Friday, November 09, 2007

The Problem of Church Size

I saw a lady today who I knew slightly from our previous church. She too had changed churches, a couple of years before we did, and was talking about the difficulties she had with the adjustment she was making. We'd changed churches after 6 years; her family had moved after 13 years. That's an investment! And she said she was a person who struggled with making friends, so for her a church change is all the more fraught with emotion and difficulty. Not only that, but they started in Lynnwood and ended up in Monroe at a daughter church start-up--so she hadn't only started getting to know people in Lynnwood, but then had to readjust to a new location over again. Still, I liked the reason she had to readjust: Their church had a policy of starting a daughter church any time they had more than 150 members. There's wisdom in that! There's more right in a small church, in my experience, than in a large one.
Since starting to attend a church that has about 80 people attending, including kids, I've come to appreciate the high level of fellowship and the close interaction that the congregation has with the leadership. It's important, it helps church growth and accountability, and I'm thankful to see that the leadership isn't lesser quality just because the church is small.
Still, Americans seem to value and take pride in anything large even if the size is crippling--reminiscent of the humorous style legendary of Texans. It would seem that a church can justify more pride and puffery the more members it has. I remember being in a mega-church start-up that on its first day had 800 people. That wasn't enough for the pastor, though--I remember him mentioning one morning that he'd counted the cars in the parking lot, in the context of church growth. Yikes! Even he jokingly admitted that it was more like a religious mob than a church.
In fact, when we walk around through our cul-de-sac, occasionally we talk with some neighbors who have recently started attending a seeker-friendly church in town. We talked about our churches, and we were telling them what our church was like and describing the ministry of our pastor, who prayed with us even on our first Sunday, and came out to visit us shortly afterward. With pride, they said they had never spoken with their pastor. They thought they were impressing us, and they were, but not as they intended. Shortly after that some friends came to our church and when we had coffee together afterward, they too proudly said they had never spoken with their pastor. Appalling! Not only appalling that they never had, but that they could feel that this was more ideal. What is happening to the churches in America? This is a grievous sadness to me. How can a shepherd rightly lead his flock if he doesn't even recognize his own sheep? How can he know what they are really up to, if he has never spoken with them? It could be that these people enjoy the anonymity, the lack of accountability that comes in such a huge church. They're under the radar, and they can live like the devil if they want to.
Our pastor recently showed me an article about the Willow Creek church and its recent "repentance" of its failed discipleship methods. Knowing that I like to blog, he suggested that I write about it. Not having followed the history of this church, I know so little about it that I couldn't write well about it, but found I kept referring to my own mega-church experience; it was all I had to relate to it. I didn't know how much I had pre-conceived notions regarding what traits the mega-churches are almost bound to share. Still, Willow Creek's old approach did sound rather familiar, in its small groups and the distance and delegated levels between pastors and congregation. What struck me as ironic was that the church found that its methods were not working--by questionnaire. Not by individual contact, not by the pastors' discussions with their congregation members. I think a big church will always have these unfortunate big church traits, and I can't imagine it was what Christ intended.
So I applaud the Lynnwood church for recognizing the importance of keeping its size within manageable limits and not seeking for visibility and enormity. It's a humble approach, far more in synch with the "out of the salt shaker, into the world" scattering that Jesus had His disciples go and implement.


Freetoflybutterfly said...

How does a person adjust to becoming a big church member with all the big church changes without losing their church home?

NeverAlone said...

I would say pray about whether that church was helping you to grow the way God wants, and whether you should in fact stay. I've seen people stay with a church that has headed the wrong direction, either thinking they can change it or because they don't want to lose contact with some of the congregation...but the first and primary thing is whether you are getting to know God there. Leaving can be a sacrifice for a greater good. God will direct you if you submit your will to His--don't doubt it! Pray in faith and submission.