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.”

Review: “40 Questions About Elders and Deacons” by Benjamin Merkle

0004464_40_questions_about_elders_and_deaconsThis book is a helpful resource and a welcome volume on the pastoral leadership of the church. Tom Schreiner wrote the foreword, and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to explaining the importance of this subject:

“The church is not a human institution or idea. The ordering of the church is not a matter of our wisdom or preference. The church is not a business where the brightest executives brainstorm on how it should be organized. Too many conceive of the church as a human organism where we innovatively map out its structure. God has not left us to our own devices. He has given us instructions on the nature and design of the church in His inspired and authoritative Word. To jettison what God says about the church and supplant it with our own ideas is nothing less than astonishing arrogance.”

Merkle doesn’t shy from emphasizing this significance either. He cautions that unbiblical models of church leadership can lead to unbiblical church leaders, and describes how this affects the nature of pastoral ministry and also the life and health of the church body. He effectively shows from Scripture that God intends for the local church to be pastored by a council of elders and why the common practice of distinguishing a senior or lead pastor from the elders is not biblical.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is divided into 40 questions, each of them addressing a specific question regarding elders and deacons. (Technically, there are 39 questions since the author devotes two chapters to one of the questions.) This book is well-written, and I don’t see any reason why most people won’t read it from cover to cover. But the way it’s organized makes it especially helpful for those who need to quickly locate an answer to a particular question.

It’s difficult to think of a pertinent question the author doesn’t cover. The first few chapters explore church polity in general. He explains how the New Testament terms “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) refer to the same church office. Merkle notes that while most evangelical pastors and scholars would agree with this conclusion, it’s all too rarely applied today in the local church. He does a great job of describing the different forms of church leadership in their historical contexts, and showing scripturally why Acts 15 doesn’t support the episcopal or presbyterian models. I deeply appreciate the strong stand he takes against making a distinction between the elders and a pastor or senior pastor.

The next chapters focus on the role of the elder. This is excellent material, and the author makes it accessible and understandable. He devotes one chapter to Timothy and Titus, nicely clarifying the apostolic nature of their ministries. In the following section of the book, Merkle examines the qualifications for elders. I thought his treatment demonstrated extensive knowledge of the material, spiritual wisdom and balanced application. He capably handles questions regarding the “husband of one wife,” whether an elder must be married and whether his children must be believers. To require that an elder—even one who serves as a primary teacher/preacher—have a seminary degree is to go beyond God’s standards for elders and to artificially add our own. The author explains this. He spends three chapters discussing whether women can be elders, and his handling of the key biblical passages is superb, particularly his distinguishing between cultural applications and transcultural principles. I also appreciated his explanation of the difference between prophecy and preaching. Some have mistakenly assumed that prophecy is preaching, and this has led to ministry practices that are confusing and unhealthy.

With questions 21-28 Merkle moves to the plurality of the church elders. He points out that the ‘one elder per house church’ idea is purely conjectural, not found in Scripture, and that we shouldn’t base our polity on such speculative ideas. He shows the clear, consistent biblical model of a plurality of pastoral elders in each church, and also the complete lack of scriptural examples or precedent for a sole or senior pastor. He discusses practical issues such as whether there should be a fixed number of elders and if the elders should require unanimous consensus when making decisions, giving pros and cons for each practice. The author describes real advantages to plural pastoral ministry, reasons why more churches aren’t structured this way, and gives some helpful thoughts on transitioning to this kind of leadership model. He warns against using terms such as “lay elder” or “lay pastor,” and also cautions about having too little overlap between the church elders and the staff, essentially creating a third church office. (I think many large churches with an eldership structure need to seriously consider this last point.) In this section, Merkle makes a statement I find to be true and a cause for concern:

“The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.”

That should give us all pause.

Questions 29-33 cover more practical issues concerning elders such as: How should elders be selected? How long should they serve? Should they be ordained? etc. In chapters 34-40, Merkle examines the role of the deacon. And I suppose this is as good a place as any to note a few of the author’s minor points with which I would disagree. Scripture never defines the exact role of the deacon, and I see great wisdom in this. Ministry needs arise that are important and that must be addressed, but which would draw the elders from their specific, God-given role. In such cases, it’s wise to appoint other church leaders to oversee these areas of responsibility. Because this will vary greatly from church to church, it makes perfect sense to me that the New Testament doesn’t give us a normative description of the ministry role of the deacon.

But Merkle disappointingly assumes that all deacons were focused on the physical needs of the people. He bases this (as others have) on the account in Acts 6:1-6. I don’t think anyone would disagree that caring for the physical needs of the people fits within the scope of ministry for deacons. But should the entire range of appropriate ministry options for deacons be defined and limited by this one, solitary example in a narrative account? Is it only the elders who can provide teaching and leadership to youth, children, women’s ministries(!), men’s ministries, etc.? Can only elders lead in counseling ministries or working with people with addictions? If these are legitimate ministry needs—with a need for leadership that often goes beyond the scope of those who pastor the whole church—and if these ministries somehow can’t fit within the role of the deacon, aren’t we back to a nebulous third church office that we wanted to avoid? If these people who are serving in some leadership capacity aren’t elders and they aren’t deacons, what exactly are they? How many categories of church leaders are there? I just don’t see how we can extrapolate a comprehensive pattern for ministry from one narrative detail that may very well have been occasional in nature. This is why many of us feel that all church leadership responsibilities beyond the specific role of the elders fall into the intentionally undefined role of the deacons, under the oversight of the elders of course. (I also find the author’s arguments against female deacons unconvincing.)

In a few places, Merkle expresses concern about an overly democratic model of congregationalism, and shows the benefits of reaching genuine consensus as opposed to congregational voting. He also repeatedly brings out the necessity of not just an informed congregation, but one involved with the actual process of reaching consensus. This all resonates with me, and is reassuring to many who have been turned off by the democratic model of church votes. But then, in other places, he seems to drag out the old, highly conjectural arguments that are usually used to support the democratic model. Some of these arguments represent the exegetical over-reaching that caused many of us to reject congregationalism in the first place. (I should clarify that I’ve returned to a modified, consensus-based form of congregationalism.) Not only are these arguments not necessary for his main conclusions, I don’t think they’re borne out by the texts. I found all of this confusing, even placing a few of his descriptions of the role of the church body in conflict with his described role for the church elders.

My final quibble involves two interrelated issues. Merkle feels that, since only elders are specifically tasked with teaching, the role of deacons therefore cannot include regular teaching as a specific matter of responsibility. He quotes D.A. Carson to support this even though Carson is not making the same point Merkle is. Carson rightly points out that deacons enjoy no “church-recognized teaching authority akin to that of the elders.” This is an important point, especially in churches that have elevated the role of deacons to essentially that of the church elders. But just because the elders authoritatively teach the church, why does this mean there can be no other leaders who teach regularly as part of their specific ministry?

In a similar way, Merkle cautions against using the term “pastor” to refer to any leaders in the church other than the elders. So, for instance, we shouldn’t designate a non-elder as a youth pastor or women’s pastor. But why not? All the elders are pastors, this is very true. But are only elders pastors? Is there to be no one else in the church with a shepherding gift and role? Is the youth pastor not pastoring the youth? Or the women’s pastor the women? the children’s pastor the children? If these people are serving in an authentically shepherding role, why not acknowledge this in our terminology? How is this out of harmony with the New Testament model? Again, yes, God designates the elders as those who pastor and teach the whole church. But where stands it written that they are therefore the only shepherds and teachers within the church? Why can’t the non-elder members of the church leadership team or staff—whether paid or voluntary—correspond to the biblical role of the church deacons? (Whether we call them deacons, pastors, ministers or something else would be a secondary issue.)

Despite these disagreements, which are relatively minor, I find this book to be extremely beneficial and useful to anyone wanting to better understand the biblical teachings on the pastoral leadership of the church. Highly recommended.

EFCA Gateway

gateway_cmyk-1Some of you know that I’m passionate about church-based theological education. While I’m extremely thankful for sound evangelical scholarship and appreciate seminary professors as vital resources for the church, I’ve long been a proponent of training pastors in a local church context. There’s much to commend such an approach both biblically and historically (and economically).

So you can understand my excitement at learning more about EFCA Gateway. This EFCA ministry is designed for leaders who need theological and pastoral training, but lack the time and resources to access traditional seminary education. I hope to become very involved with EFCA Gateway and will be writing much more about it in the future. But probably the best introduction is this video:

Review: “The Team Concept: Paul’s Church Leadership Patterns or Ours?” by Bruce Stabbert

From time to time, I’m going to post reviews of books related to elders and pastoral leadership. I’ll try to add these books in somewhat chronological order, first reviewing the earliest books. Hopefully these reviews will be helpful to those seeking more knowledge and wisdom on this important topic.

To my knowledge, before Alexander Strauch’s book was published (Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership), this would have been the only full-length treatment of church elders not written from a specifically Presbyterian point of view. Although Stabbert’s book has been eclipsed by Strauch’s, this is still an excellent book on biblical church leadership.

Stabbert devotes the first three chapters primarily to biblical exegesis of the relevant passages showing a plurality of pastoral leaders in the New Testament churches. He then follows with some helpful discussion of various aspects of biblical eldership. Here are some of his points that I especially appreciated:

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?
In this opening chapter, the author examines each of the words used to describe church leaders, and shows how such terms as elder, overseer, bishop, pastor, etc. refer to the same leaders. He also very quickly and effectively shows that a distinction of one pastor from the rest of the elders is contrary to Scripture.

Chapter 2: One or Many?
This chapter traces the consistent, biblical pattern of plurality among the pastoral leaders of each individual church. Some have speculated that each city included many house churches, and have used this conjecture to challenge the concept of plural pastoral leaders for each church. Stabbert does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of such a challenge.

Chapter 3: A Verdict That Demands an Evidence
He does a good job handling those biblical leaders that some claim are exceptions to a pattern of plural pastoral leaders (Timothy, James, etc.). I wish he had gone into a little more detail regarding James, particularly the amount of baggage placed on one word in the Greek (krino), which can simply mean to offer one’s opinion or perspective.

Chapter 4: If the Shoe Fits
Stabbert lists ten benefits of adopting this biblical model of church leadership. Very helpful insights.

Chapter 5: We’ve Never Done It That Way Before
Ably handles common objections to this leadership model. I particularly appreciated his discussion of pastoral training, seminary education, and the overemphasis of a unique “call” to pastoral ministry.

Chapter 6: How Now?
Good thoughts on how to make sure a process of change in a church is a healthy one.

Chapter 7: The Inside Story
Solid section on the qualifications for elders. Helpful discussion on the desired age of elders. (Can a 24-year old seminary graduate be considered an “elder”?) Excellent description of the “Indigenous Principle,” i.e. raising up and using pastoral leaders from within the congregation rather than routinely hiring from outside.

Chapter 8: Player-Coaches
Insightful description of what the biblical duties of elders really are.

This is still a very helpful book. For anyone serving or preparing to serve as an elder, or for a church considering a transition to leadership by a council of co-equal elders, I think this book would prove to be beneficial and edifying.

So what exactly do elders do?

I’m going to move on to other topics (I promise!), but some have responded to the series on team pastoral leadership by asking, “So what do elders do?” If our traditional understanding of the pastoral role isn’t entirely accurate, what would a biblical job description for these church shepherds look like? Here is an explanation of the role of the elder, as drawn from Acts 6:4; 20:28-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-11; James 5:14-15; 1 Peter 5:1-3.

Pray for the church
The elders are to devote themselves to praying for the spiritual health and vitality of the people in the church, and to lift up to God any needs of the people.

Teach the church
The elders are to be involved in teaching the people the Word of God and overseeing other teachers in the congregation, to make sure that the body is well-fed spiritually, so that the people might grow as fully committed and mature followers of Christ.

Lead the church
The elders are to be continually seeking the will of God for the direction of the church by constant prayer, study of the Scriptures, and wise consideration of the needs and opportunities of the church. They should regularly seek the input and counsel of others in the body, and then should lead in applying biblical principles to specific situations and circumstances.

Care for the church
The elders should demonstrate loving concern for the spiritual well-being of the people in the church. They are to be available to pray with and counsel anyone in the body struggling with spiritual, emotional or physical problems.

Guard the church
The elders are to be constantly on guard against any false teaching or harmful behavior in the church. They must be able to refute false teaching and act decisively against any destructive activity.

Equip the church
The elders are not responsible for all the ministry within the church, but through their ministry (as described above) they are to equip their brothers and sisters in the body to minister to each other and serve one another in love. The elders should help the people discover their spiritual gifts, provide opportunities for them to use and strengthen their ministry skills, and train new elders and pastors.

A couple of final points that I think are very important:

  • Not all elders will be equally gifted in every area of responsibility. Some elders will be better leaders than teachers. Some will be excellent at teaching in small groups or one-on-one, but not at teaching in large group settings. This is healthy and one of the reasons why the biblical pattern is a group of leaders pastoring the church. The strength of the different elders will complement and balance each other. However, all of the elders should be involved, in some way, in each of these areas of ministry.
  • Not all elders will pastor as a full-time vocation. Some will be supported financially by the church, particularly those who devote great amounts of time to studying and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). However, each elder shares in the responsibility to shepherd the church of God, and no elder is to be elevated above the others.