There is a growing trend in American religion that seems to be in line with our patterns in economics: consumerism.
It’s about the endless search to find something that will fill us, that will meet our needs “our way.” Thus enter into the picture church shopping, the attitude of “if I don’t like this, I’ll go somewhere else” and finding a church which has the best programs especially designed for us at whatever stage of life we find ourselves us.
These types of churches where there is something for everybody are rare, but they do exist in the form called the mega church.
A recent Christian Century article suggested that “on any given weekend 9 percent of U.S. church goers attend a mega church” or a congregation can be defined as having more than 2,000 adults and children attending a weekly service.
The mega church phenomenon in our “bigger is better” culture is what catches the most sound bites on the airwaves. It’s the church conversation that many are most familiar with even though 9% is not a huge group. In fact, in the same Christian Century article, it was suggested that the median U.S. church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sundays.
But, with mega being the seemingly faithful standard, though, there’s a culture of depression for those of us who attend or pastor churches whose membership falls in the median or less.
What is our value? What is our contribution? What are we to do when our limited budget, personnel and facilities keep us from offering something so that everyone can have it their way? Should we all just merging with one another so that we can have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and make everyone happy?
Is this is what the church, as Jesus prayed for is really all about?
At this point in my journey of ministry, I think not.
I’ve been in several conversations lately with pastors of churches of small membership and the consensus has been that as much as we try to be all things to all people (thanks Paul, for giving us this impossible standard) with the Spirit’s help, our churches still fall short of all we hope for them to be.
We don’t have mom’s groups for the struggling single parent. We don’t have a youth group that is meeting every week to go out and do community service. We don’t have a senior’s ministry that regularly cures loneliness by weekly field trips. We don’t. We can only do what we can do and we try to do it the best we can.
When Jesus called his disciples, he only asked them to follow Him. He asked them to come learn of what it meant to be poor in spirit. He asked them to show love to the least of these. He asked them to come and learn what it meant to be the people God had created them to be in a community of other of his followers.
Jesus didn’t recruit his disciples to a fabulous shiny program or gathering. Jesus didn’t ensure that within the band of followers he called everything would be perfect (i.e. the group would be just the right mix of people so to get along all the time). Jesus didn’t say that in following him they’d always get it right.
“Church” in that original group of 12 was personal. It was simple. It was transformative for those who committed themselves to have their lives changed as a result of being with Jesus.
I don’t say all of this to be talking down to the mega church goers. There is a place and gift for all types of churches. Churches of large membership are blessed with plentiful resources to do so much good in the world that churches of small membership simply can not engage. The world is blessed by their good works.
But, I worry that the mega church mentality is robbing mainline, do-gooding, seeking to be faithful churches of small membership from their self-confidence. Because we aren’t in the spotlight, we are easily forgotten. Church consultants often talk about what we aren’t. Few talk about what we are.
Yet, consider these blessings about churches of small membership:
We are a place where intimate community can transform lives for those who may not step inside the doors of any other worship center.
We are a place where God’s Spirit is among us if we truly believe that “when two or three are gathered” idea . . .
We are a place where commitment and faithfulness are intentionally taught and expected. Members are challenged by sheer necessity (of having a future together) to wade in the deep things of God (sometimes out of one’s comfort zone)– for everyone’s gifts are truly important for survival and no one can be left out.
We are a place that sits in the middle of neighbors as the presence of Christ (hopefully) that can’t be avoided. Whereas mega churches are planted away from subdivisions in an effort to have land on which to house their ministries, churches of small membership often sit literally in the midst of where people live, work and play.
Let’s not be arrogant to think that consumerism driving tendencies aren’t in churches of small membership just because they are smaller. It’s easy for small churches to survive based on a niche of a certain group of particular people getting exactly what they want.
The call of faithful discipleship, I feel, is living into true diversity in authentic community.
Worship, Bible Study, administrative meetings, social events, etc may never always be what I want them to be in my church or in your church, but if we hang together, take turns sharing how we experience God in our own unique ways, and if we lovingly engage our differences them THEN I believe we are doing the wonderful and messy thing called being the community of Christ.
I, for one, know no other way to grow in my life, to live my life as a believer in Christ, or to pastor no matter what the membership size is. I need my community to know me. You need your community to know you. I need my community to know each other. You need your community to know each other.
You and I might never get church the way we like it, but I guarantee if we stick with it, we’ll come to know more of God in the process. And isn’t this what following Jesus is all about?