marks of a Real Church."