In economics there is a concept called ‘diseconomies of scale’ which refers to the fact that as firms get larger then they also can become less efficient because size brings with it problems. It is a shame that this concept is not applied more to churches. We are all apt to assume that a large church equals a successful church forgetting that numbers is nowhere mentioned in the Bible as a sign of a healthy church. What will follow is a challenge to think about your church and whether or not it is too big for you.
A few qualifications must be made first though. I am not going to draw lines in the sand and say “over x amount a church is too big”. Life is never that simple, instead I’m going to give you principles to apply to your church experience and let you do the maths. Secondly, as our local church is very much part of our identity then you will feel likely threatened by this article, I would encourage you to read it anyway and read it prayerfully, I’m challenging myself writing it and its good to ask ourselves the hard questions we don’t want to answer. And lastly, my whole argument is based on the premise that in the Bible when it talks about the body of Christ it means the local church congregation. Many, I’m sure, will disagree but if we do not understand the local church as being a physical manifestation of the body of Christ then how can we understand the lessons Paul teaches from this image?
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12 v 27. In the context of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is talking about our difference gifts and how they all work together in unity. This only has meaning in a local church context. While as a Christian I am part of the body of Christ universal then this can only work out in practise in a local church.
If you left would your church miss you?
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 1 Corinthians 12 v 21. As Paul points out here parts of a body are indispensable to each other. Therefore, the starting point for any Christian considering his church should be whether he, likewise, would be missed if he left?
I am not talking about whether or not your friends would miss you, though that is a good question, I am talking about whether the totality of your local church would feel, in any way, your absence? And I think that if the answer is no then you are not in a functioning local church situation. Paul is talking about what the body of Christ should be like and in our local church situations we all should be dependent on each other so that if one member was to leave then the whole local church feels the loss. You don’t lose a hand and not notice it; in the same way you should not be in a position where your church would not notice if you left.
Do you serve your local church?
We live in the age of consumerism and this has spread to the church. Do you turn up on a Sunday, get a sermon, then leave until next week? Are you at a church to get friends? Are you at a church to get a wife? Are you at a church to get good preaching? The last one in particular is a GOOD THING but if that’s our sole reason for going to a local church then we have lost sight of what it means to be a Christian.
The hand does not just get from the body, though it does do that, it also gives to the body. As it receives blood and nervous signals so it provides the body with a tool to be used. It is served by the body but it also in turn serves the body.
In a similar way, we should be serving our local church, probably not in ‘official’ positions but there is still much we can do. If you left would your pastor miss your encouragement? Would new people miss your friendliness? Would the treasurer miss your giving? Would the church miss your prayers? Would it miss your volunteering? Would your body miss you?
We ask ourselves: “what do I get from church?” forgetting that the Christian life is all about giving. Christ came to serve and we are required to follow his example. And often a large church allows sloth to flourish. It is easy to be a consumer Christian in a large church where you can be disobedient, not serve, and slip beneath the radar. Small churches are great weapons against this culture for there is no hiding behind numbers; in small churches you often have no option but to serve and that is no bad thing.
Do you know everyone in your church?
I know, controversial, but I’m not asking if you are friends with everyone in your church but do you at least know everyone’s names? Can you tell who is new and who isn’t? Let us think of the body illustration again. As Paul writes: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” 1 Corinthians 12 v 26. Is it the same in your church? When any one member is suffering do you know about it? If any single member is honoured do you rejoice? For what body can there be when the foot does not of the existence of the arm? Or the eyes know nothing of the ears?
After a certain size it becomes impossible for this kind of relationship to function between all church members. And I would argue that when this happens the church is failing to be the body of Christ as it should. The modern buzzword when it comes to church is ‘community’ and what community can there be when there are members of your church you know nothing about?
Do you spend all your time with people just like you?
This is aimed square at students. If you, as a student, spend all your time in the local church talking to, mixing with and getting to know only students then you have lost all sight of what it means to be in the body of Christ.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” 1 Corinthians 12 v 17 – 20.
Once again, as Paul writes then the whole point of a body is that there are many parts. So if we represent students are being one part, the index finger, for example, maybe just a fingernail, and imagine that this index finger spends all its time just thinking about itself and never really noticing other parts of the body then we have a problem. It beholds us, as members of the local church, to get to know all types of people, and it is within our interest to do so! Older Christians can give us wisdom (or at least a free meal!) and we can help set good examples to younger Christians.
The classic church situation is for all the young people to immediately congregate together and form a circle that few others would dare penetrate. This isn’t right. It’s not wrong to spend a lot of your time with people your own age but if you spend all your time with people similar to you then you miss one of the main functions of a local church. Grow up and speak to adults!
A smaller church greatly facilitates congregational mingling because if there are only three other people your own age then you are forced to look further afield for fellowship and that is no bad thing.
Do you suffer at your church?
The body of Christ was broken for us and in the same way we should not expect church to be easy. Yet it all too easy in a big church to coast along, content with little, comfortable, avoiding all suffering, and gaining nothing.
To be blunt, my church situation is a constant cross, an ever present burden and a continual challenge to me. There are days when I feel like I cannot go on, when I want to be free and run and I grow tired of the struggle. And yet if I was to point to one thing that has kept me on my spiritual toes, so to speak, it would be the church. It is a refining struggle, it makes me loss dross and helps me gain grace.
As a healthy member of a local church it should be hard. We should find it difficult for gathering a bunch of sinners together into a church can never be easy. And if church is easy then, by in large, it shows that you are coasting, ignoring difficult people, finding a comfortable little corner and huddling down, this is not how it should be. I’m not saying we should actively seek suffering but we should not try and avoid it and indeed should expect local church to be hard!
Big churches can ruin your spiritual health. So, admittedly, can any church. But we should always ask ourselves the hard questions: am I here at this church because it is big enough to hide in? am I here at this church because I do not want to serve? am I here at this church because I do not want to suffer? am I here at this church because I just want to deal with people like me? would my church miss me if I left?
Are you brave enough to join a small church? To face the mess that is far more readily apparent? To join the struggle and help in the fight? Are you prepared to give up on a comfortable big church which is doing little for your spiritual good and throw yourself in to the deep end of a small church community? Do you want to be part of a representation of the body of Christ that actually functions as a body?