Most of what I read about large churches is negative—skeptical at best and condemning at worst.
I’ve been an involved member of a larger church for more than seven years, and I’d like to give a defense—not as an advocate of one specific church, or as a blanket endorsement of all large churches, but as a call for Christians to be slow to judge a church body based solely on its size.
Gratitude for the Small Church
Before I make my defense for large churches, let me first say I fully recognize the advantages of a smaller body of Christ.
I was raised in a church approximately one-fifth the size of the church I attend now, and it remains one of God’s greatest gifts to me. Alongside my nuclear family, that spiritual family built me. My parents, who were faithful members of that church before I was born and still are today, raised me and my siblings to be the same. The discipleship, accountability, knowledge, mentors, and friendships I received from that church are unrivaled in their effect on me.
God does big things with small churches, and I have no disdain whatsoever for the idea of a small church. In fact, I fully acknowledge its unique opportunities for intimacy and consistency, among many other gifts.
Dangers for All Churches
I also want to acknowledge the real dangers that can be especially threatening to large churches.
Healthy accountability and church authority can give way to anonymity and isolation. A single leader can assume an unhealthy position of centrality, authority, and glory due to God alone. Large church gatherings can prioritize a consumeristic mindset of comfort, entertainment, and cultural relevance over a contributive mindset of sacrificial membership, shared lives (1 Thess. 2:8), and unchanging truth. The hard teachings of preparing Christians for persecution, suffering, and daily death to self can be exchanged for more palatable promises of prosperity and ease.
God does big things with small churches. . . . I fully acknowledge [their] unique opportunities for intimacy and consistency, among many other gifts.
While such dangers may be on greater display in the brighter spotlight and public stage of a large church, they tempt churches of any size, and perhaps most importantly, each of us as individuals would do well to remain on guard.
Gratitude for the Large Church
Certainly there are some churches that attract big crowds less interested in sound teaching than in teaching that satisfies their itching ears and suits their passions (2 Tim. 4:3). Yet Jesus, who delivered hard sayings few could bear (John 6:60), attracted mass gatherings when he walked the earth (Matt. 14:21, 15:38). Even the early church, under constant threats of persecution and martyrdom, drew great crowds to receive the apostles’ teachings (Acts 11:26). In more recent times, Charles Spurgeon, a Reformed British preacher of the 19th century who consistently delivered challenging theological sermons, saw more than 14,000 members join the congregation of London’s New Park Street Church throughout his pastorate. The church met in an auditorium with more than 8,000 seats.
So before we assume that churches can only attract large assemblies by watering down doctrine or prioritizing comfort, should we not consider the possibility that these churches’ nets are bursting with fish baited by the bread of life, Jesus himself, whom they weekly encounter in teachings, worship, and fellowship (Luke 5:4–6; John 6:35)?
Assuming so, I see three unique opportunities of larger churches that can be celebrated by all Christians.
1. Preparing Us
If we are leery of a great multitude coming together in worship from all tribes, peoples, and languages, we may need to also evaluate whether we are leery of the promised scene in heaven (Rev. 7:9). Perhaps large gatherings of believers on earth are preparing us for endless ages of this in God’s new heaven and earth.
2. Surrounding Us
Hebrews 11 instructs us to consider a grand roll call of saints whose examples should bring us encouragement, conviction, and hope. It is a great blessing to be surrounded by faithful followers of Jesus—those whose proximity to us sharpens (Prov. 27:17), encourages (Rom. 1:12), and spurs us toward Christ (Heb. 10:24).
Perhaps large gatherings of believers on earth are preparing us for endless ages of this in God’s new heaven and earth.
Worshiping and learning with even one or two other believers is a gift, and God meets us there (Matt. 18:20). In areas of persecution and unreached people groups, a congregation that might be considered small in America is rightly seen as a blessing. But where mass assemblies of believers are permitted and possible, such gatherings can provide great assurance, hope, and motivation to endure in a world increasingly eager to write off the church as obsolete.
3. Serving Beyond Us
The pooled resources and diversity of gifts in a large church body can have tremendous influence beyond itself—for fellow churches, the local community, and the world.
Sizable congregations may be best equipped to help fellow churches leverage technology to reach quarantined members in a pandemic; to partner with theological institutions to train those unable to attend seminary; to provide widespread aid for communities affected by disasters; to have a significant footprint and gospel testimony in a city; to reach the nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:19).
Bodies of Christ in the Body of Christ
Larger churches and smaller churches are ultimately members of the same body (1 Cor. 12:27), united in the same mission. As such, we can and should learn from and serve one another.
May we be slow to judge churches we only know from afar. May we recognize that the sins of any church begin in the personal sin of human hearts, and likely reflect temptations facing all churches, including our own. May we remember that all human leaders, and each of us, fall short daily (Rom. 3:23). May we take the logs out of our own eyes before trying to help other people or churches take out the specks in their own (Matt. 7:3–5).
And may we lock arms with as many fellow believers as we can—marching together toward the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). It is his name we proclaim, his Word in which we hope, his church we serve, and he who promised that not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).