Whenever ministers first meet each other the conversation often begins with the following questions:
As much as preachers may say “size doesn’t matter” in regards to the congregations we work with, we sure do talk, and sometimes stress about, how big or little our churches are.
More often than not the goal of having a larger church is noble (what preacher wouldn’t want to preach to hundreds or thousands every single week?). It’s not goal of having a large church that is the problem. The problems are the mentality that we need to be large and the methods we use to achieve that goal.
The Problem with our Mentality
We tend to forget that Jesus had the opportunity to preach to hundreds (thousands?) while He walked the earth (Mt. 5:1). What’s more, we tend to forget that He didn’t only because He told the crowds to disperse (John 6:26)!
For Jesus, ministry wasn’t about amassing a following, but about investing in individuals. He ate with rejects, and touched the untouchable. In regards to teaching, Jesus taught large crowds, but spent most of his time teaching his small group of disciples more in-depth. This didn’t have so much to do with Jesus picking these guys to be his special students, but with the people in the crowd who didn’t really care to know what Jesus was saying. For those in the crowd the food and miracles were enough for them to be satisfied, the message was just something to put up with. For the disciples, the miracles were there only to prove how great the message was.
In theory we often have a great respect for the disciples and their following of Christ, in practice…not so much. When our mentality is “we need to be big” it becomes easy to lose sight on the dedicated disciples and turn towards those there for a free meal. In other words, churches who are simply looking to become big often go about it the wrong way.
The Problem with our Methods
As I see it, there are two major problems that develop from the “we need to be a big church” mindset. Bear in mind that these problems are personal observations of mine and are therefore general truths based on those observations. Your mileage may vary on the accurate of these problems.
The first problem is this; churches looking for rapid growth often turn to places outside of the gospel to achieve it. Gimmicks are an essential part of growth for any organization these days. A business looking for increased sales might offer “buy one, get one free” deals or money-back guarantees. A church looking for increased membership boasts large youth groups, a dazzling website, a dynamic worship service, and a calendar full of events. It’s not that these things are bad; they just shouldn’t be the catalyst of church growth. People should be “sold” on our churches because the gospel is preached there (Eph. 4:11-16), not because it’s a lot of fun to be there.
The second problem is that churches looking to become large often deprive gospel quality for the sake of that growth. It’s a long-standing tradition of many televangelists that you should only preach a “health and wealth” prosperity gospel. For the uninitiated, the “health and wealth” gospel deals exclusively with the conquering power of love, and God’s desire for you to be physically healthy and rich. It also avoids tackling subjects like Hell, sin, and other unsavory pieces of subject matter. This is the kind of preaching Jesus would have done if he wanted to keep the “give us free food” audience around (John 6:26).
While we may not take it to the extreme of preaching only about happy topics and avoiding potentially offensive ones, we can still be guilty of depriving gospel quality when seeking to grow a church. The sacrifice of quality often comes in the form of shallow Bible study, and dumbing-down the gospel. Challenge has a tendency to push people away. Step on toes too many times and people will begin to look for somewhere that will massage their feet. Knowing this, many preachers have held back on hard-hitting subjects out of fear that the membership will decrease, this leads to a lesser quality of a gospel, and big, but dumb, church.
The early church grew not because of gimmicks, but because of a powerful gospel message that they preached and mimicked in their daily lives. The church grew because Jesus ignored the crowds looking for free meals and invested in the disciples who yearned for depth. Jesus chose twelve dedicated men over the crowds of hundreds.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a big church, but in your quest to achieve size don’t let yourself get caught up in the gimmicks, don’t ignore those committed to Christ’s cause, and refuse to sacrifice the depth and beauty of the gospel for a more palatable perversion.