Rethinking Church


I am becoming increasingly dubious about the goal of having a large church with a multi-million dollar facility and large, professional staff. I’m still waiting for a really good experience in such an organization.

The main problem I’ve encountered is that to build such a large church, one of the necessary components is a really gifted speaker who most likely then becomes the de facto leader of the church. The leader then surrounds himself with like-minded staff and elders, and groupthink sets in. As a result, the only opinion represented in the leadership is the opinion of the gifted speaker (and de facto leader).

This is not how the church is represented in Scripture. Paul uses the analogy of the body, where all the parts are valuable, and Jesus, as the head, assumes the authority and the responsibility to bring together all the necessary parts of the body. These include elders who are gifted with the ability to shepherd the people in the church.

When groupthink sets in, elders that challenge the groupthink are ignored. To ignore those elders or tell them that their input is not required goes against Scripture (and common sense).

Then there is the pragmatic question of how the financial resources of the church are spent. I wonder if the money spent on the large venue is the best use of those resources. You not only have the expense of building the large building, there is also so a large increase in the maintenance and operating budgets to support the building.

I have attended two churches that have undertaken building programs. In both cases, rather than being a tool for ministry (as was intended), the building itself became the main focus of the church. In addition, the size of the mortgage and operating budget put unhealthy pressure on the leadership to evaluate the ministry based on potential impact to the giving.

Perhaps we should keep in mind Jesus’ words about the impossibility of serving God and money?

In the year 2020, one of the results of the COVID-19 pandemic is that those who have lived through it will have a different attitude toward large group gatherings for the foreseeable future.

Notice that when you watch a movie or a television program, the sight of a large bunch of people gathered together without masks looks a little weird right now. It is strange to think of being in a group of a thousand or more people, shoulder to shoulder, without masks and copious amounts of hand sanitizer.

This makes me wonder if this isn’t a good time to reexamine the goal of having a large church. Is it a good time to say good-bye to the desire to have thousands of people gathering together in the same place on a Sunday? Is it a good time to say good-bye to large, opulent church buildings? Is it a good time to say good-bye to big, showy productions on Sunday mornings?

This post was prompted by a recent reading of the second chapter of Acts. Specifically, I was challenged by Acts 2:42 which says:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.

Acts 2:42, CSB

In this verse, Luke tells us that there were four components to which the early church was devoted. Below, I’d like to briefly share some thoughts on how these components are handled within many large church settings in 2020.

The Apostles Teaching

Some of the preachers in large churches still do expository preaching from the pulpit. But many have succumbed to the idea that expository preaching is a thing of the past and to draw large crowds, the preacher must do topical sermons to speak to “felt” needs of the people filling the seats or pews.

As I see it, there are two problems with topical preaching. The first is that it is very, very difficult to do it well and to correctly represent what Scripture says on a particular topic. It is all too easy to find the passages that support what the preacher thinks about the topic and ignore the passages that are more difficult or nuanced.

The second problem is that not everything we need to hear from Scripture appeals to a “felt” need in the culture. To cherry-pick passages on which to preach decreases the likelihood that all that God wants us to learn from Scripture will be proclaimed from the pulpit.

Expository preaching, where the preacher goes through a book of the Bible verse by verse, allows for everything in that book to be examined. The preacher can’t skip over the parts that are uncomfortable or the parts that go against popular culture.

In addition to all of this, with a majority of the focus of the church on the Sunday service, one-on-one or small group discipleship can be relegated to a secondary status.

This is a shame because most people who feel very grounded in Scripture would say that much of their grounding came about in a small group or one-on-one setting.

The Fellowship

Can we be totally honest here? Some of the people who are drawn to large churches love the anonymity of being in such a large group. They can hear a sermon, say hello to a few people, and then not have any interaction with other members until the following week.

Is that fellowship?

When you have 1,000 people attending a service you don’t have time or the means of really connecting with others. We get there, say hello to a few people, sit down, sing a few songs, perhaps even have a 2 minute time of greeting other people, listen to a sermon, sing the closing song and then figure out what we’re doing for lunch. There is absolutely no time in such a service to get to know others or get to be known by them.

In every experience I’ve had in a big church, there has been discussion about how to make the big church feel small. The goal is to get people into small groups of various types and various names. This is a tacit admission that large churches don’t do fellowship very well.

Perhaps, maybe we should ask if this is not an indication that smaller churches might be a better way to go.

The Breaking of Bread

A shared meal is a great way of really getting to know someone else. It is a time for conversation to begin and continue naturally. This is how real fellowship takes place.

The logistics of a large dinner for the entire church are increasingly difficult as the size of the church increases.

I’ve known some smaller churches that have a pot luck dinner after service nearly every Sunday. This would be nearly impossible with a large group of people.

Prayer

Upfront, I must admit that I have been at prayer meetings that were difficult for me to sit through. I remember one prayer meeting where one of the saints entered into a long prayer that reminded God and his fellow saints of the dangers of reading the Harry Potter books. There is always a possibility that prayer meetings can devolve into such unhelpful behavior.

The solution to such antics cannot be to eliminate prayer meetings entirely. This is indeed throwing the baby out with the bathwater to use the well-worn idiom. Prayer done badly is no excuse to eliminate it from the church calendar.

But, it seems that many churches, especially the large ones, have indeed eliminated a dedicated time of corporate prayer. The Wednesday evening prayer meeting is a thing of the past.

And for those that do have a prayer meeting on the calendar, often the leadership of the church is not committed to participating in the meeting. Is there a sense, on the part of the leadership, of the absolute dependence upon God for the health of the church? Is the leadership demonstrating that dependence by leading the people in prayer for the church and community?

But then, why do we need to pray when church growth experts have mapped everything out as to how to grow a big church? Perhaps the “proven” methods of filling the seats on a Sunday have eliminated the need to cry out to God in a sense of complete dependence upon Him.

Yes, I’m being a bit cynical here. But my cynicism is fueled by my hurt and confusion over how people, including myself, have been treated in large church settings. The attitude in such churches seems to be, “we have a program, get with that program, or get out.”

I suggest we look at how Jesus interacted with people while he was on earth. Everyone was important to Jesus and everyone felt that they were important to him. We have many stories of Jesus seeking after those who were overlooked or scorned by polite society.

But in large churches, too often the attitude is that “this church isn’t for everyone” which results in a cavalier attitude about those who leave.

The fact that people are leaving and they are leaving after being hurt too often doesn’t cause sufficient alarm among the leadership.

Something is very, very wrong with this.