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.”

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

“Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.

“Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

Core commitment 3: Team-led and team taught

imagesWe must have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers:

  • The New Testament model of church leadership is one of local churches being led by teams of pastoral elders (with no mention of a senior or lead pastor). These elders serve in differing capacities depending on their gifting and available time, but they all share in the shepherding of the church.
  • While accepting that some elders/pastors may seem more prominent because of their gifting, we must guard against the unhealthy perception that any particular elder is the pastor of the church.
  • We will only appoint as elders/pastors men who are ministering pastorally by leading, teaching or tending. The elders must be the pastors of the church, not just in name but in actual ministry.
  • The New Testament doesn’t show the church to be a dictatorship of the elders or a democracy of the people. The elders must truly lead—gently, humbly and in a Christ-like way—but at times they must lead the people in reaching true, biblically-informed, spiritually-mature consensus on major issues.
  • We must strive to apply this New Testament principle of plural leadership consistently throughout the church. The plurality of the elders in pastoring the whole church should be an example to the teams of leaders overseeing all other ministries within the church.

Exploring a possible church plant

As many of you know, my wife, Kelley, and I moved back to California earlier this year, returning from over 13 years of ministering in Puerto Rico. Looking strictly at circumstances, it would seem the economic situation in Puerto Rico forced this move. But we believe God is sovereign over circumstances, and that the timing of this change was—and is—in his hands. The church there has transitioned from being overly dependent on one paid elder/pastor to being served by three unpaid, bi-vocational elder/pastors (along with others stepping up to do their part in ministry). They are now realizing the level of team leadership and teaching to which we always aspired. Although it was sad for us to leave, this is a good and healthy change.

imagesAs for us, we’re now in Placerville, CA (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe). The transition for us hasn’t been as smooth as we had hoped. Over the past few months, we’ve had trouble finding good jobs, finding a place to live, and dealing with ministry opportunities that didn’t pan out. But we still trust God’s timing and believe that he has been working through these circumstances. We’re praying for wisdom and the sensitivity to be aware of any guidance God is giving us.

We’re prayerfully considering planting a church in the Placerville area. Some have asked me what a new church would look like (whether here or somewhere else). So I’ve written out four core commitments I see as essential for a new church. I’ll post them here one at a time. I’m not implying that these commitments would be unique to us. Some could prove to distinguish us from other churches, but this isn’t really the intent. The idea is that these four core commitments, together, would constitute the DNA of a new church. All other distinctive strategies and methods we might develop would be built on the foundation of these core commitments.

You may notice these posts don’t include a detailed description or vision for this new church. This is intentional. As you read through these commitments (or if you’ve read many of my posts on church leadership), you’ll see why for me to plan out in detail my vision for a church plant—and then look for people who will support my unique vision—would be contradictory. It’s not that I don’t have a vision or a lot of ideas for a new church! But the plan is to first establish a consistently biblical vision for a church plant. Then, as a team, we can brainstorm how to best apply these biblical principles to our specific context. The comment threads of these posts are a great place for this kind of discussion!