I was sitting in our family minivan at a stoplight a while back, when one of those over-sized SUVs pulled up beside us. A minivan, despite its moniker, is not a small vehicle, but beside the Ford Excursion (or was it an Expedition, or an Excavation, or what?), I felt like I was in a Radio Flyer red wagon. Unless the driver was on her way to invade Guatemala, I can’t imagine a need for such an extra-large vehicle. Then just this past week, I was out for a walk when a neighbor pulled into his driveway in a smart car. The thing is micro-sized. I’m pretty sure he had to have an extra knee joint implanted in order to be able to fold his 6’ 2” frame into the tiny coupe. I’m still not sure how the car can be street legal since it’s not much bigger than a golf cart.
The same thing that’s going on with vehicles seems to be occurring with churches: congregations are simultaneously getting super-sized and micro-sized.
The rise of the mega-church is a commonly known phenomenon that’s now decades old. But it wasn’t until I was in a workshop with Larry Osbourne a few months ago that I understood the true scale of the movement. Larry’s church, North Coast Community Church near San Diego, averages 9 to 10 thousand worshipers each week. He said that on the list of mega-churches that comes out each year (yes, someone compiles such a list), his church has consistently gone further down the list – from being a perennial top ten church when they had 5,000 worshipers, to being #63 on the latest list. He mentioned that twenty years ago a “mega-church” was a church of 1,500, now it’s closer to 7,500 and that there are thousands of them in the U.S. alone.
Meanwhile, an interesting counter-movement is also well underway. The number of home churches is exploding. It’s hard to know the numbers since so many of these congregations fly under the radar, but most of us in church leadership circles recognize that we hear of and see more and more small churches sprouting up all over.
The aim of this article is not to pit big versus small, but to explore why each has an appeal. I’m sure the lists could be long enough to fill that Excursion, but I’ll keep my lists smart and small. Here are three reasons big churches and small churches are appealing.
The Big Deal
- Large churches often feature excellent teaching/preaching. This is not always the case (in fact, I’m constantly surprised how large a church can grow with an “okay” preaching pastor), but by and large the larger churches provide worshipers with well-crafted, accessibly-taught, and meaningful preaching.
- Large churches often provide worshippers with a high-caliber worship service. I’m not going to wade into the “worship as entertainment” conversation, but I will just say that a large church can create an experience that is on a level unlike anything a small- or medium-sized church can do.
- Many large-church attendees find that being part of a large church provides them a sense of being part of a movement, something larger than themselves. The Huffington Post had a piece on this just a few weeks ago.
- Small churches provide attendees a strong sense of community, as opposed to the anonymity that can be true of a large church. There’s no sneaking out of a living room if you don’t like what’s being said. The level of engagement required to be in a house church is, well, engaging to many.
- Small churches can be simple. The smaller a church, the less complexity there is in terms of administration, finances, decision-making, levels of leadership and such. And simplicity is alluring to more and more people, especially those who are disenchanted with large organizations and bureaucracies.
- Small churches emphasize spiritual growth and application of Christ’s teaching. Every church has an idea of what it means to “win.” In most churches, winning is related to numerical growth. But house churches have to find another metric, and they usually land on personal spiritual growth and application—the church is healthy and doing well if the members are living out the faith in greater and greater ways.
As mentioned earlier, these lists could be much, much longer. So what do you think? What’s the appeal of a super-sized church? What’s alluring about a small church or house church? I look forward to the conversation.