Big Church, Small Church: Does Size Determine Health?
February 25, 2020
by Josh Moody
Nowadays, some feel that if a church is big it carries a greater risk of unhealth than if it were small. ‘Twas not ever thus. A few years ago, the reverse assumption pertained: many people assumed that if a church was big, then it was proof that it must be doing something right, and therefore healthy and spiritually vital. Those were the days of the primetime emphasis on church growth and megachurch expansion. You will find people who continue to uphold the “big is good” mantra for all successful churches. But these days there are also those who think of “big churches” as carrying some sort of inevitable risk. Who’s really in charge? How are decisions made? Who is making sure that leadership is accountable? Will I have any real access to pastoral care, or will I get lost in the crowd?
But you can have bad small churches as much as you can have good big churches—and vice versa. Size alone is not a determinative factor. I have been involved in very large churches, small churches, and midsize churches too. What determines the health or spiritual vitality of a church is not merely the number of people who attend. What matters are factors like these. The presence of faithful Bible teaching. The godly maturity of the leaders. The spirit of prayer. Humility. Christlikeness. In fact, the kind of characteristics that you see emphasized in the Bible. As far I can tell, nowhere in the New Testament is a church criticized for being of a certain size, whether big or small. The church in Jerusalem was clearly huge. When God poured out his Spirit at Pentecost, he rapidly created a megachurch with thousands being added to their number, and many more even daily. What were the sizes of the churches of Asia that Jesus writes to in Revelation 2-3? Your guess is as good as mine.
What then should you be looking for in a church if it is not merely a question of size? Here are some questions to explore.
- Is the Bible being taught? Does the pastor open the Bible, preach from the Bible, teach the Bible? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). Christ rules the church and he rules through his Word. The primary question then is whether the Bible is being taught from the pulpit, in children’s programs, youth ministries and small groups.
- Is the doctrinal statement orthodox? “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). If you are not sure what would make a doctrinal statement orthodox and sound, compare the doctrinal statement of the church you are looking at with biblical summaries of the Christian faith. Look, for instance, at 2 Timothy 1:9-10 or 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Compare the doctrinal statement of the church with one of the historic confessions of the Christian faith. For instance, consider the New Hampshire Confession (if you’re a Baptist) or the Westminster Confession (if you’re a Presbyterian) or the Thirty-Nine Articles (if you’re an Anglican).
- Is there a ministry structure whereby there is mutual accountability and appropriate authority given to leadership, the elders and pastors, so that they can get things done but also look after each other too? Church leaders need to be able to make decisions without it taking forever. But there must be brakes as well as an accelerator, accountability as well as enterprise, to prevent going in the wrong direction. Disagreement and tension among Christian leaders is nothing new: read Acts 16:36-41 (as well as the subsequent reconciliation indicated in 2 Timothy 4:11). But Christian leaders are to emulate Jesus’ model of humble service explained in Mark 10:35-45, concluding with Jesus’ famous statement that “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Paul tells the Ephesians’ elders to watch over the church and each other in leadership too (Acts 20:28).
- Is there a spirit of prayer throughout the congregation? Are there prayer meetings? Do the small groups pray? Is there a special season of prayer? Does the congregation pray? The early church was marked not only by a commitment to teaching (Acts 2:42), but also by a fervent reliance on God’s power through prayer (Acts 4:23-31). Churches that make much of God’s Word can sometimes make little of prayer; but a biblical emphasis is a joint commitment to God’s Word and to prayer (Acts 6:4).
- Is there a passion for missions and evangelism? Is this a church that is concerned to reach the world? Is this church following Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20)? Is there a desire to witness to Jesus in their Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the end of the earth (Acts 1:8)
- Is Christlike love present in this congregation? Do you sense the work of the Spirit to generate increase godliness as evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit, most of all love (Galatians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 13)? Is the church showing the sign of being Christ’s disciples that Christ himself taught, namely love (John 13:35)?
I could go on—there’s not one exhaustive list. The point is that you are looking for a congregation that has both a sound doctrine and a sound life. No church is perfect (the old joke that “if you find a perfect church, don’t join it for you’ll only spoil it” is worth retelling). But this for sure: size alone is not determinative. You can have a big and good church or a small and good church. Likewise, you can have a small and bad church. Some churches are small for a reason: they chase off any real converts pretty quickly. Other big churches have grown beyond their health. Most of all remember: truth and life, word and practice, doctrine and love, content and character.
When you find a church that is approximating to those biblical norms of true doctrine and Christlike practice, then join in. And pray that God would continue to add to that church those who are being saved.
To read more on the subject of church, Pastor Josh has written a book How Church Can Change Your Life that provides answers to the 10 most common questions about church.
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