There seems to be a prevailing opinion in the US that big churches are successful, little churches are failing, and megachurches are bad.
I will start by acknowledging that some big churches are big because they are successful. Some little churches are small because they are failing. Some megachurches are so mega that they stop being church…and that’s bad. That said, I truly believe those situations are the exception rather than the rule.
I don’t attend a megachurch and I don’t attend a big church. I attend what my husband and I call a “medium” church, but I’m pretty sure most folks would call it small. We have a few hundred regular Sunday visitors, and nowhere near a thousand. I don’t really know why our church is small. Maybe it’s because of the general decline in church attendance in America. Maybe it’s because of the traffic patterns in and around our community. Maybe it’s because there is another Lutheran church nearby. Maybe it’s because there are no fewer than 10 other Christian churches within a five-mile radius.
By the by, our pastors routinely tell us this is a good thing. They say that we need lots of healthy churches in the community. They tell us our church is blessed to have so many other Christian communities to partner with, and we are encouraged to pray for the success of their churches as well as our own. We don’t “compete” with the other churches in the area…unless it’s for an organized event, and then it’s just outreach and fellowship. “Sheep stealing” doesn’t enter the picture.
Whatever the reason, it has never occurred to me to assume that our church is small because it’s not succeeding. To us, our church feels very successful.
There is never an urgent push for money in the sermons or the bulletin. Nobody is freaking out, distressing the congregation, or laying down guilt trips about the budget. Our church has enough to support its modest overhead and still put money into the things that matter like youth ministry, the local crisis pregnancy and parenting center, ESL classes for the community, senior ministry, feeding the underprivileged families in the neighborhood, several missionaries working out in “the nations,” a robust small-group organization, and probably a bunch of other stuff I don’t know about. When we are asked for special donations, it is always done with smiles and invitation rather than stern frowns and threat.
Our church doesn’t have a lot of money, but it has enough, and every cent is handled responsibly and on open spreadsheets that anyone can view. That confidence in financial stewardship is crucial to a church’s success. My church’s budget is open, transparent, and balanced, and nobody tries to coerce us through guilt or threat to give more money than we can (or are called) to give.
We have never heard an unbiblical or theologically unsound sermon delivered from our pulpit. The Bible is always open and the teaching is sound. The pastors (we have two, now) are both biblically literate and trained in teaching the Word. They do it openly and humbly and with a great deal of concern for getting it right by God and the congregation. I’ve seen them both in morning prayer. I know they are humble about their responsibilities to us, and I know they pray for guidance. I know they have done the work to learn God’s Word, and I know they place their highest priority on teaching that Word to us so that we will know God’s character, be convicted when we are wrong, and learn how to live as followers of the Way.
There are no politics in our church. Nobody tells anyone how to vote in my church, and matters of state are not set before our congregation as examples of God’s will or God’s wrath. The things of Caesar are left for the world to sort out, and a biblical foundation of how to love one another, support one another, and avoid sinful snares is kept as the focus. Everyone in my church has political opinions, and we all talk about them openly. We just don’t do it from the pulpit.
No church should ignore or sugarcoat moral misconduct, but politics and faith are oil and water.
Dividing people with political messages is a dangerous route to go down. What churches should concern themselves with, in our truly humble opinion, is the condition of souls. The focus should be on the biblical foundation and the biblical morality that guides people in their civic lives. The church can point out that our current government situation is problematic without getting political. Individuals can and should fight that battle, and the church can and should be the community we go to for grounding.
If there is too much political pontification from the pulpit, it sows discord and worldly discontent. To us, a successful church is one that can effectively guide our civic morality without telling anybody how to vote.
The people in my church get fed, and that happens in numerous ways. A church is a community. When I participate in that community, I get fed to full and bursting. We are all people, so of course there are squabbles and hurt feelings from time to time. People are a bunch of dirty sinners, after all, so there is no such thing as perfect harmony. In my church, however, those things are met with a soft but steady wall of affection and true concern in the larger body.
I’ve always heard people say that’s how church is supposed to work, but I guess I never believed in it before I saw it.
No church is perfect because, as I said, people are a bunch of dirty sinners. I would bet, though, that most churches can succeed at feeding the congregation. I am fed with a reinforcement of faith in Sunday sermons and weekly Bible study groups. I am fed with companionship and comfort (but I have to show up on days that aren’t Sunday for that). I am fed with literal food and fellowship (but I have to show up at the special events for that). I am fed with accountability and opportunity for service (but I have to volunteer for community outreach and actually talk to people for that). It was there, and I took it. I can feast on it any time I want to, and it is always still there in abundance for the taking. Whenever a few of us dirty Christians get together with the intention of serving and glorifying God…we get fed. We leave cleaner. We leave stronger.
It’s not about a pastor feeding me Oscar-worthy sermons that lift me to an emotional high every week (although, every now and then, my pastor hits a home run in just that way). It’s about messages from the pulpit that can guide a Christian life and keep it centered. It’s about me feeding my fellow congregants by sharing my gifts with them and giving them my service. It’s about my fellow congregants feeding me with their gifts and service in return. Church is not all about Sunday, and the broken idea that Christians can be fed by a talented orator and some good music for an hour and a half once per week…well, that’s the problem. That’s the part we all need to reject.
The feeding happens on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, at youth events, in community and charity projects, and in the mundane tasks (like cleaning days when everyone shows up to scrub something and have coffee and donuts together). We come together to be together, to hold one another accountable, and to hold one another up.
Every church can do that, and I bet that most of them do. But the catch is: you have to show up. You have to choose your fellow believers over whatever activity in the world you normally fill that time with. If you do, the rewards can be stunning.
To me, all of the above is a picture of success. The lights are still on in the building where we gather. We’re feeding people with literal food. We’re holding up people who are grieving, suffering, lonely, or addicted. We’re supporting people who made mistakes and want to get out of them. We’re teaching one another out of the Bible. We’re providing a nest of safety and comfort–a “safe space”–where people who love Jesus can escape the world whenever they need to and be with other people who love Jesus.
That’s what church is.
After church, we’re supposed to go out there and be examples. We’re supposed to be the lamp stands, and we’re supposed to let Christ’s lamp sit on us and shine out for the whole world to see. They’re supposed to know us by our love. Not our righteous morals. Not our righteous politics. Not our fat wallets in charity. By our love.
My church gave me love, and they offer it to anyone who walks through the door. That’s how I know it’s a good one. That’s how I know it’s a successful church.
A church doesn’t have to get bigger to be successful. It doesn’t have to get smaller to be good. I don’t think the size of the church matters. What matters is whether or not the members of that church get lifted and held accountable…and whether the community around that church is being served.