Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sinking Ship - Big Churches in America

            In the first century we read in the Bible about the rapid and spectacular growth of the early church. It was strong and fast and steady with what seemed to be thousands added almost daily! That is not so today, and especially not the case in America. Could the size of our churches and our congregations be two of the key reasons?
If you ask your typical non-believer what they think of church you will hear from many of them something about how the Church only wants your money and how we are all just a bunch of hypocrites. The truth hurts sometimes, but even worse, it's hard to win anyone who believes that to Jesus. Interesting that greed and hypocrisy were two things that Jesus was never accused of yet the Church today is accused of that on a regular basis. For too many the Christian life has become about church buildings and meetings where we sit with other groups of Christians, isolated from the world so we don't get "dirty", light hidden under the bushel basket, arrogantly waiting for the lost to wander in rather than going to them like the early Church and letting the love of God alive in you overwhelm them. Today's version of what a Christian does certainly doesn’t sound like the Jesus I read about. I find it interesting that in the books of the New Testament we don’t hear any stories of fund-raisers or building programs or counseling classes anywhere in the Church. You’d have thought they would have been building buildings right and left - but they weren’t – they were too busy building relationships.
The Church was built by people whose lives had been changed by the radical love and grace of Jesus and who then shared that love and grace with others. It didn’t require an evangelism class – the joy and peace that He gives to the truly free just bubbles over into every-day conversations. When that happens “evangelism” is natural and downright effervescent. The Gospel was such good news to those early Christians that they simply could not contain it.
Throughout history whenever Christianity has become illegal in a region it has prospered. In fact, where Christianity is growing the fastest in the world today are the underground churches in places such as China and Africa. In China there is officially no such thing as a Christian church yet if the words of Jesus from Matthew 18 are true, that wherever two or three are gathered in His name He would be there – if that is true, then there are church gatherings all over China – all day, every day! These Christians are growing in a way many American Christians simply never aspire to. Certainly there are many contributing factors as to why this is the case (lots of folks that haven’t heard about Jesus, the passion of those who are willing to risk their lives to follow Him, etc.) but in my opinion, to ignore the fact that these churches are very close in structure to the early Church would be to miss an important part of their success. 
There are many areas where I can see how a small/home church might be better equipped to do the work of the Gospel than a large one but before I go into some of them, let me define what I mean by “small” church. Any church that has grown beyond it's capacity to meet within their network should look to plant a church. Most times it would be when the group reaches around 25 people. As soon as you need to rent a building or hire people to run it then you should plant a church in someone (or multiple someone’s) houses. Many small church buildings are already paid off, in which case I think that’s great. Use those facilities - but DON'T EXPAND! Pastors of these small churches need to find a day job. Many small-church pastors already have them. If you can reach that goal of no money (other than taxes) required for the building and the pastor then there will be only a small amount of offerings needed to support the property instead of a large portion of the offerings that go to pay clergy or mortgage on church buildings. This allows the rest of the money to where God leads each believer to put it. They can even support a larger church with it if they like or adopt a missionary, give to a radio program that does work you support or even give to secular charities that have a noble purpose. The Bible also has lots to say about human beings' focus on owning buildings and monuments to people. Most of it is not positive. It is an incredible amount of money that would be re-tasked directly toward the needs of people in need if it were not being allocated to paying religious “professionals” and maintaining or expanding Church buildings so we can squeeze in 50 more pew sitters with cash in their pockets.
It is a large concern of many who speak out against home churches that there is a lack of accountability in such a structure, but since accountability is a matter of personal responsibility and honestly - we are really only as accountable as we choose to be whether you are in a denominational church or a home church. There certainly doesn't seem to be any shortage of people inside denominational churches who lack accountability as there is some church scandal somewhere at pretty much any time. If you really think about it, how does a home church differ from any number of “non-denominational” churches, who have only a pastoral staff and a committee that are usually hand-picked by the pastor, to govern them? I would agree that in the small church model, to help keep the Church grounded it would be critical that mature Christians were involved to help link these small churches together and keep them grounded but we must also remember this - we have options now, in terms of teaching and worship, that didn’t exist in our world as recently as a single generation ago. In 2014 almost all of us have instant access to the best Bible teaching, helps, and praise and worship in the world any time we want.
In our home meetings we have been going through a series on Romans by a pastor of a church in Florida and it has been a blessing to walk through it with them. We have been in contact with the church and they are praying with us and are as excited and blessed to have our home group use their church ministry this way as we are to have their resources available to us online. Anyone who has attended our home services have mentioned the blessing the small group dynamic brings, and many of those have noted how with this type of teaching in a small group it allows anyone with a question to ask it during the service. We can stop the sermon to discuss as needed or wait until after and ask questions the group can discuss. This lets everyone understand that they are a part of the service, not just a spectator, and has helped sometimes to get something out of it that they might have missed otherwise. This way of doing church also leaves open the option for anyone who has a word to speak it out if they are moved to that or for the liberty for a “church service” to be anything from a time of singing and praying to a meal to just a 60-minute conversation amongst the people on the power and wonder of our glorious God. The church service is free to go where God wants it to. Remember too, that if you are a member at a bigger church and are plugged in there - a home church doesn't have to meet on Sunday morning. The point is to always to best equip us to follow Christ in a difficult world.
These smaller churches have also allowed us to achieve a level of trust and organic expression that I never saw in twenty years in larger churches, even those with cell groups. It is partly the size of these groups that allow that level of trust to develop but it is also the way they form that causes this to occur. The initial relationships occur dynamically as God makes connections to other believers for us in our lives and our community. This usually means that the people who start these groups were friends before they come to a church gathering together. This allows new people to come into a new group of people, knowing that their good friend who brought them already trusts the others in the group implicitly. Even cell groups in large churches are a good idea, I have noticed that this is where they often fall short, as they put together a group of people with little or no level of trust or common interests, in an attempt to get people "plugged in", or you get into a situation where people in the group are afraid that if they are “too real” the leader will tell the pastor and then the pastor will know about their “bad stuff”. More often than not, if we are honest, we will admit that this is the unfortunate truth.
 Perhaps the largest reason I believe that small churches have some big advantages over large ones in their effectiveness is in where the money goes and how little of it actually goes to provide hope for the lost. According to a study by Evangelical Christian Credit Union an astonishing 82% of church budgets go to pay off buildings and to pay staff. Check out this article for more unbelievable facts and figures on church budgets:
            Our home church has not taken a dime in offerings from those that have attended since we started it early this year (unless you count when some have brought a meal for everyone after service), but at each gathering we encourage those that meet with us to discover the need right around them so they can give their offering where God has revealed the need right around them. This practice has also had the added benefit of opening our hearts to see the need around us in a whole new way and to take some responsibility to meet the needs , where they believe God has shown a need. Faith and giving become our own responsibility when we can't just throw some money in the plate but have to know what we are giving to and why. For me and Rebecca, it has helped us to learn to be cheerful givers.  It has allowed us to increase our giving to those God has placed around us, and helped us to become more consistent and faithful givers as we see the direct benefit of our offering. We give to a few of our favorite radio ministries that have blessed us throughout the years. God has allowed us the ability and even the desire to give good old fashioned cash to some good folks who were hurting. The Lord even allowed us to bless a friend who needed help with a vet bill. That sure felt like Jesus' work to me. This way of giving has been much more gratifying than paying for another 20 square feet of building or paved parking lot or to support some cause I may or may not agree with.
            Since we have started this home group, I also want to say that my faith has grown tremendously and part of the reason why is because in a small church or home church there is no place to hide so you will either grow or go. Occasionally in a big church our flesh gets comfy because we can be around Christian people and we can fake it for quite a while, if we need to. I know because I have done that before. In a small group, It is much more difficult for that to occur, as instead of just hiding and keeping quiet, you have to outright lie when someone you really love says “how are things going, bro” and you are struggling. Especially when you know they are only asking because they love you – not so they will have something on you to use later. I have found that through this process, Gods Spirit has been so gentle, and has allowed me to see that healing comes through trusting others with the bad stuff you still cling to – especially when we discover that we are loved (by Jesus and our church family) in spite of it.

            As I recently asked a pastor buddy of mine, "Do you want you congregation to grow or your congregants?" Think about that question for a minute. Which is more important to you - deep down and which would Jesus be more concerned with? Please understand - I do not write this because I want to bring an end to big churches but because I want to bring understanding and healing to them. Maybe someone else can figure out a solution to the problem I'm presenting here. But think about this - is one 250 person church becoming ten 25-person churches a failure if the people in those small churches grow closer to Jesus and able to give more time and resources than ever to help people - since less of their gifts are needed to hire a pastor or rent a building?
            I do believe that if small churches do become the mainstream, it will most likely take a complete breakdown in the current Church structure, as way too many people’s livelihoods depend on all the Christian $$ coming in at this point in our history. However, judging from the number of churches closing down in our country these days and the fact that the number of believers is declining for the first time in American history God may be bringing us just that… but it may not be as bad for us as we think.


  1. You are so right in recognizing the spiritual corruption and deception that is taking place in the current majority form of church that requires hired experts and a special building to meet in. Those in this system would say “there is no command not to hire men or not to build buildings so we have the freedom to do it if we think it helps the church”. What they fail to recognize is that when they do these two things they almost eliminate many specific things God did ask for. They are majoring on things God did not ask for and minoring on the things he did ask for. They will say, “we give a lot to send the gospel around the world”. It is actually about 14% on the average. They will consume 86% on average to buy buildings and hired staff mostly to benefit themselves. Now most of their “giving” is consumed by “buying” or “pooling” for themselves. Now it is 5 times more important for them to hear the gospel preached every Sunday than for those who have never heard and have no one to tell them to hear it from a preacher sent to them. This is very selfish and self-centered. I did it for many years. How blind I was. Not any more.

    When they hire a man to lecture the Bible every Sunday, they will spend zero time doing what they are to “not forsake as the habit of some is” in Hebres 10:24,25 - “consider how we can spur one another on to love and good works” and “encourage one another”. Not one second of that is on the program. Friendly chit chat or socializing is not what this is asking for. Bible lectures are the exact opposite of this instruction. They have forsaken what they are not to forsake when they line up in pews facing one man.

    When you asked your pastor buddy “Do you want your congregation to grow or your congregants?” he would probably say both. He wants both more numbers of noses and more mature people. He ought to be able to recognize that based on 100,000 plus churches in the US that have lots of people inside but 80% of the work is done by 20% or less of the people in all of them, his preferred form is not making very many more mature. Filling a “job” or a being a cog in the wheel of the institutionalized form of church is not “growing into the full stature of Christ”. They are severely dumbed down when they need a hired Bible lecture every week to survive and must consume 86% of their “giving” to fluff their gathering.

    1. Absolutely agree. I think of the time I was in a church and we were talking about the scripture that says "the ones who labor are few". One of the guys in group chimed in and said - "yeah - and wiped out"... That's funny - but certainly not rest for the tired and heavy-laden.

  2. Luke 10:2 And He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.

    The harvest is obviously NOT inside the church buildings. We put 86% of the giving to hire men to "preach" there but only 14% goes to send men into the harvest. I have never thought of that verse and what we do. So when we "beseech the Lord of the harvest" to send out more laborers, we are asking God to help American believers to wise up and recognize where the harvest is. Can you imagine the harvest if every hired American preacher was sent to where there is no one to preach the gospel?

    1. No doubt. For me the only caveat would be that the Gospel presented be the true Gospel and not the works-based, "hide in the church or you'll get corrupted y the lost" mentality I have seen in a lot of churches.

  3. Once believers believers give up meeting in a special building with pews and a pulpit, they will meet in homes, parks, restaurants, etc in their own neighborhoods in full participation. No hiding.

    1. Is it unrealistic to expect that to happen since we know that there are those who prefer to sit in the church pew and be comfortable - giving some money to allow the "religious folks" to give the time to take care of the "religious work"? Unfortunately, I believe that it has become sort of a bad habit for generations of people and it's hard to move someone from where they are comfortable... and I know. I've been comfortable a time or two myself. ;-)

    2. From my own experience, you are right, it is almost impossible. But with God all things are possible. Our responsibility is to deliver the message - the revelation that spells out what God wants. It is not our responsibility to determine the time frame of repentance. It will happen when our works are tested with fire.