It’s a time of anxiety for a lot of churches, especially as we educate ourselves in what Montreal philosophy professor Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” Things are different.
And so we need to hold on to something.
We live in a time of big-ness. “Bigger is better” is the mantra that rings in the hearts of millions each morning as they wake, try to make the best of their lives and pick up a truckload of goods at Costco. And many people seem to want big churches too.
Let’s call it big-envy.
Bigness: Surely that’s a sign of “success,” right? But of course, as von Balthasar said, “Success is not a gospel category, faithfulness is.”
As you can tell by the tone I’ve set, I’m going to criticize bigness for the sake of bigness in churches. But I’m also going to criticize smallness for the sake of smallness too.
First, what is big?
Well, “big” is smaller than you think.
According to the research of consultant Kennon Callahan if you have between 50 and 74 people at a Sunday service you are in the 57th percentile of “bigness” in churches. That’s right. And if you have between 100 and 149 in a Sunday service you’re in the 81st percentile, meaning that you are “bigger” than 81% of churches out there.
This might seem strange to some people who continually feel inadequate when their church has fewer people than “community church x” which pops up in every town.
I’ve visited churches that make a habit of apologizing for their smallness. If you’re one of those people, please stop.
Second, what is small?
I think some faith communities have convinced themselves that they are numerically small, and therefore, wonderfully intimate, and that reaching out to connect with others is someone else’s job.
And I also know of some faith communities who are “bigger” who think that bigness is a sure sign of God’s approval. Not so fast.
I would like to propose a new way to think of a “small” church.
A small church is one where Jesus isn’t honoured as Lord.
My liberal friends will say I’m putting too many eggs in one basket, and my conservative friends will say I’m not being comprehensive enough.
But the whole “big” / “small” comparison trap distracts from this greater issue.
In churches where Jesus is known as Lord, yes there are people who struggle with questions and doubts and real life issues. (And that’s a wider circle than we think.) But it is also a place where we:
- are changed
- worship with gratitude
- root ourselves in authentic prayer
- seek to live out God’s unconditional love in everyday life
One of the earliest Christian confessions was “Jesus is Lord” (Philippians 2:11, Romans 10:9, and elsewhere). Not “Jesus is cool” or “Jesus is a nice guy” or “Jesus deserves a tip of the hat sometimes” or “God is fairly loving and Jesus belongs in the footnotes.” But “Jesus is Lord.”
That revelation changed everything. It changes everything.
I think that churches who are truly “small” are the ones who have absented themselves from this cornerstone.
Yes, the church is very diverse. There is a plurality of opinion. (And I love how Bradley Childs puts it in April’s Presbyterian Record: “Maybe church is so diverse because church is just a gathering of imperfect people desperately trying their best to know and serve the God of scripture and never quite getting it right.”)
But to me this is a non-negotiable.
One of the ways ever-influential John Calvin thought of the Reformation of the church 500 years ago was that it was the evangelization of the church. A historic truth recaptured and lived.
Imagine you walked each day alongside a Master, King and Friend who joyfully summoned you to become more like him each day. There is no area of your life that wouldn’t be wonderfully changed by this radiant journey.
Your church too. Love super-sized.
Take an engine out of a car, and it may still look like a car on the outside, but it has no power. It’s no longer a car. Take the heart out of a person, and she may still seem alive in a picture, but she’ll be dead.
The same thing happens when you take Jesus’ Lordship out of the church.
Francis Chan says this: “The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.”
So don’t be small. Be the right kind of different.