After years of having a position of some church leadership, I’ve begun to get a feel for what people like and dislike about the church. But I have found that the things that I expected that people would dislike sometimes are not actually the biggest points of contention. For example, my church holds some culturally controversial theological views: we are complementarians-which means we believe men and women have different roles. I remember getting to teach our small group on complementarianism and bracing myself for all the pushback: only to find that there was virtually none.
On the other hand, I didn’t think the size of our church would be controversial. But, when I hear complaints of people saying it’s hard to get plugged in, that the church needs to do some particular mission that we are not doing, or that they cannot relate to all the people in the church, what I really hear are the hardships of being in a big congregation.
And I’m not unsympathetic; I’ve felt that culture shock myself. I used to attend a small church of around 40 people and now attend a church that sees around 500 on a Sunday morning. There’s a lot that’s hard about being in a larger church. It’s not feasible for a pastor (or at least the lead pastor) to have a personal relationship with everyone in the room. It’s harder to be recognized and known, and even after attending for years, there are always plenty of people in the room that you do not know.
This is why Keller’s “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” is such a godsend. Keller characterizes the cultures of small churches vs. large churches as often more jarring than the differences between denominations. And I feel that. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of the pros and cons of both types of churches, taken from his article and my own experience.
I spent most of my life in very small churches. Since the church I left before attending my current one had around 40 people, Keller would probably characterize it as a house church. There are advantages to a church like this. First, you don’t have to work very hard to know everyone, often, consistent attendance is all you need to know everyone in the room. Because of this, intentional community is easier, though you still need to work for deep relationships, it is much easier to obtain the “little family” feel of a church. Pastoral care is easier as well. It’s much more feasible for the pastor to know what is going on in your life, as well as visiting you for births, hospital stays, sickness, and deaths.
Not to say that small churches don’t have downsides. With a small church, the pastor is generally bi-vocational, which in turn leads to less time to prepare and research sermons. This will of course lead to less polished, less researched, and (to use the term gingerly) worse sermons. The community can be beautiful, but the new person in the church will definitely be noticed, leading at times to people less willing to bring their friends to services. Further, as churches get smaller, personalities get bigger. The headstrong person who wants his style of music, wants a slot in the service, or wants the church to move a particular direction will likely get his way in a smaller church. If you and your family are a fifth of the church, your threat to leave is more likely to be taken seriously.
The pros and cons for big churches are pretty much the inverse of the small churches. A large church has the finances to allow its pastor to devote more of his time to researching and preparing sermons, so the sermons are typically better. Not only that, but when you have more people, you generally have people in all walks of spiritual life, from baby Christians to saints who have walked with Jesus for decades. There are plenty of opportunities both to teach and to be taught. I remember (though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time) coming to my current church as a twenty-six year old kid thinking I was some sort of spiritual hotshot. I was used to people defaulting to my views on the Bible and thinking of me as spiritually mature. I got over that real quick at a larger church. It was painful, but that’s how you grow. You intentionally put yourself next to people more mature than you, even as you teach people less mature than you.
The cons of the larger church deal a lot with the complexity of the structures that you have to set up. We have members who are led by community group leaders who are led by hub leaders (people over a group of community groups) who are in turn led by the pastors. There are a lot of steps, but those steps are necessary to adequately care and shepherd everyone in the congregation. And unfortunately, with so many moving parts, it’s easy to slip through the cracks. And as I mentioned above, not knowing people is hard. Relationships have to happen mainly through community groups, because it is just not feasible to have a relationship with everyone in the church.
All that to say, learn to follow Jesus in your context. If your context is a small church, don’t wish for big-church things, and vice-versa. That’s where discontent breeds. As A.W. Workman says, think of church size as going to a different country as a missionary. Things will be different, but it’s a lot more fruitful to adapt than to complain of how great it was back when you were in the States. And never forget the goal of growing and multiplying. Your small church, if healthy, should grow larger, and that’s a good thing. Your large church, if healthy, should plant other churches, which are small, and that’s a good thing. And remember that everything is about Jesus. The reward of his suffering is all the believers in every church, both small and large, and everyone who will believe through the work of churches of all sizes.