When I started this series I was concerned with Christians who have abandoned the church and decided to become “lone rangers” in their Christianity. Before we go any farther, though, we need to define terms and see exactly what I am writing about when I say talk about being connected to a local church.
Since I became a Christian, I have attended churches from as small as 25 to as large as 5000-6000, and a lot in between. The church I came to Christ in had about 300-400 (I am guessing somewhat here; we had two morning services and a Saturday night service, with seating for roughly 200) when we were there; when we moved to San Diego we attended a church of about 2,500. We moved from there to Phoenix and attended a church of 5,000 to 6,000 (depending on if the snowbirds were in town). Then I pastored a church that started out with about 25 and grew to roughly 50 before we left to take the pastorate at WG. Right now I would say we average about 150-180 on a typical Sunday.
With that said, let me say that I’m not much of a “megachurch” guy.* I don’t think that we should throw rocks at large churches because they attract a lot of people, and I don’t think that it is necessarily wrong to be part of a supersized congregation. However, in my opinion that type of congregation tends to exhibit more of the “doing church” (i.e. “consumer”) mentality rather than the “being church” (i.e. “community”) mentality.
The earliest (and I would argue best) model of what the church should look like comes from Acts 2:42-47:
42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.
44And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;
45and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
46Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,
47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
What a model for a church! (here’s the MP3 or manuscript of my exposition of that text in a series on the church if you’re interested; the whole series can be found here by choosing “the church” in the drop-down menu) This first group of believers in Christ had a community that, according to verse 47, was very attractive to outsiders and also pleasing to God. This “proto-church” was focused on reaching up (to God), reaching in (to each other to meet needs), and reaching out (to welcome others in to do the first two).
Why don’t I like the megachurch model? Well, if you go look at the statistics in the link above to the definition of a megachurch there are some reasons for concern, in my opinion. The average megachurch in the study had 3857 attendees on an average week. They have 42 full-time staff members (between ministerial and program staff) and an average of 284 volunteer workers. Now do the math… 284+42=326 people serving significantly, or about 8.5% of the congregation. Now let’s say that there are an equal number serving under the 5-hour a week limit the study set and you get…17% of the congregation** actually serving Christ and meeting the needs of those in the congregation.
That means that on a typical week 83% (statistically) are not lifting one another up. They come and might effectively reach up and experience authentic worship, but they are not reaching in or reaching out. That is 4 out of 5 people! In my anecdotal experience with large churches (having attended two for about 5 years total) I met a lot of people who came to church, attended a worship service, and then headed home. They didn’t get involved beyond perhaps giving some percentage of their income. Church seemed to be an activity to check off the list of weekly activities.
Smaller churches, by way of contrast, seem to experience this less. In a church of 50 everyone knows everyone. The congregation has to step up and serve Christ by serving one another, because otherwise the functions of the church fail. Everyone has to serve in some significant way, because otherwise the wheels fall off! Not only that, but in those ministries that are smaller there is not the anonymity that allows for people to skate by without participating. Each person is vitally important to the success of the ministry!
Herein lies the big difference between the “consumer” mentality of “doing church” and the “community” mentality of “being church.” The consumer looks at the church and asks what is there as a benefit to them. They look for ways that the church can meet their needs and desires, and the church that does so with the highest quality is the one that they “consume.” They come and experience the worship service, have their children trained in the kids ministry, perhaps attend a marriage conference, give a few dollars and then check it off their list.
In the “community” mentality, by contrast, Christians are driven not by what they get but by how they can serve. Those whose focus is on “being” the church rather than “doing” church look for the place that they can build significant relationships among other disciples of Christ. They worship not just on Sunday mornings but in Bible studies, small groups, with phone calls, etc. They make meals to take to those who are sick, pray over friends who they can tell are struggling, and make significant community and service to God and others a priority. They intuitively realize that “church” is not just a Sunday morning (or increasingly some alternate time) activity but a way of life.
Allow me a recent illustration. This past week a friend came to our Sunday morning Bible study. I could tell he was frustrated, and so could others. Part of our class is going around the room and asking each person how we could pray for them. My friend was burdened by some relationship challenges that he shared, and asked us to pray that God would change his heart and help him have strength. Well, we stood him in our midst and prayed over him. Later, after our worship service, I prayed with him again. I wasn’t the only one, either! He told me that he was doing much better and appreciated his friends lifting him up to Christ. That’s the community model, when we keep our eyes peeled not for what we need, but for how God can use us to build others up in Christlikeness.
This is why I prefer smaller churches, say 150 to as much as 400. (though 400 is really pushing it IMO) Those congregations are not so large that we can pass by a need in anonymity, which brings accountability and gives us opportunity to live for Christ. Being anonymous in a megachurch, just a face in a sea of faces, robs us of chances like this.
I will say this: a large church doesn’t have to be driven by the consumer mentality. (note that in Acts 2:41 the smallish 120-member “church” experienced 3000 conversions and was therefore, by definition, a “megachurch!”) Those 17% the study mentions are involved in meeting the pressing needs of their community of believers for sure (they know Titus 3:14 well!). They are the ones who are engaged in a smaller group setting like a Bible study, small group, enrichment class or whatever you want to call it. They have a smaller group of people who function for them in the capacity of what Luke reports in Acts 2:42-47. Laura and I certainly had that when we were in large churches. We had Bible studies we were part of, ministries we served in, and had smaller groups that kept us focused on God and not ourselves.
So what does all of this mean for us as individuals? Well hopefully it means for you and for me that we are completely dissatisfied with “doing” church. Showing up on Sunday morning for group singing and a Bible lesson should not be at all satisfactory to us! I know a lot of people who are dissatisfied with what they see in the church, and a big part of that in my opinion comes from the truth that this model is not Christlike. If you’re experiencing that dissatisfaction with church, no matter the size of your congregation the answer is not to leave the congregation. Instead, the answer is to commit to living in the congregation not as a consumer but as part of the community! Find a small group or a Bible study; get a group of 20 or 40 people around you who you can know and love. Plug into a place to serve other disciples. If you do, I am willing to bet that your heart for that ministry and for what God is doing in the church will change.
Don’t be content with being a Christian consumer. Instead, recommit to being part of the community in Christ. Be church instead of “doing” church, and see how God can use it to make you more like Him and more joyful and happier in the process.
* If you want to read a good analysis of the megachurch phenomenon, read this helpful article.
**As an anecdote, I looked through our membership directory and counted 64 out of 150-180 that met the definition of “volunteer” in the study. (I am the only full time staff member at my church) That’s 34.6-42.7% of attendees…if we double that (like I did for megachurches) to account for all volunteers we get 69.2-85.4% of attendees. About 20% of our church (30 a week or so) consists of children under 12, which accounts for much of the rest. That’s not to trumpet our congregation, but simply to point out that smaller churches in general have a higher rate of volunteerism.