We are a nation in love with big things. We are told to dream big, live large, score high, rack up an impressive following, and measure success in ever-rising numbers. Measuring is key to success—we need proof and we need it often. Trusting in God is all well and good, but that will hardly help us raise the money we need for our Big Screen lives.
The church was never meant to be in the business of “big”; still, we can’t seem to escape its perpetual temptation. Where once our love of scale took the form of Cathedrals grand enough to offer a foretaste of heaven, today, we covet leaders with big visions for growing the church and innovative programs to implement them. (If there’s a pastor search document in America that reads: “We’re looking for someone to shrink the church,” I’d like to see it). As the Church is just a bunch of folks as susceptible to the love of “big” as the culture has proved to be, she’s fallen prey to the 21st-Century American telos: big = best.
But the concept of “big” outside of God himself is simply not part of the gospel. In fact, the word only appears four times in the whole New Testament, most tellingly in a cautionary tale: the Parable of the Rich Fool who looks for shalom in his bounty. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain" (Luke 12:18). Isn’t this exactly what we do when we build big churches? We seek to “store up” the faithful—our faithful—to secure the proof that our lives of Kingdom work have not been in vain? We create a thumping worship experience to mirror the buzz of the Holy Spirit, who can’t always be counted on to show.
“Sure,” we say, “As soon as the new building is finished, or the new sound system is installed, or we’ve hired a new pastor to take care of outreach, well then, yes, absolutely, we will send our people and resources out into the mission field.”
Herein lies the danger of “big”: tangible growth is easy to credit as blessing, but releasing our bounty back out to his Kingdom goes against every self-preservation instinct we have in our bodies.
The shift is so subtle we don’t even notice it at first. We simply start interpreting the biblical word “multiply” to mean the same as the secular word “accumulate.” This creates a feedback loop in which “big” is the only way to go. We clamber to adopt best practices of corporate America certain that its formulas are more productive than following the Word of God. We crush the hearts of storefront pastors who struggle with “pulpit envy” and grow embittered in the shadows. We create a church culture of groupthink that forces out the often-prophetic voices on the margins. In the name of Big Numbers, we settle for people-pleasing preaching while turning our discipleship program over to social media.
The sum total of our collective sin speaks volumes to the world.
In the Lutheran church body with which I’m affiliated, the vast majority of churches have fewer than 75 members. There is a strong desire throughout much of the synod to be more missional, to plant new churches and replant and/or revitalize dying ones—this is all great. But the burden (money, people, resources, time) is placed entirely on the individual congregations who can barely afford to keep a pastor on staff and whose primary audience comes from people new to the faith with no clue about the Missio Dei. Given the circumstances and the nature of sin, it’s a big ask.
So how do we begin to face the truth that God never told us to build big churches? Well, maybe we start small.
Maybe the next time someone presents the big plan for the new membership drive, we dare to ask a simple question: “Why?” Why bigger? Why more? Maybe we slow down membership campaigns. Maybe we plan to do nothing for a year but praise His name and pray that His will be done organically, authentically, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe if we’re one of those churches whose numbers hint of death, we might even dare to ask if dying is his plan that new life might rise again from the ashes.
If we could all step back and loosen our grip on our own hope and dreams—our own preferences—we might see the big picture. The church is shrinking in the best possible way: folks who never really bought into the Jesus-thing are bowing out, which means we are entering a season where those in the local church actually really love the universal Church. The brimming faithful from Africa and Asia and Latin America are showing us the living God at work in “all nations” and now here in our own churches, where they are being sent to help create a new spark. And the group we call the “Dones,” as in, done with church and all the bureaucratic-box-thinking? Well they’re loose in the field and starting to gather, wrestling with how God is calling them to live out their faith in a new way.
Jesus is up to something. He always is. The question is: “Will we be big enough—self-sacrificing enough— to get out of the way?” Can we begin to adopt a church-as-alma-mater mentality and let our people go to the mission field? Can we envision some fluid movement in/with/through these all-in believers both in the church and in the fields and make their stories our new performance metric? Will we let him retune our ears so that the cultural wisdom of “go big or go home” sounds foolish rather than appealing?
It is on this path that we’ll find God’s final word on scale: “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30). As together we navigate this new season, may this be the verse that guides us.