Thursday, January 30, 2014
The Sin of Being Small
It was a blog-missive from a church-plantin'-pastor type, admonishing Christians for some of the less-valid reasons they find to abandon a congregation, structured into one of those nice neat little lists that are a surefire way to drive web traffic.
It wasn't terrible, and I found myself agreeing with it, mostly, with one notable exception.
That exception came with bad-reason-number-two: "The Church is Getting Too Big." As a reason to leave, that tends to occur when a community is experiencing significant growth, and folks feel a sense of loss as the thing they valued disappears.
That, frankly, can be a major problem for some churches, as legitimate growth is sabotaged by human beings whose personal power within a community is threatened by newcomers. On a more neutral front, it can be hard for others to find a way to let go of the sense of identity that a little fellowship provides. There's real loss and mourning there, but that shouldn't prevent a community from being a place of welcome.
But the pesky thing with bloggery is that it tends to push us to make bolder statements. Like, say, that: "Remaining small is a sad and unbiblical goal." He then goes so far as to accuse those who like intimate communities of being "in need of repentance." As a small church pastor, that gets me dander up, it does. But I took a few deep breaths, and tried to see it from his perspective.
Because even there, I can see where he's coming from. We're not supposed to hide our light under a bucket, after all. We are charged with going out into the world and spreading the Good News.
But organizational expansion and the Great Commission are very different things. If I tell the Good News to another human being, and they are changed by it, that's the growth I seek. I do not care if they choose to live that changed life out as a pledge unit in my community. If I do, then the growth is about me and my desire, and not about the spread of the Spirit.
In point of fact, "remaining small" is paradoxically central to the growth of the Gospel. This is why Big Parking Lot Churches so assiduously and carefully support small gatherings. That's where relationship happens, and conversation happens, and sustained transformation happens. It's where the Spirit moves most freely. The big emotional hit of a perfectly choreographed crowd-worship? That fades away as quickly as Psy's fame. It is not growth. The meat and life of the Way is in those places where you are connecting to other flawed, struggling, growing, beautiful souls, and walking the walk with them.
Those places are small.
"Growth is inevitable," he suggests. It isn't, because it can't be. Not every community is growing. I recently spent a weekend in West Virginia, and as I wended my way down some lovely, twisty country roads, I passed dozens of small churches. There is no sprawl there. It's rural, and population is either stable or declining.
Churches there do not grow large, because they are not in the urban, suburban, or exurban places where growth in our culture is occurring. Are these rural gatherings illegitimate? Are they not places where the Gospel is needed and legitimately expressed? I cannot believe either of those things to be so. But it is easy, in our consumer culture, to equate numerical expansion with what is good. This is not so.
"If you don't like big churches, you wouldn't have liked the first church, and you certainly won't like heaven," he suggests.
I'm not quite so sure on either of those points. First, the "first church," assuming he's talking about the ones Paul and Apollos and Cephas and others planted? Those were house churches. Not large, not flashy, not hundreds and hundreds of souls. By our standards, those were small gatherings. So I'm not quite sure what that means. And second: heaven? I don't think it bears any resemblance to Big Stadium Worship. Or anything we now understand. I mean, seriously, dude.
Yes, I know American culture venerates expansion and growth. Just look at our midsections.
But let's not cast aside the small without considering what we're throwing away.