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:
Currently, 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.