I’m just finishing a really interesting book, The Great Giveaway. David Fitch states his thesis right up front. “The thesis of this book is that evangelicalism has ‘given away’ being the church in North America.” That’s a pretty bold statement, but Fitch makes a pretty good case, citing eight areas we have given away.
Each have intrigued me, beginning with his first; the church has given away its definition of success. It is here that Fitch is troubled by our use of numbers as a measurement of success. And he is right. We do tend to give a lot of emphasis to numbers. I would be less than honest if I said it doesn’t matter to me if our numbers decline at church, if attendance flattens out, if giving numbers do not go up. I watch numbers all the time - numbers on a scale, numbers in my classes, numbers when I play competitive tennis, numbers on staff reports Tuesday mornings. In my earlier years, I went to pastoral conferences, very much aware of my numbers, and other peoples’ numbers. Fred Smith once spoke to a group of us, opening his statement with the words, “Well, I am sure by now you have all had time to sniff one another.” In his southern drawl, we all knew that what he was using a canine metaphor as another way to describe our penchant for comparing ourselves, comparing numbers. We do this because, as Fitch puts it, the biggest ministries usually get the attention.
The concern of Fitch, and it is valid, is that numbers are not a true measurement of success. But it goes beyond this. Fitch says right out that numbers that lead to bigness tend to work against the mission of the church. The larger the church, the more difficult the church is able to be the church. Community diminishes with size. Church becomes some large, corporate, religious behemoth, impersonal, non-responsive, and monolithic. Instead, we should pursue a version of success that is faithful to God’s call to be his body as opposed to success via numbers. We should organize ourselves consciously away from the goal of getting big toward the goal of being the body.
It is this last sentence that turns sideways for me. It seems like becoming the body often leads to growth. As Rick Warren put it some years ago, if there is health in a body, if there is faithfulness to God, it will grow. It’s the nature of healthy bodies. So okay, probably most would agree, and say, yes, true, but when you get too big (say a size over 200, it is time to split off and become small again.
But is bigness all that bad? Is mega-church a derogatory term? Does it necessarily turn into something impersonal and corporate? As we are in the midst of building a “bigger” facility, are there reasonable concerns? Bigness is viewed with some deep suspicion. But I am coming to believe that bigness isn’t all that bad. In fact, I’ve discovered that being smaller isn’t necessarily a measurement of a healthier body. Some of the most dysfunctional, yes even impersonal churches I have seen, been a part of, were under two hundred. And I have discovered, am discovering, that size does not necessarily counteract mission. It might even enhance it, enable it. Some churches have reclaimed their mission, in part, by growing to the next level.
McManus, in his Unstoppable Force, makes a passionate case for the church recovering its momentum, that it once again be a movement. But you can’t have movement apart from mass. Momentum operates by an equation something like this: P=MV2. To put it another way, Momentum = Mass times Velocity. Mass does not, on its own, create momentum. But when you have a focused energy multiplied by a certain mass, incredible momentum can occur. So mass isn’t necessarily an impediment to mission. It might even be one of the keys.
As Fitch puts it, mass can be a mess, but without mass, you have no movement. Without mass, you may not have the resources to do anything very significant when it comes to global efforts. If our church had not grown from 200 to 2000, we would not be sending significant teams abroad 2-3 times a year, partnering in powerful ways with ministries in places such as Hyderabad or Beirut. We would not be partnering with agencies in our neighborhood to become a resource for a healthier Washington County.
Fitch gives fair caution. And yes, getting bigger just to get bigger, to use size to salve our egos, etc., is really bad. But the issue isn’t whether we should get bigger or smaller. What we should aim to be is the visible community of faith, living out the stature of Christ (no matter the size), allowing this inevitable growth to take us to a level where we can create powerful momentum, both here, and abroad.