Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

Just how big were the early house churches?

andre-francois-mckenzie-rz2YF0vBsvA-unsplashTo begin with, you should know that my first pastoral ministry was in the mid-90s when I co-pastored a house church for three years. This was a dynamic time of setting aside church traditions and looking to Scripture alone to see what it means to be the church. At the time, I fit naturally into the house church “movement.” Along the way, we experienced a lot of the joys and benefits of meeting simply in a home, but also the challenges and limitations. We eventually merged with another local fellowship (which had a building), and not too long after this I moved to another city to pursue more in-depth pastoral training.

All of us who were sympathetic to the house church model were drawn to the example of the early churches. In the first few centuries after Christ’s resurrection the early Christians turned the world upside down with the gospel message. Somehow they were able to spread the faith throughout vast geographical areas, establish thriving churches, and train multiple generations of pastoral leaders, all without any need of a church building. Instead, these believers met in ordinary homes (which we invariably understood to be small groups of 10-20 people—maybe as many as 30—sitting in something similar to a typical living room today).

Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We have a group of leaders and potential leaders in our church who meet together monthly and discuss church leadership issues. We had been reading together a thought-provoking book titled Jim and Casper Go to Church. One of the authors, Jim Henderson, is an evangelical pastor, and the other, Matt Casper, is an atheist (or at least was when the book was published). In the book, the two authors attend various churches together and then discuss their perceptions of the churches they visited. It’s an intriguing book, and it stimulated some great discussion and reflection among our team.

The authors visited traditional churches, megachurches, emerging churches . . . and a house church. In the chapter on this house church, the warm, simple fellowship they described triggered some interest in our leaders. Some found this way of doing church appealing, and I felt the need for some follow-up. I hadn’t really thought much about house churches for years, so this prompted some new research on my part.

While doing this research, I ran across a name I vaguely remembered from my house church days. Steve Atkerson has been working with house churches for over 25 years. He is, himself, an elder and pastor/teacher, and he writes and assists others as part of the New Testament Restoration Fellowship. Atkerson has drawn together some fascinating information regarding the early church.

First, he points out that an early church would typically meet in the home of one of their wealthy members. We see evidence of this already in the New Testament with Lydia, who was a merchant of expensive purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15); Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19) who owned a lucrative tent-making business (Acts 18:1-3); Philemon (Philemon 1-2), who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave; and Gaius, in whose home the whole church of Corinth met (Romans 16:23). This makes perfect sense, of course. Why wouldn’t they meet in one of the larger homes?

Atkerson then takes time to explain the typical home in which these churches were meeting. A house owned by a wealthy person in Roman culture would have been much different than our familiar suburban homes in the West. These homes had shops or storefronts in the front with a hall leading back to a large atrium. Off this atrium would have been a business office, kitchen and dining room. Beyond the atrium was an even larger courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and other living areas. These households included servants and/or slaves, and so would have already been fairly large by our standards. A typical day would find people coming and going down the hall, through the atrium, into the business office, and then back out again. These houses would have been much more public than what we’re accustomed to.

Atrium of a villa in Pompei archeological siteNow it gets even more interesting. The early house churches met in the mostly-covered atrium area of the house. In the smaller Roman villas, these areas would have seated 50-60 people. In larger homes, they could have seated as many as 150. What does that mean for us? It means that when we’re imagining an early house church it’s not accurate for us to picture 10-20 people scrunched together in a living room. Instead we need to think of an open area with anywhere from 60-150 people gathered for worship. (They even had something called an “impluvium” in the center of the atrium under an opening in the roof. The impluvium captured rainwater, stored it for use around the house, helped to cool the house in hot weather—and likely served as an early baptistry!)

This is the setting for the churches described throughout most of the book of Acts, and it was to churches meeting in these kinds of spaces that the letters to the churches were written. Obviously, this is quite different from the typical Western house church today. Atkerson (who remember has worked with house churches and house church leaders for over 25 years) contrasts the micro-house churches of today with the Roman atrium-sized house churches of the early church. Ironically, meeting in a modern-sized home may actually hinder a fellowship from following the early church model! (And Atkerson notes that when the early Christians went to their house churches, they didn’t have to find a place to park their cars and risk becoming a weekly irritant to the neighbors.)

So, other than the actual size of the early church gatherings, how big should a church be? Does it make any difference? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mega-churches, micro-churches, and mid-sized churches (i.e. Roman atrium-sized churches)? We’ll look at this next.

If you’re interested in checking out the references for this historical data, you can see Steve Atkerson’s articles here and here.