Skip to content

On Small Churches and Large Worlds

I followed a rabbit trail this morning from a blog that I occasionally read to the website of the church where the blogger was a pastor. It had been a while since I had visited the website of an American evangelical mega-church, and after a few minutes of browsing I was beginning to experience a bit of sensory overload. There was a page for every conceivable ministry under the sun—addictions, young moms, men, young adults, sports enthusiasts… On and on the list went. And then there was the “staff” page. There must have been close to fifty people and profiles as I just kept scrolling down and down and down the page. Pastors for care, for counseling, for administration, for music, for preaching, for teaching, for kids, for “operations,” for seniors, for outreach… I didn’t see any pastors for pets, but maybe I didn’t scroll down far enough.

I thought of our church website’s staff page with its one lonely inhabitant… 

After a minute or so on the site, I began to feel very small. I began to feel that the church I am a part of was very small.

Everything about the megachurch’s website and staff bios was polished, well-produced, and professional looking. There was a whole section of the website that narrated what a typical “Weekend Experience” might look like. There were slick videos and creative graphics and a whole host of other media crammed full of imagination and inspiration.  I thought about how I might describe a “weekend experience” in our little community. Well, we straggle together around 9:45 for Sunday School… We have to put out our own chairs in the back of the sanctuary, because we don’t have enough rooms… Sometimes musicians are rehearsing… Nearly always the pastor is engaged with full-on hostilities with the printer as he tries to get the sermon he finished late last night out the door… Sometimes the kids make snacks downstairs… The service starts around 11:00… We sing, we smile, we pray, we listen to one another. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes there are outbursts in the service, whether from kids or from a L’Arche member who regularly worships with us… As far as “weekend experiences” go, I suppose you might say it’s “mixed.” 🙂

Yes, it’s easy to feel small when held up beside the mega-church and all it can offer. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

In a recent article called “Small is Large,” Philip Yancey reflects upon his latest visit to a mega church:

purplelightsCurrently, 1300 U.S. congregations qualify as megachurches, averaging more than 2000 in weekly attendance. The one I visited has more parking-lot volunteers than my church has members.

I’ll say one thing for megachurches: they can afford quality. The sermon was both entertaining and insightful, the super-loud music flawless (I declined the earplugs that were considerately offered at the welcome booth), and those parking volunteers got us in and out in record time.

Yet the majority of Americans, like me, still attend churches with less than 200 members. We show up on Sundays to hear less entertaining sermons and less professional music—though we have no trouble finding a parking place. Why? Smaller towns don’t have the option of megachurches, of course, and big crowds make some people nervous. I found one more reason when I came across this paradoxical observation in G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics:

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”

Precisely! Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on EPA gas mileage ratings. Yet after a while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups (and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else.

Henri Nouwen defines “community” as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, which forms a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.

It certainly does.

I’m not anti-megachurch. I have good friends who are part of churches far larger than my own, and I love and respect them greatly. But even though I admire some of what the big churches are able to do, I’m a small church kind of guy. I like it that I know people’s names, that I know a bit of their stories. I like it that the kids just call me “Ryan” with no “pastor” prefixed to it. I like it that we can bring food to church and share it with one another after the service. I like it that we have a volunteer lawn-mowing sign up sheet, and that people hire my son to do it for them. I like it that people just show up to paint the basement. I like it that I don’t feel a ton of pressure to make sure things look or sound “professional” each week, that I am loved and valued as I am, that people are kind to me even when the sermon stinks. I like it that we have people who are miles apart theologically and politically, yet we can still come to same Table, the same Lord.

And, in my better moments, I’m glad that my companions are given to me rather than being the ones I might naturally choose. Last night, my son and I went for supper with a handful of seniors from the bible study group to a Mexican Mennonite restaurant in a town not far from here. We do this each year around this time as Bible study begins to wind down for the year. We eat food that probably isn’t very good for us, we drink Coke in bottles imported from Mexico, we talk about health problems and politics and playoff hockey. As I looked around the supper table last night, as I saw my long-haired teenage son with jet-black hair and brown skin sitting around the table with a bunch of people at least four times his age, many of whose first language is Low-German, I thought of Chesterton’s quote above. And I thanked God for my small community and the large world they forced me to live in.


The image above is of a wooden cross that one of the people I went out for dinner last night made for me.  He had been working on it for months, and was quite obviously thrilled to give it to me.  And I, of course, was delighted to receive it.  I put on the shelf in my office this morning as a reminder of the larger world I get to live in because of my small church.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great stuff. Beginning to end. thank you.

    May 8, 2015
  2. Brian C. #

    Thanks for this Ryan. I’m a small church pastor too and I’ve spent way to much time worrying about how we look and that we don’t use powerpoint only to look in the mirror be humbled b/c my own preaching isn’t “excellent” and my style is not really all that ‘professional’ (I’ve got rooster tails and baby spit up on my shirt). I’m gifted as a shepherd, not an administrator. I’m slowly understanding how my limitations are a gift. As Christians, love, hospitality, kindness, and practical helps never go out of style. I love the ‘song’ we sing here in my church and some days it’s an awkward sound. But it’s our God song and it’s God’s way among us. Sometimes it seems like “cultural relevance” or “excellence” is the highest value in North American church culture. Yes we have to be relevant in our communication of the Good News, but there’s other important things too. Paul’s exhortation was to be excellent in love. I also want to value simplicity more than I do. I’m learning so much from my congregation. They’re are so gracious and kind to me. It’s a wonderful gift to be loved for who we are.

    May 8, 2015
    • I want to value the same things. Thanks for this, Brian.

      May 9, 2015
  3. Sharon Gravelle #

    When we moved to a remote, isolated community on Vancouver Island from the lower mainland in the mid 90’s the entire population of our new hometown was three quarters the size of the church we had been attending. Talk about culture shock! We socialized with people we would not necassarily have chosen at the outset but when we moved 2 years later it was very hard to leave behind the wonderful people we had grown to love. We also knew we would miss the easier, laid back lifestyle. Our church community and the broader village community learned to depend on one another… something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Larger towns and cities with their quick access to major roadways have many distractions that prevent the type of community which is possible.

    May 8, 2015
    • Your story illustrates the truth of the quotes in the post above so well, Sharon. Thanks for this. Good to hear from you!

      May 9, 2015
  4. Yvonne #

    Thank you Ryan. Love the read. Very appropriate for us at SCC.

    May 9, 2015
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Mega church must go. It is an offense to the Spirit and word of God. Were Christ to walk through one, he would turn over it’s tables with the same passion and contempt as he did in the temple.

    Mega church is a business model and a business model never was and never will be a House of God.

    May 9, 2015
    • Wow, Paul. Tell us how you really feel. 😉

      May 10, 2015
  6. Paul Johnston #

    lol…give it to them straight, preacher!! 🙂

    May 10, 2015
  7. mike #

    A Mega Church here in Lexington that I attended *for awhile played a vital role in my being able to navigate the difficult psychological hurdles(Guilt/Condemnation) associated with Evangelical fundamentalist “backsliding” and re-turn to a patient waiting God. It was exactly what I needed at a critical juncture in my spiritual journey, and I left that church shortly afterwards.

    It’s my observation that the life-blood of a Mega church is the constant in-flow of new recruits because turnover is so great. Most people attending a Mega Church will usually leave within 24 months or so of regular attendance, and most will leave for good reason(s). I think most Mega Church’s are a great short term light house for drawing in all the “seekers” out there, but they are in no way designed for long term spiritual maintenance, for that you’ll need to find a good AA Group 🙂 IMO

    May 11, 2015
    • Paul Johnston #

      They are designed for profit and while it is heartening to know that they were useful to a man who was committed to re-orienting his spiritual journey ( Cudos to you brother 🙂 ) my spirit is convinced that they do far more harm then good.

      May 12, 2015
      • mike #

        There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Jesus entrepreneurs running these mega Christian enterprises are driven by Ego and numbers, but at the same time I know that generally people/seekers have to begin their spiritual journeys somewhere on the religious terrain, some happen to end up on the doorsteps of a Mega Church (though probably not for long). I think Mega Church’s are great for teaching people the basic rudiments of the Faith by utilizing clever showmanship and use of modern media, but the accolades stop there. The majority of these shallow believers will eventually leave the Mega Church in search of something deeper and more “authentic”. For them, the journey is just beginning.

        “And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand”

        May 12, 2015
  8. Paul Johnston #

    If it were up to me… I’d rush into the situation without prayer and reflection……because odds being odds, it’s bound to work one time…. Right?… RIGHT !!!…. I would turn over the tables on the “Fundies”, blow up the sound system on the “Megas”, remind all the other Protestant denominations that the Eucharistic Table IS the real Presence and then go home to the Catholic Churches and kick our mostly lazy selves for not being the difference makers in the world that we are commanded to be.

    I would be a, “smoke their sorry asses” kind of deity….if it were up to me.

    May 11, 2015
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Forgive me, Mike but I cannot accept that something that by design/nature is anti-ethical to Christ would be the means by which Christ would bring us to faith. Our God is not a cruel cynic.

    The Spirit was at work within you and you survived the, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. Many will not.

    May 13, 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: