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bigchurchAndy Stanley dove into a pool of piping hot water last week, with remarks pitted small churches against big churches. His comments came within the context of his explaining why he believes churches should be big:

“We want churches to be large enough so that there are enough middle schoolers and high schoolers, that we don’t have one youth group with middle school and high school together.”

Stanley wants the next generation to grow up with a passion for the local church and to connect with church members as life-long friends. In his view, the best way to accomplish the goal of making the next generation excited about church is through targeted, effective environments where students get to know people their age.

But then, Stanley criticized churches that don’t have enough members to accomplish that kind of programming:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church. I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids…I’m saying if you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church.”

After the video circulated online, Stanley apologized via Twitter: “The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.” (He followed up with a more detailed and extensive apology in an interview with Christianity Today here.)

Intentions and Assumptions

Passions run high when discussing local church dynamics and how church size impacts a church’s effectiveness. Stanley was visibly passionate in the video when he talked about the best way to engage the next generation.

But Stanley’s remarks were offensive, as he rightly admitted. He went after people in smaller churches by claiming their intentions and motivations are wrong.

But the question here is not about intention; it’s about methodology. Stanley assumes that highly targeted, age-segregated environments are the best way to engage the next generation. He didn’t question that assumption; instead he questioned the intentions of people who go to smaller churches. That’s what prompted the family feud.

Small Church Pastors against the Mega 

The criticisms of big and small churches often go both ways. Plenty of small church pastors despise the mega church and engage in the same sort of “attacking the intentions” of people who attend larger churches:

  • Those are just superficial Christians who like a watered-down gospel.
  • People at the big church just want to blend in and don’t want to serve.
  • They can’t possibly have true community in a church that big. They’re just impressed with “Six Flags Over Jesus.”
  • Pastors of large churches are self-centered and just want to build a kingdom or name for themselves.

As if, all small churches preach an undiluted gospel. Or small churches don’t have people who just sit and soak and never serve. Or small churches never have problems creating community. Or small churches never have authoritarian pastors who treat their congregation like their personal fiefdom.

It’s no secret that some small church pastors direct their own missives toward the megachurch. It’s just that they aren’t well-known enough for their rant to go viral online (like Stanley’s did). (Although, I must admit, King of the Hill’s famous “megachurch” parody was wildly popular.)

The Unfortunate Tension

Tension between smaller and larger churches is on the rise. There are more small churches than large churches in the United States, and yet more Americans are attending large churches than ever before. Many big churches are getting bigger, and many small churches are getting smaller.

As a result of the tension, silly stereotypes and bad assumptions abound. It’s simply not true that smaller churches are filled with selfish people who care only about their own personal needs. Neither is it true that big churches are filled with superficial Christians who are only attracted to “the big show” and don’t know anything of true community.

Small churches and large churches may face different challenges due to their size, but the biggest problem is the sinfulness and selfishness that is common to all humanity, no matter what type of church you belong to.

It’s fine to tailor messages for different ages, and larger churches may excel at providing great programming for children and students. But there’s also something beautiful about a senior in high school standing right next to a senior adult, singing the same worship song together – spanning generational divides in worship of Christ the Savior.

One Body, Many Members

The tension between larger and smaller churches is unfortunate, because the wrong assumptions and offensive stereotypes keep us from deeper questions:

  • What is the church?
  • What is the role of the church?
  • What is the mission of the church?
  • What methodologies are biblically faithful and contextually appropriate?

Instead of asking and answering these questions, we settle for cheap shots and broad-brush attacks on others.

The Apostle Paul’s words about the Church being one body with many members applies directly to the local church and the gifts of individual Christians. But can we not extend this application to the wider body of Christ?

Maybe, by God’s grace, we are better off when churches have different strengths and weaknesses. Maybe it’s a good thing to learn from this church about how to be known for serving the community, and to learn from that church’s vibrant international missions involvement. Maybe it’s good to learn from this church’s ability to foster accountability and community, and to learn from that church’s ability to connect the Word of God to people in powerful ways.

So, I’m making a commitment today. The next time I hear someone railing against the “megachurch” or mocking the “small church,” I’m going to speak up. I’m going to point out that we need all kinds of churches and that it’s slander to attack the intentions of brothers and sisters you don’t even know.

I’m not going to take sides against small churches or big churches. Not today. Not ever. Nominal Christianity hides in churches of all sizes. Church splits and factions happen in churches of all sizes. And the fragrance of Jesus Christ and the power of His kingdom is in churches of all sizes.

Methods shift and change, and we can debate those (and should). But we should always be quicker to question the assumptions in our own minds than the intentions in others’ hearts.


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16 thoughts on “Small vs. Big Churches: The Family Feud We All Lose”

  1. thanks. i live in a rural city of 6000 residents. megachurches in my part of the world – southwestern Oregon may run several hundred. The church I pastor is not in that category – but I would argue that our church has a role in our community that has as much impact as a mega church has on their city.

  2. Leah says:

    As a megachurch member, I’ve been thinking about the kids in a peer-dominant group vs kids in “big church” with parents recently. I have never considered it in a big church/small church context before. I appreciate the insight.

    “But the question here is not about intention; it’s about methodology. Stanley assumes that highly targeted, age-segregated environments are the best way to engage the next generation. He didn’t question that assumption…”
    I’m interested to hear more about questioning the assumption, as my son is one of the few left in “big church” (by his own choice), but feeling a distinct message from leadership that kids in a multigenerational service aren’t engaged, tune out, only watch worship, don’t get anything out of the sermon, and may end up as an adult who “carry(s) the baggage of disliking big church into middle school”. I want to be sensitive to the needs of my children and yet not parent out of fear.

  3. George S says:

    While megachurches are not necessarily bad, and small are not necessarily good, I think that the model of todaysmegachurches in general is an unbiblical one. Especially ones where the structure is modeled after corporations with the CEO pastor who casts his “vision” on the people. And that “vision” is reinforced at all times with subservient executive pastors and staff, with the admonition to be loyal and obey the pastor in all things, etc, etc, ad naseum.

    But the church is not to be “run” by only one person who many times has no accountability whatsoever. This applies to both megachurches and small churches. However, in the megachurch, this issue of accountability is rampant. Many times these large churches grow on a cult of personality.

    Does not God speak and lead all committed Christians, whether great or small? Well in the megachurch, unless you are one of the chosen few, you have absolutely no say, or no part in the service, no influence, no chance to have your voice or opinion or what you think God is saying heard. I’m not saying that we should take a vote on all issues, but every committed Christian’s vote or opinion should matter in their Church. But this is very rarely seen in a large church. In the ideal model, churches, both large and small should a group of elders or deacon’s who should be equal and who should oversee the church, with the pastor being one of the elders, but not dictating to the elders. The elders should listen to the people and their needs, and balance that with how God is leading them.

    The only megachurch I know that follows this biblical model is Gateway Church in Dallas Texas, with Robert Morris as Founding Pastor. They have a group of elders who govern the church. And there are three outside elders who have the power to remove Pastor Robert if necessary. This is an excellent model of accountability.

    That’s the main problem overly large churches. They’re very impersonal, and it’s very difficult to be connected unless they have a good small group program, and you attend and see the same people often.

    1. Hugh McCann says:

      How can you say, George, “that megachurches are not necessarily bad”?!

    2. Nathan Campbell says:

      Many churches under both the Acts 29 umbrellas as well as Gospel Coalition have this model. Heck – Mars Hill in Seattle had it – and in the end it didn’t do them much good. I also don’t know that I would hold up Robert Morris as an example of Biblical accuracy

  4. Jeff Wright says:

    None of what you said is wrong but I do think an important aspect of this controversy is missing – Andy has regularly used his platform to criticize (or worse) people he disagrees with, often positing the most ludicrous alternatives to those he sees as not employing the hottest methodologies.

    So, while I think you are very right on the subject of large versus small churches as a dynamic within Christianity I think the ultimate issue with the Andy Stanley controversy is Andy Stanley himself.

    That controversy won’t go away with showing more grace to those who choose churches of other sizes than we do and it won’t even go away when we speak up when one is being unfairly criticized (which are, of course, very good things to do).

    It will go away when Andy stops this kind of uninformed and nonsensical behavior. That process should begin with more than a tweeted apology – as I’ve argued on my itty bitty corner of the web: http://jeffwright.exaltchrist.com/what-was-wrong-andy/

  5. Scott says:

    Thanks for the good words, Trevin. As a pastor of a small church, it is easy to get defensive and become just as guilty as Andy. I pray that we will truly see the value of both large and small congregations, and be content to serve the Lord wherever He places us.

  6. Shelvin Lamb says:

    I serve in a church that I call a ‘tweener’ (700 on Sunday mornings) Mr. Wax, I dont agree that until Stanley’s quote that we are experiencing tension between smaller and larger churches, especially in the past decade or so. While that may have been the case in the 80’s and 90’s, I believe the opposite has been true in recent years. We are seeing dozens of larger churches plant smaller churches or even help dying churches. That NEVER happened in the decades before. The larger churches simply gobbled up the members. I don’t see that happening much at all today.
    Side note: Andy’s statement was way out of line, wrong, and carefully thought out before verbalized. This has opened up a very unnecessary conflict that hurts the body of Christ.

  7. Brent says:

    This was something I had been thinking about recently after visiting a mega hutch but being the member of a church plant for several years. Feels like you’re in the right camp and there is a lot more to unpack here.

  8. paul says:

    I tend to agree in part with what Stanley is saying, but from a different angle.
    Here in the Bible belt we have churches literally across the street from churches and every time I turn around I hear about someone “Planting” a church here…and I simply ask “why?”
    We don’t need another church, but the northeast and west sure as heck do.

  9. Anthony says:

    I came across the Stanley article in CT before coming here so my first awareness of what Andy said was via his apology. My personal experience runs from a 5 family (failed) church plant to an average 1000 attendance in a single Sunday morning service. Three things came to mind…

    1. This is another “controversy” that comes from having too much information available to us from “celebrity” preachers being shared outside of the context of their local body. And-apology aside, accurately reflected just what Andy Stanley really thinks…or at least thought at the time he said it.

    2. Are we that full of ourselves that we believe the “gates of hell” shall prevent the building of Christ’s TRUE Church if we don’t follow the right prescription or methodology (according to the ‘sucessful’ ones among us)? (Matthew 16:18)
    3. Who are you to judge another man’s servant? (Romans 14:4)

    I’m sure we will see some benefit to a myriad of different youth programs, but have we not forgotten that “without me you can do NOTHING…” (John 15:5)? Have we forgotten that “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1)? Do we really think that statistics and demographics can accurately reflect exactly who shall receive the coveted “well done thou good and faithful servant”? I believe we forget that even supernatural acts can be performed by those who Jesus “never knew” and who will be banished from His presence forever. Men judge by numbers-always have (think David numbering the people in 1st Chronicles 21:2) and apparently always will. But God? Well, I think we all know that God judges our hearts-no matter how large or small our local church is…

    I truly believe it is high time we all stopped reading, writing, and recommending books…and listening to our “favorite preachers” (1Corinthians 3:4)…and fell on our faces in church-wide repentance…and began WRITING our OWN book sacrificially before the Lord with our lives (Romans 12:1)-THEN God will heal HIS Church (2 Chronicles 7:14).

    Humbly,

    Anthony

  10. Carmen says:

    Killer read. I would actually LOVE to know the answers to the “more important” questions like “What is the church? What is the role of the church? What is the mission of the church? What methodologies are biblically faithful and contextually appropriate?”. Any resources you have would be super helpful!

  11. Brent says:

    I don’t agree with what Stanley said. From his apology he does not either. I don’t think it is a reflection of what he “really believes.” I have said stupid things in sermons that I would later amend. It is hard in the moment to get everything right. If you preach multiple services weekly you know how hard it is to always say everything right–even if you do prepare still things come out wrongly sometimes. I can sympathize with him–even if I disagree

  12. Tom says:

    I am disappointed the angle you took in addressing the big small debate. You explored it from a pragmatic point of view. Your starting point of its benefits, relational experiences, etc. don’t address the important matters of effectively meeting the biblical standards of community life that should be shaped by the basic principle of the NT Epistles.

  13. Dave Chew says:

    Thank you for posting this! I completely agree with what has been stated in this blog post with regards to criticism, comparison, and contrast between mega churches and small churches. I happen to serve as a media arts director at a small church. However, I have to commute from my home area to the city in which this church is located. My home church, which happens to be a big church, is in my area. So I really think it depends on where the heart is.

    Thanks again & God Bless you!

  14. Andrew price says:

    Don’t forget America there are other places in the world where a large church is just about double figures and you have to travel miles to get there.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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