Monday, August 08, 2005

The Future of the Small Church

While listening to an NPR story on how mega-churches are expanding in this country at a rate of 1-2 a day, I couldn't help but smile, as I was driving 15 minutes to attend evening worship at an OPC church pastored by a good friend. The attendance at the evening service hovers at about a dozen. And yet, the hymns are warmly sung, and the sermon expository and edifying, and I always leave feeling better than when I arrived.

The mega-church phenomenon has been widely written on, and widely criticized. Is it church when thousands of people fill an auditorium to listen to a rock concert, watch a dance recital or a theatrical production? Perhaps, but this development worries me. Some "smaller" churches, trying desperately to catch up, have gone to a model where you sit at a round table, drink a latté or eat a bowl of mixed fruit, while very loud contemporary Christian music (CCM) fills the air. After a dozen praise choruses, some sung over and over again, the pastor "appears," not in the flesh, but on a video screen. Or if there is a preacher present, he will present a brief multi-media sermon addressing the "felt needs" of the congregation. Not all of this is Christianity lite, but much of it has the appearance of superficiality and entertainment.

I grew up in a small church of fifty, and I have pastored three churches, all with populations under 75. I have heard them referred to as "rinky-dink" congregations, "dying churches," and churches which ought to be closed and restarted along more contemporary models. There is a movement afoot in my denomination to "revive" small churches, for many are indeed dying, and those in authority above us believe that the old patterns of worship are lethal to growth, and so the "seeker-sensitive" model is held up as our panacea.

Let me be up-front and say that I would prefer to work in a bookstore than pastor a church with nothing but contemporary music, non-expository sermons, and tables with coffee and fruit. Look at the picture of this church. I grabbed it off of Google Images because it represents what I consider to be an alternative future of the small church.
This church, like the one I grew up in, and the ones I pastored, were not built for more than 100 worshipers. They were designed to be small, intimate places of worship, where the architecture, the furniture, and the very atmosphere of the sanctuary combined to move you out of this busy, sin-broken world, into a place of peace, conducive to prayer, attentive listening, and communion with God.

I believe that the future of the small church may not be a moving forward, catching the latest secular trends and "Christianizing" them, but in moving back to the ancient church, to small communities of interdependent people, who know each other's stories and challenges, sorrows and triumphs, and who worship in a way which brings them together in adoration of God, instead of isolating them in a crowd filled with noise.

Now if you love your mega-church, and want to rave about its programs, parking, and para-church ministries, God bless you. I just wanted to offer an alternative vision, which I hope gets a hearing in the months ahead, as Reformed churches everywhere scramble to stay alive and to grow. Perhaps we have overlooked those who desire stillness, sacrament, and biblical preaching. Many of us do not want to worship in a huge brick box, with basketball hoops above our heads, and not a single Christian image to be found anywhere. I pray that our goals for revitalization be respectful of those desires for sacred space and sacred worship.

Perhaps we have coveted too much the pottage of worldly success. Perhaps we are building our churches too big.


Blogger Stacey said...

Part of the problem, I think, lies in a couple of assumptions:
1) Revitalization is synonymous with numerical growth;
2) Numerical growth requires that the church look and act nothing like it has ever looked or acted in the previous 2,000 years of Christianity.

Faulty premises both, if you ask me. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Weary Crusader said...

I couldn't agree more. In the area in which my wife and I live, churches run the gauntlet from mega-one stop shopping center churches to the small congregational church.

Our church (about 45 souls) is about as big as our pastor wishes it to be. He has repeatedly said (and I agree) that when we reach the ‘100’ mark, we would split (I suppose the PC word is ‘divide’) and begin a new congregation.

His justification is simple. In the smaller congregations, it is nearly impossible to either intentionally or ‘accidentally’ get lost. Everyone within the organization performs a task within the body, just as it should be; there are no spectators with a small church.

On a side note, I would also ask your permission to add your site to by blog role. I have been reading your site for a few months and I think that my readership would enjoy your particular ‘spin’ on things. I will await your reply before adding it.


8:42 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Dear Weary,
Thanks! You may certainly add my blog to your roll, if I may also reciprocate - and I can manage the html stuff!

I very much enjoyed reading your blog, and thought it was well put together and also open and honest.

Many Blessings,

9:21 AM  
Blogger Weary Crusader said...

Thanks for the 'permit'. I will feature you on 8/10, and assuming that you are in agreement with my POV (available on my 'bio' page)add me as you see fit.

Keep up the great words and awesome pics!


9:35 AM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

It is a vexed question: but not the only one. In my experience, the question of size in the mega-churches is linked to the perception of leadership. Where once the pastor of a congregation was seen not just as a leader but a servant, now the leader of the mega-church has "a vision" which people are expected to get behind. What are people doing when joining a mega-church: following the leader instead of Jesus; following a style of music and not learning the reality of selfless worship. Part of the Christian tradition is its sacramental life - table gathering, meal participation. A bit difficult with thousands of people. I agree with the concept of the conscious decision to split - but few are brave enough to do it. I think this is in part an economics decision (losing that money in the collection) and part the fact that people themselves become attached: to a church and building and friendships and place: and these merge together into lives and people prefer that comfort to the missionary mindedness of cell division. The crux of the matter is: Is the gospel being preached and people brought to faith in Christ Jesus through the tiny 'old-style' congregations? If this is not the case, then there has to be critical self-examination and we may have to look at options that may not suit our temperament or inclinations. It is a vexed question - but perhaps, if the church is about its Father's business, it has ever been thus.

10:33 AM  
Blogger homo unius libri said...

While hardly an advocate of the mega-chucrch, I am aware of its many faults, I have found that many have taken the needful corrective of emphasizing small groups. These groups when used properly do achieve many of biblical aims of accountability, fellowship, and growth. They become, in a sense, mini-congregations within the larger group. I can see the advantage of large group worship and teaching coupled with small groups. Jesus himself taught thousands at a time, but them held imtimate fellowship with the twelve.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Scott, you would appreciate the Internet Monk blog, if you haven't been there before. He has a different take on the small church that I resonate with, but yours is not inherently opposed to it, either.

Jeff, great post on Dobson!

4:12 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Thanks for the all the comments so far.

Eagles Child brings up an important point - many small churches do not bring the gospel to people, nor do they create sacred communion or sacred community. One of the worst experiences I ever had was being involved in a nasty small church which I prayed God would change, but until that time keep visitors away.

My response would be not to make small churches bigger, but small churches holier, more loving, and more biblically literate & sacramentally minded. I think there is some recognition of this amongst the powers that be, which is a hopeful sign.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that the mega-church syndrome has affected everyone everywhere, and white-washed material such as PDL (Purpose Driven Life) certainly does not help. However, I don't think a big church is bad, as long as the pastor remains faithful in preaching the hard and bold truth. I don't think a small building makes anything more spiritual, nor do I think that a big church cannot be kept seperate from the world. It's not size that matters, but truth. Many good points on your blog, but I hope all would keep that fact in mind.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I agree Adam, that size does not always matter. What concerns me most is that size has become a barometer of faithfulness. That is to say, unless you are growing numerically, you are not succeeding in the ministry. This message has come down to us from our denominational leadership, and it has placed small church ministry in a particular light: that of failure.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Mikestar said...

Hey, hows it going? I'm a worship leader in my church in Australia. I run our youth band.

I agree with everything you said. Everyone looks at big churches like Hillsong or Planet Shakers here and try to put that style and formula into their own church but it don't work.

As a youth leader I know that there is more technology available to kids than ever. This is the X-box generation. Kids have grown up with technology. Its all about relationship with God. Is God against PowerPoint presentations? No absolutely not! God loves technology. God is a creative God and His people should be the same. We can harness this stuff and use it for the glory of God.

The problem is when this stuff becomes the main reason for doing stuff instead of God. It becomes a distraction. The way we use it should point people to Jesus, not who they are. God won't share his glory with no one.

Ok with that said another thing. Ministers/worship leaders/youth pastors/anyone should remember the first golden rule of ministry: Know your audience. Know who you're ministering to. Young people are passionate about sitting in pews and singing songs that don't relate to them - its just a fact. Its all about meeting people where they are at and then pointing people to their saviour! Its not about us. Its about serving others. Church has to be so relevent to people that it can't be riduculed. People need to see God in what we are doing. This is how we demonstrate to people who God is to us.

God is worthy of praise and worship. Why spend days praying if its holy to bring drums into church or use a video projector? If Jesus was here today he would have used all that.

People freak out because they have made technology they master instead of their slave.

I love the old hymns. I love them but they have to be relevent that they touch the heart of the people. Its not about the style its about the heart and the attitude of the worship leader on the reason they are singing what they are singing.

Alrighty, no doubt people are gonna read this and say "He's a complete tool", thats ok, I don't care what you think of me coz my identity is found in christ, not in chatrooms or blogs.

I think I've said enough coz I feel like I'm preaching. If you wanna talk more on this then feel free to contact me!

God bless!

1:31 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

You're definitely not a "tool" or rather yes you are, a tool in Christ's hands. Amen to what you said.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Eddy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:24 PM  
Blogger coloradohurricane said...

i do a lot of traveling, and when i feel like finding a church home away from home, i always feel the Spirit moves more in smaller churches. "where 2 or more are gathered in My name..."

i think a lot of churches would prefer (or somehow confuse) numerical growth with spiritual growth.

11:02 PM  

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