Monday, April 22, 2013

Small Church or Big Church?

I had an interesting visit from some McMaster scholars last week. They are travelling around Canada looking for new expressions of church and trying to get a handle on why and how the evangelical church adapts to the culture. I know we like to think that evangelicalism is fairly stable and set, but the reality is that we are highly adaptive because we desire to reach our culture with a message that we feel is more important than the means of communication: God loves you and desires to rebuild a relationship with you. (Or more accurately some form of that essential message.)

What was interesting was that they confirmed some of the problems I have with the Small/Alternative/Missional/etc. church versus the Big/Traditional/Attractional/etc. church. Namely the insistence that each critique the other out of their own set of expectations. Let me unpack that.

When you go about planting a church from either model you need to define a few things. Actually things like success and sustainability are defined more as you go along, but if your framework for defining these terms is not the type of church vision actually being employed then you have a losing proposition. For example, if you measure success in terms of numbers, then in a big church model that is probably not a bad metric, but when you apply that to the small church (by which I mean intentionally small communities such as coffee shop or house churches) model this is a bad metric because it doesn't measure anything that the small church model sets out to do. Sure there are some common metrics that must serve both communities. Both visions of church must at the very least be seeking to faithfully present God to the world. Both visions of church must focus on creating an environment of discipleship and service so that people grow in their faith. And there are other common points. But how each of these looks will vary by the context.

Part of the problem is that people are coming to realize, individually, that they swim best is certain types of church waters. At Freedom Vineyard a large portion of our congregation were hugely dissatisfied with their big church experiences. For them the small church fit their personalities and needs better. In fact in more than a few cases people were able to work through their big church issues in our context and go back into serving more traditional congregations (which we always counted as a win). The down side of this is that people dissatisfied with a particular context can easily vilify that context and damage the relationship between churches. The challenge for the church, in all its wonderful forms, is to recognize what people are going through and nurture them to bless the whole church.

Here is where I land. I'm convinced that all forms of church need each other. In fact I think that we could and should foster supportive relationships between small churches and big churches. Can you imagine the potentials for all of our churches to grow (and I'm not just speaking numerically here) if we learned how to effectively cooperate and support each other? Small churches go places and reach people that big churches simply will not reach. This is not for a lack of trying or will, but the big church is about building a big church and not everyone thrives in a big church. On the other hand, big churches can build structures and accomplish things that the small churches can only dream of. Want to start a citywide mens' outreach that turns the hearts of fathers back to God? A big church has far better resources to make that happen.

The potential for fruitful cooperation is amazing. All forms of church have much to learn from each other. But the problem remains in how we tend to see each other. When we view other churches through our own metrics it is hard for them to measure up. Small churches are not served by measuring success by numbers, and big churches are not served by measuring success by people they influence who do not attend their services. But both forms of success are quite valid in the right context. And what if we can have both? What if we can have big churches and small churches blessing each other (instead of speaking ill of each other) so that the whole body of Christ benefits? That is what I'm longing for when I pray for unity.

How about a simple exercise: If you come from a big church, why not find a small church in your community, get to know the leaders and ask how you can bless and support them. But also ask them how they measure success and how they do things differently. You may find that you are encouraged to know the many ways people are reaching others for Christ. If you come from a small church, why not find a big church in your community and do the same. Get to know a leader or two and ask how you can bless and support them. Dare to ask how they understand success and how they do things differently. Encourage each other to be faithful to the vision that God has given. Celebrate with each other the successes and victories that make sense in their communities.

Paul said that he became all things to all people so that by all means he might win some. I like how it is phrased in the New Jerusalem Bible: "I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation." (1 Cor 9:22b) I am convinced that this is what the Holy Spirit is doing in and through our churches. Accommodating the church to be able to faithfully mediate the message of salvation to as many people as possible. For me this is the heart of evangelicalism, and the heart of the Father to make a clear voice throughout the whole earth. I'm also convinced that in order to do church, in any form, well we need to give ourselves to the form God has called us to. When Paul talks earlier in first Corinthians he is talking about a change in being. It is not a putting up with or toleration that Paul is calling us to, but to becoming the kind of churches needed wherever we find ourselves because the most important thing is never our own success metrics anyway - it is faithfully communicating our gospel, our Good News.

Let us be the Church together - as we are all faithful to the visions of church God has called us to.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region


  1. Good thoughts. I like the idea of getting to know another church unlike ours, not just the leaders, but the group. We have been thinking about how better to engage with other churches in our city, so this something to add to the conversation.

  2. Frank I concur. I think it's important to grasp that cultural context, large and small "church" etc. is simply a bout form. It is the "Function" of the Church that is foundational to what it is. Form is simply a vehicle. Form is a "tool" Function is the purpose. God loves people. Much of what we are seeing and experiencing in the present shifts and woofs, is us the "church" trying to keep pace with God's heart.

    Different is not better, but diversity is essential. Rather than splitting hairs over what is the "right" way we should be celebrating, blessing and encouraging what God is doing in His Kingdom. This is one of the things that attracted me to the Canadian Vineyard in the first place. That there was room for diversity. For experimentation, for difference.