The annual Outreach 100 list of the largest churches in America was released this past week. There were no major surprises in the top five which were Lakewood Church in Houston (Joel Osteen) with 43,500, North Point Community Church in Alpharetta (Andy Stanley) with 24,325, Second Baptist Church in Houston (Ed Young, Sr.) with 24,041, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barington (Bill Hybels) with 24,000, and Southeast Christian Church in Louisville (Dave Stone) with 19,230. The top 100 churches have a combined attendance of 1,012,832 people and 384 worship sites. These lists stir up debate as some argue big churches cannot create the kind of ministry and community integral to a biblical church while others argue small churches are not effective at reaching the lost and meeting the needs of people. So which is better and which is more biblical; a big church or a small church?
First, let us define church. The word translated “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word “ekklesia” which means a gathering or assembly. Thus the church is not a building or program but the gathering of believers who have covenanted together to serve Christ and His kingdom under His leadership for the glory of God. Since the early days the four marks – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – have defined what a true church is. “One” means the church is unified. “Holy” means the church is set apart from the world. “Catholic” with a little “c” means the church is universal and not bound by time and space. “Apostolic” means the church is based upon the witness and teachings of the Apostles. The Reformation of the 16th century added two more marks of a true church; the gospel rightly preached and the sacraments rightly observed.
What defines a true church, therefore, has nothing to do with size – either biblically or traditionally. In the New Testament you find both large churches like the Jerusalem church with thousands and small churches like the church at Corinth with probably less than a hundred. With this in mind, let’s look at some of the critiques of both large and small churches.
Some argue small churches are better because large churches fail to create community, are consumer-driven, and have authoritarian leadership. While many large churches are impersonal, many do small groups and ministries with excellence; plugging their members into accountable relationships. While people slip through the cracks of a large church, they can just as easily slip through the cracks in a small church where cliques, classes, and circles are well entrenched and it can take ten years before they stop referring to you as “the new guy.” More people can actually mean more relationships and it may be the love within the large church that has caused it to grow.
Some large churches are clearly consumer-driven; offering up ear-tickling pragmatic messages along with a latte in the foyer. But the small church that crafts its programs to the whims of its members instead of the Scriptures is equally consumer-driven, simply appealing to a smaller group of consumers. One need only look at the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham where Pastor David Platt has led the church to radical sacrifice to see a large church not driven by consumerism.
Finally, as a church grows it will necessarily have more centralized leadership. It is impractical to have a church of 2,000 vote on everything or allow everyone a chance to call the shots. Rather than limit the gifts of members; effective leadership can actually mobilize them to serve the kingdom through an increasing variety of ministries that utilize an increasing diversity of people. Many small congregations are so busy running the church they have no time left for the mission God has called them to.
On the other side, some argue large churches are better than small churches because they reach the lost, meet the needs of more people, and are clearly blessed by God. Some churches may be small due to a loss of evangelistic passion but some churches may be big due to crowd-pleasing programs. A small church may actually be much more effective than a large church at Christ’s primary calling – to make disciples of all nations.
No question large churches are able to appeal to more people with more resources. But is a church truly more effective for Christ because they have a rock wall in the youth room, a nationally-known speaker at every event, and a ministry for people with webbed feet who are recovering from an addiction to “Dancing with the Stars”? Sadly, many big churches put their confidence in these things instead of the simple power of the gospel shared through relationships. A small church through the Bible, the gospel, the Spirit, and the people willing to humbly follow Christ can meet the needs of anyone.
Finally, for some a church is large because of the blessing of God and you can’t argue with success. The problem is Jesus apparently wasn’t blessed by God since he had only 120 followers after his ascension. It was this same Jesus who declared in Matthew 7:13-14 that only a few find the narrow, hard way that leads to life while the crowds are on the wide, easy way bound for destruction. Is a church with 10,000 in attendance that preaches a God who is essentially a cosmic vending machine dispensing goodies to those who insert enough coins more faithful than a church with 80 clinging to the old rugged cross?
Those in big or small churches who criticize churches that minister faithfully but differently often do so out of insecurities about their own ministry. The small church hurls rocks at the big one because it’s easier than dealing with the pitiful lack of passion for the lost in their ministry. The big church lampoons the small church because it’s easier than dealing with the shallow converts they’ve created in their ministry. Let us instead strive to glorify God in whatever church He has placed us and realize that God uses both big and small churches to accomplish His glorious ends.