The churches mentioned in the New Testament met in homes. When they came together for encouragement, fellowship, worship and teaching, they gathered in someone’s courtyard, or in their dining room. Some of those who hosted these meetings modified their houses to accomodate more people in a room, but when the church in a particular city grew to the point where it couldn’t meet in one home, it simply formed another group and met in two locations, then three, then in multiple homes in the same city. They considered themselves one church, networked for ministry purposes among their elders and leaders, and when necessary, received apostolic guidance. But the dynamics and intimacy of the small group, based on the closeness of the relationships that developed, helped to pull the church together.
In our culture today, bigness signifies success. By comparison, the majority of our churches meet together in much larger groups than the early church did. Even in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is a denomination of small churches by comparison, churches average about 120 people. But a high percentage of our average weekly attendance gathers in buildings built to accomodate several thousand people. And in some cases, those buildings are filled with people more than once on a Sunday. Some of these church facilities could accomodate what would be a good crowd for an NBA or NHL game and ironically, there is at least one church that meets in an old NBA facility modified for their purposes.
In such gatherings, much is lost from what was once the core of practice of the early church. The scriptures tell us that early church gatherings involved the entire group, that everyone who was there had a word of encouragement, or a hymn, or a prophetic word, and that they exercised their spiritual gifts. Paul tells the Corinthian church, “When you come together, everyone has…” In today’s typical Christian church in America, a separate set of “clergy” are “up front” leading the worship, and the seating is arranged so that most of the participants are spectators. The individual intimacy that existed as the Spirit moved upon the body of Christ is lost. People sing at the appropriate time, and listen at the appropriate time. And in such an environment, it is hard to tell who is on stage and who is the audience.
In American culture, large churches operate on an attraction model, rather than on the missional model of the New Testament. People are attracted to the church by what it is able to do with its resources. Facilities that a university would be proud to own, “ministry” programs with a high level of entertainment value for children and youth, worship services that incorporate a wide variety of musical styles, performed by an orchestra and choir, or a praise band with celebrity status, and a pastor who is at the very least a noted author are all part of the draw. “So,” the argument goes, “if that brings people to the church, what is wrong with that?”
If “attracting people to the church” is the goal, then there is probably nothing wrong with it. However, there is a question of where those people are coming from. Though most large church leaders would deny it, the crowd they gather generally comes from other churches, usually smaller congregations that are not able to offer enough services to “meet the perceived needs” of their members. Though some churches are definitely growing, if you look closely at the churches in the same general area, you will find that most of them are declining, and the decline is probably comparable to the growth of the nearby megachurch. Their baptism numbers are impressive as well, but if you put together a dozen churches that collectively have an equal number of people in attendance, the baptism numbers would be relatively the same, and in some cases, perhaps even higher among the smaller churches. And even though the numbers seem impressive, a high percentage of those baptized are the children of people who are already members.
As those attracted to the larger churches leave their smaller churches, the effectiveness of those churches, and their ability to do ministry is diminished. They are losing parts of the body that God determined they needed to have in order to function. And in many cases, when they join the larger church, they are lost to service ministry because they were doing something in their old church, but there is no position or place for them to serve in their new church. Smaller churches then feel compelled to “compete” in order to keep from losing their members, and the focus of their ministry turns inward, away from outreach and a missional focus to a focus on pleasing their own membership and meeting “their perceived needs.”
In the process of shuffling members, many people simply drop out. The level of accountability to each other that exists in a small group, and which is intended to be a natural means of encouragement and discipleship, does not exist in a large church. If you’re out one Sunday, no one notices, especially if you are not involved in a Bible study group or a small group. It becomes easier for people to decide to do something on their own, or plan weekend activities that don’t involve going to church. The end result is that while we have a few churches that are increasing in attendance, baptisms are declining, and overall, whether it is the church in America in general, or specific denominational segments of it, most are seeing substantial numerical decline.
We need to return to the scriptural principles of functioning as the body of Christ. People need to be in ministry that exists not for meeting the “perceived needs” of people already in the kingdom, but to bring the gospel message to people who are not, opening the door for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. Christians need to build relationships with other Christians that provide a level of accountability, and that develop and deepen their discipleship. Reading books or sitting and listening to a prominent pastor’s twenty minute sermon once or twice a week is not enough, and it keeps you from developing those relationships.
We also need to instruct our people to develop a conviction about which body of Christ they need to serve. Understanding that “God arranges the parts of the body exactly as he chooses,” people need to be aware of their spiritual gifts, and how those gifts function in a body. For those already in a large congregation, the way to do this is to find a small group in which to get involved, or to start one yourself. Many churches have them, though in most cases, only a small percentage of their members are involved in them. Yet this is mentioned several times in the New Testament, and is portrayed as a vital and important element of the church’s existence.
Instead of building a church which meets our perceived needs, as Christians, we need to be building churches that provide community and encourage believers to be missional, and to use their gifts to help others.