*A quick qualifier before we begin: “small” has yet to be defined with precision.
Because I think small doesn’t have everything to do with numbers (although, I think that at a certain point it does).
So, I’ve been getting some push back for my last article on why I dislike mega-churches. A lot of it is warranted. I think that if you put something out there, people should be able to push back. And please note, I also dislike a lot of small churches (also in the article).
But that piece was written in response to a piece by a colleague who says he doesn’t like “mega,” but then never actually digs into “mega” at all in a substantial way. Perhaps that wasn’t his point. But there is something to be said there…and I wish he would. I think there is a real argument to be had for keeping faith communities on the small side. I really do.
Here’s a part of that argument:
Look, we have a depression problem in the communities of faith, by and large. This is well diagnosed.
Little churches are depressed that they aren’t mega, and I think mega-churches have depression as well, though not of the psychological nature. Mega-churches are depressed, and depressive, in that the consolidation of resources, while seemingly allowing for unlimited amplification of good, actually depresses the good they can be and do.
I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, let’s define “small.”
Small to me is manageable. For every community the particulars of that will be different, I think. Some of it will depend on the leaders (clergy and others), some of it will depend on other factors such as location and mission (locus and focus).
But small does not mean deficient. And it certainly doesn’t mean “bad” or “not living into it’s potential.”
I think many churches are small in size because of unconscious choices they make: who the power brokers are, what the internal fights are, their ability to welcome and adapt to change, etc. Very few of these choices have to do with Jesus, btw.
But I think that communities of faith can be small by choice for reasons that absolutely have to do with Jesus. That is, they can take their own temperature and decide when their connections are becoming so strained that they need to send some folks to start new communities of faith.
Because Christ was about making connections and reaching the margins…not about consolidation. The need to consolidate is the need to control.
Control is a nice little illusion.
Let’s go back to mega a bit. Because I think mega is about control. That’s how mega is depressive.
Here’s the thing: mega churches are hierarchical…like most churches (there are some notable exceptions, like the Quakers). And the broader the base, the smaller the top. And although there may be many leaders in a mega church (there should be many leaders in any size church!), when message lies in the lonely top, when perspective lies in the lonely top, when generation and impetus lies at the lonely top, it depresses the ability for the people to grow out on their own.
It truly does.
And it creates rock stars rather than ministers which, to me, is a real problem.
And these rock stars then become the interpretive lens for the parishioner rather than Jesus, because, well, how can you challenge someone who obviously has so much influence and control? They must know what they’re talking about…
This is, I think, why mega-churches have a large rotation of regular attendees…people who come for a few years, and then move on. Consolidation at the top doesn’t allow things to “trickle down” in the way people want it to. The inability to actually have agency, to grow together while challenging each other, is depressive.
My parishioners and I don’t all agree on every point, theological or otherwise. But we have a relationship that allows us to continue to do mission together, even while acknowledging where we diverge. That just doesn’t happen in the same way in the mega world, to the detriment of the church and individual spirituality.
And, by and large, I find that mega churches perpetuate that mega-mentality that “more is better,” but practice a “more is not better” when it comes to leadership and messaging, as the lead pastor’s sermon is video streamed into each campus regularly despite the availability of other pastors to craft other sermons.
This, I think, doesn’t connect people in the way it’s intended. There’s dissonance there.
I think it actually depresses mission; it doesn’t expand it.
And finally, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: ego.
We must always be on guard when it comes to the ego.
The ego of small-in-numbers churches is offended that they’re not bigger…and so sometimes they fall into patterns of behavior to keep themselves numerically small as a way to fulfill their doom-prophecy.
They call themselves “friendly.”
When I hear or see “friendly” on a church sign or on a church website, I automatically think “dysfunctional.” Because they’re trying to make up for the fact that others aren’t in the room by proclaiming that they’re super-nice.
If they were truly welcoming, though, and open to change, others would be in the room, right? Maybe. Most likely.
In contrast, the ego of the mega church leader is never kept in check as the church begins to grow but is never sent. As the base gets bigger, the ego gets bigger. Things seem to be “working,” and there’s nothing more delicious for a hungry ego than to see things “work.” And so how do we keep things working? By keeping control.
And the ego of the mega church attender is, likewise, fed by size. “I must be doing something right because I go to a successful church! Look how big it is and how many programs it has!” Red Riding Hood did a similar comparison before being eaten by the wolf…
People at this point will say things like, “God never intended you to live a mediocre life,” or “God has big dreams, you should too” or start quoting Proverbs or other parts of scripture to lay a foundation for bigger and successful is better. And this is, I think, a secret in the world of mega: self-help tidbits that we pass off as spiritual. Make me feel good, and I’ll serve you forever. Feed the mega-ego until it’s stuffed.
But Jesus rarely made people just “feel good.”
If we look at Jesus (and really, all scripture should be seen through the lens of Jesus), we don’t see that. Abundant life didn’t have to do with numbers or feeling good. It had to do with reliance on God. Reliance on God keeps the ego in check. Humility. Passionate giving. Love that is sacrificial.
Look, I don’t know if your church is too mega or too small. And I, by no means, think I have it all figured out. My ego is trouble…just ask my wife.
But I think a good beginning question a faith community could delve into would be, “Do we think more is necessary? Is more better? Or are we confident that God has equipped us with all that we need?”
And really ask it! Wrestle with yourself, with your church.
Keeping a church small intentionally involves asking those question.
And, I should be clear, I think there are small churches with 30 on a Sunday morning, and small churches with 3000 on a Sunday morning.
Both will have difficulty staying small, though. There seems to be an in-between that aids in this kind of work.
Because mega is so tempting.
So constant questions, checks and balances, and the ability to really ask if you’re depressed or depressive is necessary.
I guess I would say, let’s keep it small. Seriously.