The Myth of Big Church Success

There was recently a flap in the Evangelical world over a mega-church pastor castigating parents who attend small churches. Although he has since apologized for his baseless and offensive rant, he is not alone in holding the idea that bigger is better. This is, in fact, a common misconception particularly in the American life, and it isn’t a new fault.

In many ways a prophet, Francis Schaeffer was not silent on the temptation to believe that bigger is better:

Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered Me. This attitude, taken from the world, is more dangerous to the Christian than fleshly amusement or practice. It is the flesh. 

This is a failure that many churches and Christian institutions fall into. Sometimes we believe that if we are doing things right, then our organization will grow.

There are times that is a helpful perspective to have. If right doctrine is well preached, healthy community outreach happens, and personal evangelism is faithfully practiced, then it stands to reason that in many cases a church will grow. However, that may not be the case at all times.

The Future Winnowing

In fact, it may be that in the very near future there will be little the local church can do to grow, humanly speaking. The Holy Spirit may move through churches for revival. May it be so! Shy of that, many churches will likely continue to see declines in attendance as nominal Christians fade away. Although we are certainly a long way away from straight out persecution, the social advantages of being Christian are fading and will continue to fade for the foreseeable future.

As that reality takes hold, pastors who have founded their self-worth on the size of their congregation will find themselves in despair. That fleshly part of their heart, which was so fed by continued growth, may be pinched when numbers dwindle due to a changing society.

It is at this point that the temptation to view bigger as better is most dangerous. Facing the discouragement of shrinking crowds with an internal pressure to grow, then one of the options may be to make the “church experience” more palatable. This may occur through doctrinal compromise in some cases. More often, it will likely be reflected by adding more lights, widgets, and other attractions to entertain folks away from more docile worship services. This is a sort of competition between local outposts of the Kingdom of God that can be decidedly unhealthy.

The Bigger Pond Mentality

A second way that the desire to seek a bigger crowd demonstrates itself is the progression of churches that some pastors go through in their careers. They start small in an entry level church and work their way up toward a bigger church with a larger facility, more services, and a bigger paycheck.

Of course, it does not help that many congregations presently foster this unhealthy progression by requiring years experienced with demonstrable success in a previous pastorate for their pastoral candidates. There is little doubt that in the end, larger congregations will get better, more practiced preaching, but the downside is that it treats smaller churches as a minor league system to feed the staffs of larger churches.

In this sense, recent criticism of small churches has a point. Many smaller churches may indeed have poorer preaching with pastors who are just doing their time until they can move to a bigger field of service. However, having been to seminary with many small church pastors, I believe that most of them, even the ones hoping to move to a congregation that can pay their bills, are doing the best they can with the skills they have in the situation they are in.

It’s not the men that I find fault in, it’s the system that is flawed. The most recent critic is just a man giving voice to what so many believed anyway, but weren’t saying.

The Prosperity Problem

What Schaeffer doesn’t call out in his quote, however, is the connection between the Prosperity Gospel and the attitude that spiritual success results in more dollars, people, and whatever.

Of course, there isn’t really so much a connection as a unity.

This is what makes the “bigger is better” attitude so dangerous for the contemporary minister. It is the Prosperity Gospel. This means that setting out to simply get bigger because you believe that it means God is blessing can be an indicator of practical heresy. The doctrine preached from the pulpit may be sound and not reflect the egregious errors of the prosperity preachers, but the staff meeting may reflect a flawed celebration of growth for its own sake.

This leads to the simple caveat, which I won’t elaborate on, that small is not necessarily better, either. I’m partial to a smaller congregation, but the practical heresy of small church asceticism is no less deadly.

A Possible Solution

The best solution for the problem is to seek to do ministry better by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s a truism but worth pondering.

Instead of worrying about doing ministry with numerical growth goals, it will be more practical to do them with the hope of growing the depth of the disciples. That and being true to the context that God has placed the ministry in. That seems like a trite solution, but it is the best general solution that there is.

God may well grow your ministry, but if your goal is for the size of your ministry to grow, then you may need to check your heart. Of course, that should be a regular practice for all of us.