Reimagining Church: How Big Is Too Big?

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Photo by Tom Plouff on Unsplash

I’ve thought a lot about church for the last three years.  It all started with an evangelism class at seminary.  My end of semester paper was titled “Reimagining Church: What If We Ran Church Like an AA Meeting?”

Just to give you a little context, my late husband was an alcoholic and in an attempt to understand his addiction, I started attending the recovery meeting at our church.  And what I realized was that I experienced more “church” in those recovery meetings than I ever experienced on Sunday mornings.  So for my paper, I looked at several of the Twelve Traditions in AA and reimagined what church would look like if we incorporated them.

As I move closer to being a pastor, I wrestle more and more with what the ideal church looks like.  Let me just stop you right there.  I realize that there are no perfect churches.  Actually, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But we have to start from a point of what we consider to be ideal in order to give ourselves a fighting chance at ministering effectively, right?

Here are things I’m certain of.

  1. I want my ministry to focus on the overarching story of God and continually invite people to picture themselves within that story.
  2. I want to show people that sometimes our desire to simply adhere to the dos and don’ts of Christianity makes us miss out on the beauty of God.  When you live in a black and white world you miss the pinks, greens, blues, and yellows that are the mystery of God.
  3. I will actively encourage women to take part in leadership roles and also actively mentor them.
  4. I want to give people (especially women) the opportunity to preach if they feel so called.
  5. I want members to understand that our allegiance is to the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world
  6. As a church body, we will talk about difficult subjects that we’ve always been afraid to talk about like abuse, addiction, suicide, infertility, and mental health so that those affected by any of these areas feel like they’re not alone.
  7. I want to empower all people to take an active part in the priesthood of all believers.  This means that they need to either be given opportunities to do so or encouraged to create their own opportunities.

But there’s one item that I still struggle with: how big should the church be?

You may not realize it, but most pastors are concerned with growing their churches.  How many people were saved?  How many people were baptized?  How many people joined the church?  These are good things, but more often than not, a pastor’s effectiveness and a church’s success are measured by these things alone.  Which is bad.

Why aren’t we measuring churches on how they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)?  On how they love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40)?  On how many homeless people were fed?  On how many families in the surrounding communities were visited?  Or by how many cans of food were distributed to people in need?

Why is it always the number of bodies we have in the church building on Sundays that determines success???

I used to go to a megachurch.  I’m talking 7,500 seating capacity with multiple services mega.  As an introvert, I liked that I could slip in and out of services without being noticed.  It was good for the season I was in.

Or was it?

What I didn’t realize at the time is that when I most want to blend into the church background is when I most need community.  And the easier it was to be undetected, the more isolated I got.  And there’s just a point where it gets too overwhelming to try to connect in a megachurch in which you don’t see the same person from Sunday to Sunday or even year to year.

Apart from the isolation factor, how do pastors teach to a congregation that big?  If part of my calling as I’m preparing sermons is to exegete my congregation (just a fancy word for understanding who my congregants are and what their needs are), how can I faithfully do that if I don’t know my congregants personally?  And do you know how difficult it is to talk to a pastor in a megachurch?  It’s practically impossible unless you’re in some kind of leadership position.

Is this multi-layer leadership structure with executive pastors, senior pastors, teaching pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders and so on what God intended for the church?  Can we really fulfill the mission of the church this way?

I admit my thoughts about this topic have changed over the past couple of years.  As it stands, I don’t see myself ever pastoring a megachurch.  But that begs the question: How big is too big?  50?  100?  200?  500?

My answer is going to frustrate you: it depends.  (Cue the groans.)

Personally, I tend to think that smaller is better.  Maybe that’s just my personality.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in a smaller church and could name 98% of everyone that was there on a Sunday morning and that’s what made it feel like home.  Then again, as an introvert, I get anxious when I visit churches so small that I’m positive I’m setting off visitor alarms.

I follow a Mennonite pastor on Twitter and she posted this the other day.

Instead of asking “how can I grow my church?” I wonder, “how large can the church be before we can no longer discern consensus around the movement of the Holy Spirit among us?”  When the answer is “we are too big for consensus” then we can no longer function as a church and we need to plant an off shoot. Mennonites in NC have done this three times. @MelissaFloBix

I gotta tell you that this spoke to me.  It did more than that.  It gave me life.

I feel like in larger churches, not just the 7,500-seat multiple service ones, people are often on autopilot.  They come to Sunday church and leave.  They shake a few hands during the (awkward for introverts) welcome time but don’t know that the person they just shook hands with just lost her husband and is just trying to keep it together.  They might not be actively participating in the priesthood of the believers and might not even be encouraged to because no one knows who they are.

Y’all, I don’t know what the answer is.  Maybe this is just my hangup.  Maybe the next time you see me, you’re going to tell me to relax.  And maybe you’re right.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to reimagine how we’re doing church so that we can better minister to the people in them and the communities around them.

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