Friday, October 31, 2008


I'm not sure that bigger is better. But I'm not convinced it's all bad, either. As I've thought about size, particularly the size of congregations, my thoughts have evolved in the following progression.

1. Big is wrong. This was what I thought when I was a kid growing up in a (small) fundamentalist church. I was pretty certain that if it was big it must not be gospel-preaching. They must be watering it down. Because if they were preaching the fire and brimstone we were they would be small like us.

2. Big is amazing. This was what I though as a teenager when I encountered the Anchorage Baptist Temple. My first exposure to the mega church left me with my jaw dropped. This was a church that didn't have hundreds of people attending each week, but thousands. They had the biggest choir I had ever seen. They brought people in on buses from around the city. Something seemed wrong about it, but I couldn't figure out what it was. They were preaching the gospel, even throwing in some occasional fire and brimstone, but they were drawing a crowd.

3. Big is the goal. As I made my way through seminary I decided that there was really no point in pastoring unless I was going to do it in a big way, with a big church. As a youth pastor in a dying denominational church, I chafed under the short-sitedness of the leadership. As a young (too young really) senior pastor I got my hands on every book I could find about church growth. I attended every seminar I could find. I made my pilgrimage to Willow Creek. I enrolled in a Doctoral Program at Overlake Christian Church, the largest church in the Northwest at the time. I started to work the angles to "grow my church." My church did indeed grew, but I didn't, and I left that church, and the ministry for that matter, fairly disillusioned. The church had never been bigger. I had never been smaller. My pursuit of big was about me, not Him.

4. Big is easier. When I returned to church (as a wounded soul on the back row of Christ the King Church in Laurel, Washington), CTK was clustering in two campuses and five services. The vibe was cool and chaotic, but meeting in two different places was obviously hard on the staff. Shortly after I joined the staff we consolidated everything and everybody into a larger building. This wasn't my idea necessarily, but I was a team player. The consolidation made things easier, but not necessarily better. We lost something in the transition that we could never get back. Our sense of community and widespread personal involvement gave way to professionalism and crowd management. This seemed like a bad trade to me.

5. Big is bad. When I launched out on my own, and started CTK in Mount Vernon, I spoke highly of meeting in smaller congregations. I told the story of CTK meeting in multiple locations and services. I said, "We're not going to ask everyone to come to us, we are going to ask us to go to them." I had come to the conclusion that more was better than bigger. In an effort to make my case, I probably overstated the badness of bigness, probably because I was questioning bigness as the accepted measure of success. I started asking questions like "Isn't the goal to reach a community, instead of build a church? At times when it seemed like no one was listening, I turned up the volume, and then backed that up with some action. As CTK in Mount Vernon grew we "spun off" groups of people in six neighboring towns. But at the same time, Mount Vernon continued to grow bigger as well, and to this day is our biggest Worship Center.

6. Big is big...and that can be both good and bad. Lately, I've come to a more tempered view of bigness. I don't think bigness is as great as people have made it out to be, but I think there are worse things happening in the world, as well. I've been thinking that the relative merits of bigness depend on the answer to some questions:

Are people being treated personally, or like cattle? Call me old-fashioned, but is it possible for a person to actually meet the pastor? I've encountered staff members of large churches who have never met the pastor there. Modernity has given us these constructs and called it good. It seems to me that the church of Jesus Christ should be a little more personal than that.

Are people becoming passive? Crowds tend toward people sitting around, listening, taking notes and going home. We don't want this, and we don't get as much of it in smaller congregations. But it is possible for a larger congregation to have high participation in small groups and mitigate this tendency. The key word is "possible" since most mega churches don't quite get there - it's just too hard to get people from sitting on their hands.

Are we staying or going? Are the arrows pointing in or out? Jesus' instructions were clear: Go. There is a tendency, as groups become more established, to just start another staff-driven program and try to get more people to come to us. This is not a good development, for the community or us. Bigness tends to squash or slow the entrepreneurial spirit. Smallness keeps you nimble. On the other hand, the resources that you need to launch often come out of bigness. Maybe there's a sweet spot here, where we can be big enough to spawn, but small enough to do it quickly.

How do small and big relate to each other? Is small in service to the big, or is big in service to the small? This may end up being the most fundamental philosophical question to discern whether bigness is virtuous or not. What we have tended to see in evangelicalism is the small in service to the big. What is more virtuous is for the big to be in service to the small. In an organic system you will see bigness. For instance, in a forest you might find some extremely large trees. And there are some smaller flora and fauna that can only survive in the shade of that tree. So maybe its not whether it's big or small, but what is ultimately valued and protected.

God bless you,

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