Large Churches Part 3 – Facing the Issues

I have had lots of very interesting conversations over recent weeks on the subject of large churches, mainly prompted by my two recent posts (part 1,part 2). This will be the penultimate one in a four part series, and today I want to think about how a large church can address some of the issues that proponents of small church warn against.

Lost in the Crowd

One issue with a huge church is that of simply not knowing everyone. People can find that they simply don’t know the people they are sitting next to in church, the people who are on the platform leading the meeting, the people who are teaching their children and so on. It can leave people feeling isolated and without a real sense of community.

Obviously a good cell group structure goes a long way to alleviating this problem. However, I also feel that there needs to be opportunities to gather in groups bigger than 10-20, but smaller than 1000s from time to time. Mark Stibbe at St Andrews Chorleywood is promoting the idea of mid-size communities where a subset of the entire church gather together for Sunday worship. The smaller size makes it easier to get to know a wider variety of people, and to develop and use your gifts in an appropriately sized context. I’ve arranged for my cell group to have a joint meeting with three other groups in December to try this idea out for myself.

Developing Gifts

This point follows on from the previous one. A huge church will (quite rightly) make use of their exceptionally gifted preachers and worship leaders for their Sunday gatherings. But this often means that their is no context in which novices can grow and develop their own gifts. Similarly, those growing in charismatic gifts may feel less intimidated by a meeting of 100 people than one of 1000. Again mid-sized communities may be an answer to this. Dave Bish reports that his church of 450 meets as four congregations of 100 which has enabled many more people to develop in a preaching gifting than would otherwise be possible.

Local Impact

Here’s another big issue that large churches must face, and Richard brought it up in his comments. If the church is out of town, or even in a town centre, then what happens to the Christian witness in the villages, council estates and suburbs around? Wouldn’t it be better for there to be a good church in walking distance for the people living in those places, even if it is smaller?

Many leaders of mega-churches have actually acknowledged that there is still a need for such local churches. But the big churches also need to get creative about how they can reach those local communities. This is more than just having a cell group in the area. Perhaps hiring the village hall or a school hall for regular events would be one way that the local residents can see the church as being genuinely interested in their community. My church runs a Kidz Klub in a school in a nearby estate, which has enabled us to build some bridges with that community. A bus also runs to our church from that estate, as many who live their do not have their own transport.

Logistics of Scale

Mega-churches often have the very big – their Sunday meeting, and the very small – their cell groups. But what about other ministries? How do you run a work with 200 teenagers? The dynamic is very different to a smaller church which might have say 30 teenagers. One answer is to take the cell group approach for all these areas. When the mothers and toddlers, or elderly people’s groups get too big, simply find more leaders and spit them. This allows them to retain a sense of community and avoids the lost in the crowd issue, although requires a lot of organisation. The opposite approach is to super-size it, and change the way you run those ministries to a much more front-led model with less one on one interaction from leaders to individuals. To be honest, both approaches have their benefits. I’m not sure one is better than the other, but churches need to carefully think this through to ensure that the quality of ministry is not watered down.

Follow the Money

Another criticism often leveled at big churches is their handling of money. It can be a real hinderance to witness when the local community notices that the church is spending vast amounts of money on its own property (or even its pastor’s birthday party). Large churches, because they have a bigger budget are perhaps more easily tempted into self-indulgent extravagance than a small church struggling to get by would be. In reality, there must be a “big picture” kingdom mentality from the leaders of a church, that desires to see God’s will be done outside their immediate local context if money is to be put to wise use.

The Great Omission?

Dallas Willard’s recent book The Great Omission” (I’ve not read it) asks whether the church has neglected Jesus’ command to make disciples, not just ‘converts’. This is perhaps one of the great dangers of the church growth movement’s emphasis on “evangelism”. It is all to easy for a large church to congratulate itself simply for being large, and having many new converts. But if there is no discipleship going on, then the spiritual health of the church will be extremely poor. It is a shame really, because large churches are usually better resourced than small to implement really good discipleship programs. It just needs someone to champion them, or else the “seeker sensitive” agenda can become the only agenda.

4 thoughts on “Large Churches Part 3 – Facing the Issues

  1. Hi Mark,

    I like what you say in this post.

    It is certainly interesting that the era of the ‘mega-church’ coincides with the era of the ‘mega-market’, and perhaps analogies could be drawn (as you rightly quote me) between the well recognised effect of the one on local food businesses and the other on ‘local christian community’.

    The other major issue is the ‘value’ system that mega-church underpins, which is the priority on growth and productivity (again strong western values) which can (and often does) war against the less measurable values of authenticity, relationship, probity and accountability.

    It’s interesting to see those within the larger churches (such as your church and that of St. Andrews Chorley Wood) who appreciate these less quantifiable values, having to effectively ‘break down’ the size of the community to be able to sustain and promote these values.

    At what point, then, does one find themselves effectively ‘reinventing’ the wheel, since the witness of the historic church has always been to maintain managably sized local communities (as the core/key unit of ‘church’ – the ‘parish’) and then to join these smaller units under a larger administrative body (the diocese) led by a unifying ministry (the bishop) occasionally meeting within a larger setting (the cathedral).

    Thus, the ‘mega-congregation’ is not a 20th century ‘discovery’, however the identification of it as the ‘ideal’ expression of ‘local church’ is very much a new (and heterodox) direction.

  2. You make a good point. A growing number of mega churches are going ‘multi-site’, often with teaching being shown on big screens, but I can see this evolving into something not that different from parishes that are under the bishop in the cathedral. Where the analogy breaks down is that the mega-churches are not officially related to one another in any way (no arch-bishops!).

  3. Yes, you’re right. And it raises yet another point about the lack of catholicity (small ‘c’ = universal and united wider church) within these mega-ministries.

    The issue of ‘inter-relatedness’ (or the lack of it!) is clearly vital to the mission of the Church. Again, from the witness of history, we see many individual ‘missions’ pioneering into ‘virgin-territory’ (and being very successful) but then having to sort out their greater ecclesial structure (one could argue this is already apparent within the NT with the Gentile/Jewish churches). In fact the ability to so organise oneself was what gave the early church it’s ‘catholic’ identity.

    Certainly in the UK the fault line (in the early medieval period) was between the Roman and Celtic church, which was addressed at the synod of Whitby. In our current day we see a multiplicity of jurisdictions, each looking to their own structures and ‘traditions’, and the need for a ‘catholic’ organisation has never been so great.

    A friend of mine likened this to the need for BOTH innovative car salesmen AND coordinated aftersales care! It’s all very well proclaiming the gospel but Christians need to be united under a cooperative structure if the effect is to last (and be developed on).

    The problem is that so many of these megachurches (or indeed denominations) think that their structure is the only one to which they need to relate (again a result of being so large that one doesn’t ‘need’ to look elsewhere for resources…).

    Clearly, England needs to be (and is being) re-evangelised through the ministry of these larger churches (and denominations, such as NFI), but the critical next phase is how to unite the fruit of these ministries to the wider ecclesial structures already established within this region?

    The hard work of the past 40 odd years is valid and vital, but the sub-level of ‘organisation’ that we currently have is, ultimately, too ‘small a thing’ to stay as it is and the next big task for the church (in its diverse articulations in this country) is how to unite itself.

  4. Hi Mark

    This is a very pertinent issue for me and I think we have failed to grasp the nettle and possibly we are missing goepel oppotunities.

    Clearly in the bible there are references to the commitment of churches in the gentile areas giving to support the church in Jerusalem. I am priest in charge of a small group of 2 rural parishes we are evangelical in the classical understanding of that term. We suffer from the Tesco church effect. People are nurtured in the gospel and show that being part of a vibrant bible teachjing community of faith is important. They then ofetn move to local larger churches that can provide greater oppotuinites withouyt them having to do anything..

    Why do people go to Churches like St Andrews Chorleywood, St Andrew the Great or any other church if there is a bible teaching church in their village or town?

    I firmly beileve that it is the duty of all clergy to examine closely as people come in why are they joining my church and should they be in their local community of faith. The impct of people staying and being involved would be transforming to local parish ministry.

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