Thursday, October 02, 2014

When smallness is a sin

If the Gospel message is to be proclaimed to all the world, with the expectancy that many might turn to Christ, then surely it seems strange to desire for a church to remain small. Of course, Christians see the church growth movement and the megachurch model and are rightly put off by its unbiblical excess. But does that mean that being against the church growth movement and the megachurch model necessarily means a desire to be small, that smallness is a virtue? Is smallness a sign of fidelity, since many churches grow to be very big through compromising the truth?

When we look at Scripture, the main focus is that the Gospel is to be proclaimed, and the Church ought to be faithful to her Lord. The Church should desire that as many people come to know Christ as possible, and therefore it should desire growth. But if the church is faithful, sometimes that means forgoing large numbers if the way to get those numbers is to compromise the truths of Scripture. These two principles seem to be working antagonistic to each other, so how should they be resolved?

If a church desires to be faithful to her calling, then it will not compromise the Truth yet it desires as many people as possible to be saved. Since we know that Scripture does not commend the Laodicean Church but praised the small numbers of faithful believers in the church in Sardis, we can be certain that absolute numbers are not important to God. In that sense, faithfulness in smallness is commendable. Yet smallness is not commendable in Scripture because the church is to be small, but rather because the church is faithful despite her numerical inferiority. In other words, smallness is not inherently a virtue; faithfulness is.

The Scriptures therefore call us to seek as many believers as possible without sacrificing fidelity to the Truth. If fidelity means that one will stay small, then small it will be. But intentionally being against growth is unbiblical. If God grants the growth, should we not rejoice that many people have turned to Christ?

Oftentimes, the argument for smallness does not state that growth ought not to happen, but rather that when growth comes, the church ought to divide again and again. Now of course, practically, if there is a fondness for smallness, it is doubtful the members will want to grow the church which will force a split, but be that as it may be, let us just deal with the argument theoretically. The crux of this argument for smallness is that small churches are places whereby people can get to know each other easier and better. Phrased this way, the issue becomes a matter more of pragmatics, since small groups can mitigate the issue of impersonality in bigger churches. The danger as I have alluded to already is that the people in the church might prefer their comfort zone and their cliques and refuse to want the church to grow bigger, because a growth in numbers would necessitate a division which will split their fellowship. Practically also, small churches are limited as to what they can do because of their small budgets. Small churches will find it hard to support missionaries, support more than one pastor or any pastoral intern, and thus it will be hard for them to contribute to the building up of future ministers in the church. In a denominational setting, small churches are "parasitic" as it were on the bigger churches to prepare future ministers, since the small churches normally cannot afford another pastor and no interns, and thus must rely on someone else to train up their next pastor.

Smallness therefore, if achieved by discouraging church growth especially when God grants it, is sin. In fact, smallness, unless because of fidelity or environmental factors (i.e. small town), is sin. And while the argument for keeping church small through divisions not through discouraging growth fares much better, churches that have such mindsets have many practical problems and cannot function properly for the building up of the larger church.


Zac Wyse said...

Hey, Daniel - Here are a few thoughts. I'd appreciate your interaction.

A few reasons that WRC intends to plant daughter churches instead of becoming a mega-church, staying under about 200 members, d.v.:
(1) Preaching - Having a congregation where the minister(s) know everyone in the congregation will help him/them better gauge their preaching and tailor their application.
(2) Evangelism - It is far more probable that a non-Christian will attend a local church that is 10 minutes away than 30 minutes away, thereby being exposed to the means of grace. Having more (and smaller) churches should promote evangelization rather than hinder it.
(3) Sacraments - Taking the Lord's Supper weekly (our goal) is far more practical (wisdom, not pragmatism) in a smaller church (<200 members).
(4) Public Discipline - A shepherd knows its sheep by name (as does the Great Shepherd!), so it's most appropriate for teaching and ruling elders to know everyone under their care.
(5) Private Discipline - As our culture becomes more disconnected and anonymous, the small church provides a counter-culture where "everybody knows your name" (the "Cheers" theme song) and true accountability may occur.

PuritanReformed said...

Well, I don't think I'll say keeping it to 200 is bad. When I was thimking of "small churches," I was thinking of like 20 members (ie. Small group size). I think you'll agree with me that almost nothing can be done with 20 people.

I don't want to say that below 200 is good, and 500 and above is bad. I think here it is a matter of wisdom. You rightly posted those concerns, and I think each pastor has to wrestle with the issues himself.