I work at a big church.
We’re not like… huge, not a megachurch by any means. But for our rural farming community, we’re one of the largest. The perception, at least, is that we’re big.
But I grew up in small churches affiliated with holiness denominations like the Church of the Nazarene and the Wesleyan Church. My father attended Nazarene Bible College, and my grandparents are both Nazarene ministers. None ministered in a church that topped 100, to my knowledge.
And what I’m seeing now, and what I’m sure you might be familiar with, is a rift developing between the two churches. The age of denominational separation has essentially passed (thankfully) but it’s evolved now into a rift between small, usually rural, churches and large, not-rural, churches. I say “not-rural” because while large churches are usually found in metro areas, churches like ours operate in a very small cities of about 10,000 people, but our local economy is based on agriculture and manufacturing. So, we’re… pseudo-rural? Is that a thing? Either way, you get the idea. Big churches and little churches don’t exactly see eye to eye.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned to be some of the main disagreements:
- Production. Larger churches tend to emphasize excellence over participation, and have larger budgets for stage decor and lighting. Smaller churches emphasize participation over excellence. The music may not be flashy, but everyone gets to sing. The stage isn’t epic, but it looks good and Aunt Margaret assembled those flower arrangements herself.
- Doctrine & Theology. Smaller churches tend to be denominational, so their pastors give priority to teaching the doctrine of their given denomination and spend a higher proportion of their time engaging in expository preaching, that is, preaching through a specific section of scripture nearly verse by verse. Larger churches are usually non-denominational and the pastors (at least the ones I know) tend to keep their teaching topical, that is, they pick something to talk about like love, discipleship, relationships, marriage, or parenting and then teach around that topic as opposed to going through a scripture verse by verse.
- Culture. What I mean here is how the church responds to the culture around it. Larger churches often work to embrace the trappings of the culture at large, creating sermon series or singing songs that echo with pop-culture as a means of reaching people from that culture in a way that’s familiar to them. Smaller churches seem to stand on their own, keeping to hymns and letting sermons be sermons—there’s no graphics or themes that allude to pop culture. The church has its own culture that’s separate from the culture around it.
- Relationships. This is probably the biggest rift. Nearly all of the people that have left our church have said, “We just don’t feel connected here.” And if you ask a small-church person about their main issue with a big church, that’s probably what they’ll tell you—it’s hard to find community in a big church. And they’re not wrong. It’s easy to be a faceless person in a big church. You can come in during the first five minutes of worship when everything is dark and then blend into the crowd on your way out after the sermon. The environment lends itself to anonymity, but you can’t get away with that in a small church. New people stick out like a sore thumb and congregants usually (should) make you feel welcome. It’s tight knit.
There’s more rifts, I’m sure, but I’d say those are the main ones. However, I’m not writing to point out the faults in either presentation of the gospel. Both methods have serious drawbacks that have to be navigated by wise leadership. Leading a church at any level, from house churches to 20,000 seat arenas is difficult. What I’d like to point out today are the advantages of both settings, and how pastors from both can help each other out.
Here’s the deal: we reach people however we can.
And each type of church has specific attributes that are going to attract different people, and I want to break down the advantages according to the rifts I’ve already pointed out.
- Production. The lights and smoke and sounds of the big church set an engaging atmosphere for worship. If used correctly, all of the equipment that the secular world uses to pull us into a concert can be used to pull people into worship, to completely engage all the senses in glorifying the Lord with a heart full of song. Some people need that, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. At the same, the simple, no frills hymns of smaller churches with all the lights on and just a song leader keeping time with their hand breaks down worship to just its essentials, just us and God. Hymns are timeless in that their melodies stick with you forever, and they lend themselves to thicker theology that won’t fit into a modern worship song. To be truthful, both types of church should reach a little bit into the methods of the other. Big churches need to lean on the sturdiness of hymns from to time, and smaller churches (really, all churches) need to do what they can to create an atmosphere of genuinely engaged worship. None of us are just singing songs on a Sunday morning to feel better. We’re joining the song of the throne room of God, giving Him the praise the Psalms so eagerly call us to give.
- Doctrine & Theology. God will use the seemingly extra-disciplined teaching of smaller churches to change lives. This this day, I’m thankful for the hours my dad spent in the word pouring through each book chapter by chapter in order to help make God’s word plain to us. One particularly fond memory is a whole summer we spent on the life of David. I’m still walking out things I learned from that summer. At the same time, not feeling locked into one particular interpretation of scripture can be effective, so long as the big church preacher maintains the primary tenets of orthodoxy, that is, the foundational truths of Protestant Christianity. There’s a lot of room for truth to work in the lives of people who need it.
- Relationships. There’s an advantage to being faceless for a while at a big church. All you get is truth, just worship and a sermon. That won’t hold up in the long run, but I can imagine for an unbeliever or an unchurched person, being able to slip in and out relatively unnoticed in order to satisfy their curiosity about church and God is a blessing. Eventually, they need to get connected to other believers to truly experience a deep Christian walk, but getting a month or two of zero social pressure can be a good thing. However, I’m an introvert, so that might be why I think that way. Some people need people first, and that might be where a small church hits the mark for them. When you walk into a church of roughly 75 people on a Sunday morning, they’ll know you’re new and you’ll know you’re new. I’ve met quite a few people who came to Christ that way, though, by first making church friends and then coming to faith in Jesus.
What I’ve written here is not exhaustive, by any means.
However, I hope you’re starting to get my point. Both methods of church building have their advantages, and as long as each kind of church is doing their best to fulfill the great commission, each should be willing to work together within their local community to usher in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, we’re different, but that’s what makes us so valuable to our communities. Whatever people need wherever they’re at with God, we can find a way to serve them.