"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. - Matthew 7: 13-14 (ESV)
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. - Luke 15: 7 (ESV)
We live in an age of excess. We live in the capital country of excess. Bigger is always better in America. Despite depleted oil reserves and ongoing terrorist involvement in the Middle East, we insist on driving huge vehicles that chug gasoline while refusing to support sensible alternative energy initiatives. An unhealthy fast food meal is not good enough - we got to super-size it. When it comes to churches many of us are no different. The growth of the mega church over the past few decades has been astronomical. Joel Osteen's "church" used to be a sports arena for a pro basketball team. Other grandiose structures erected in Jesus name have cascading waterfalls in the lobby, cafes and restaurants inside, and even bowling alleys. Nothing is too opulent to draw people to visit where humility is supposed to be taught. Where taking care of the least is supposed to be honored.
I get the "why" as well. We like big churches for several reasons. First of all, they are usually led by a charismatic preacher. Someone who captivates the congregation and is an excellent orator. Not ironically however, the Apostle Paul specifically spoke against such focus:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimonyof God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. - 1Corinthians 2: 1-5 (ESV)
Read these verses very carefully beloved. In the ancient world of Corinth great speech-craft was worshiped in the town square. It was what was respected and pursued. Yet Paul would have none of it. He did not want to be the story because Jesus is the story. He did not want to be what people remembered because he wanted Jesus to be all that was remembered. I am sure we all know people who rave about a sermon they have heard yet cannot remember what it was actually about or any Bible verses it contained. As these verses above indicate it is a matter of where our faith ends up. In the wisdom of men or in the power of God. Think about that. How many churchgoers have all of their faith stored up in the pastor they worship instead of the God that saved them?
Secondly, we trend towards mega churches because of pride. It is usually where things are happening. It is the cool or hip place to be. In many cases it is nationally known. Church becomes a social club for us or a night club in the instances of the more youthful churches like Hillsong. We are willing to look the other way on the compromises our churches make because with so many people around us we convince ourselves that it is acceptable. So many people can't be wrong, right?
The third reason I believe we gravitate towards the mega church model is probably the main reason even if we cannot admit it to ourselves. We like them because it is easier to hide amongst the large numbers. It is easier to blend in. It is easier to sin unchallenged. There is no real chance at accountability. In a smaller church the pastor knows you. The congregants know each other. It is more of a community. In a church with 2000 churchgoers it becomes impossible for the pastor to actually shepherd. Under the purpose driven church model he is actually relieved from such responsibilities. Famous purpose driven pastor, Andy Stanley, has actually preached that the word "shepherd" should no longer be used in Christianity because it is no longer culturally relevant. Being raised on Warren Theology it is not surprising. In Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Church, he teaches that the pastor is the CEO of a business instead of a shepherd over the sheep. Guess what is supposed to replace the shepherding? Small groups. No kidding. If your church runs life groups or anything of the sort the main idea is to transfer the pastoral responsibilities onto the sheep themselves. The problem of course is that when you are dealing with such larger numbers you cannot avoid people in leadership of groups who have no business being such. I say all of this as a backdrop to speaking about a new article in Charisma News which can be found here:
The name of the article is Why Most Churches Don't Exceed 350 in Average Attendance, by Lifeway Christian Resources President, Thom Rainer. It is chock full of human wisdom trying to figure out a solution while missing the actual problem. He starts with a statistic that seems to be alarming to him. It seems nine out of ten churches have less than 350 attendees. Even though this number has stayed constant, Rainer claims there are still people left to be reached. Within this opening proposition lie several problems. The first is the guiding poor theology that undergirds mega church philosophy. That the church is somehow charged with reaching the people. That the mission is indeed to grow the church. I say poor theology because this is not what Scripture actually teaches:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. - Acts 2: 42-47 (ESV)
Sorry to disappoint the followers of Warren but the church is not responsible for the horizontal growth of the church; God is. The church is actually charged with the vertical growth of the saved. Discipleship is the business we are supposed to be in. Preaching the Gospel is what we are supposed to be in the business of. Wait a minute preacher! Are you saying that the church is not supposed to concern itself with the lost! Not exactly. We are supposed to grow in Christ through the hearing of the Word. When the lost come seeking God they should hear the Gospel, be drawn by the Holy Spirit, and hopefully come to the foot of the cross. The purpose driven mindset turns this on its ear. Instead of feeding the sheep of the flock, the church caters to the goats of this world. It seeks to be relevant to the world. To draw them in. To be friends with them, despite the warnings in Scripture:
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. - James 4: 4 (ESV)
This is why the vast majority of the church today are actually in the business of making God an enemy. It is an adulterous church that seeks out the world at the cost of the Gospel. The outline of the church provided in the verses from Acts clearly teaches that it is God that adds to the number those being saved. The sad truth is that the modern church model grows the church but not the kingdom of God.
As for the 9 in 10 number, I was surprised until I realized that the math is still in the favor of the mega church mentality. Rainer properly points out that larger may not be better and that most rural areas have lower numbers simply due to geography. While the nine churches of 350 or less cannot equal more than 3150 people the average weekly attendance of a mega church is actually 4600. That means a minimum of 60% of all churchgoers are inside the mega church mentality. Not to mention that many small time pastors end up envying the larger numbers, greater accolades and media attention. They become poorer stewards sometimes of the flock they have been entrusted to watch over because they are too busy watching other people's flocks. These points seem completely lost on Rainer who states that we are a country of smaller churches even though more than 60% of the people are actually attending mega churches. This is what happens when you choose to over focus on one statistic that you have not even properly assessed. Rainer then posits his pet theory for why these numbers are so bad: