What did large churches ever do for us?

Most of my experience, discipleship and ministry has been in large (or largish) churches. As a student, I attended St Aldate’s in Oxford. After attending small churches in Southampton and Slough, I had the formative experience of seeing a medium-sized church grow large in Poole, Dorset, and in Nottingham have been involved in what had been a large church (Christchurch, Chilwell) and now am at a city-centre gathered church at St Nic’s.

So it was fascinating to reflect last week with leaders of large churches at the National Anglican Larger Churches Consultation on the inter-relation between large churches and contemporary culture. It is important to do so, since the growth of larger churches (and the corresponding growth of the number of smaller churches, whilst mid-sized churches disappear by becoming one or the other) has been driven by cultural changes. People are generally less committed to the own neighbourhood, and being used to driving to a supermarket rather than go to the local shops, they are also much more willing to drive to a gathered church than they were even 15 years ago. Nottingham has seen the growth of several large churches in the city, including the largest Vineyard church with a Sunday attendance of around 1,400; I have to avoid the queue to turn right to Vineyard as I drive into the city on a Sunday morning.

This then raises the question as to why people might attend a larger church, rather than join one of the local churches they drive past on a Sunday. Some of the leaders I spoke to were very clear of the reasons—but I am not sure all church leaders have thought this through, or considered both the benefits and the challenges of large church attendance. I made my observations along four axes of decision: the tension between individualism and communitarianism; between passivity versus engagement; between uniformity versus differentiation; and between activism versus stillness.

Individual versus community

Although different theological traditions lean more towards emphasising personal responsibility and others lean towards a communal vision, Scripture seems to hold the two together in a vision of the kingdom of God as individuals-in-community being reconciled to God. We cannot ignore the dominance of plural verbs in Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities, but neither can we ignore Jesus’ call to individuals to respond to him and his message, at times in contradiction to the expectations of family and community.

This kingdom value has to set its face against the icy storm-blast of individual choice—which is no longer simply a value in our culture, but which now appears to be the non-negotiable underpinning for all we do. (Just imagine suggesting that, in any particular debate, whether it be about healthcare, education, economics or politics, that something should take priority over the right of the individual to choose.) But this value of choice has a quite differentiated effect, a factor that is usually ignored: only certain strata of British society has the power and the resources to exercise many of the choices that are ‘available’. In relation of choice about where to live, for example, more than half of the UK population dies in the same local authority area they were born in, whilst a relatively small layer of society is highly mobile.

I don’t think we should apologise for the virtue that large churches embody in offering choice. The fortunes of church communities ebb and flow, and such changes are often associated with changes of ordained leadership. There was a time when lay members of a congregation just had to ‘tough it out’ during the lean years of a church’s life—and wait for the vicar to move on! If some degree of attendance mobility means that Christians can continue to be fed and discipled, that is a good thing. Large churches are sometimes accused of ‘sheep stealing’. But sheep need green grass if they are to stay healthy, and there are times when they need to travel to the next field to find it. The danger of mobility is that large churches simply become an open ‘back door’ to the church as a whole; it is much easier to attend less often, and stop attending altogether, in a larger church where you will not be missed as you were in the small church where everyone knew you.

The challenge for large churches, then, is to find ways to feel like a small church in terms of relationships and belonging. This will often happen by means of small-group structures, so that the large church functions like an aggregation of small churches meeting together.

Passivity versus engagement

Although parts of the NT (particularly 1 Cor 12 and 14) articulate the idea of ‘every member ministry’, and this is underpinned by the theology of the Spirit as the end-times gift of the presence of God on the whole people of God (Acts 2, Rom 5.5), other parts focus on the distinctive and prominent ministries of leaders—apostles, prophets, teachers. This creates a picture of variegated ministry involvement amongst the body of Christ, where all are actively involvement, though to varying degrees.

Against this comes the powerful cultural force of consumerism, where we exercise choice but in quite a passive way, not very much engaged with that which we consume. This cultural influence can easily be seen in the tendency in large churches for worship to be a performance, and the worshippers an audience who watch the performance rather than participate in it, and where the question ‘How was church?’ invites a product evaluation exercise.

It is easy, then, to miss the virtues of scale that large churches represent. It is much easier for one person to invest the time, energy and resources to offer a really engaging sermon that digs deep into the Scriptures and draws out, with relevant application, the lessons for living in contemporary for 400 people, than for eight preachers to do this for people meeting in groups of 50. In a church will feels pressed for resources, the efficiency of large churches is not to be sniffed at. According to Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, ‘excellence honours God’—and it can also engage people who living in a culture of high production values. It always seems odd to me that the excellence of a cathedral choir is lauded as enabling encounter with the transcendence of God, but an excellent band set-up with professional lighting and sound is sniffed at as ‘performance consumerism’, when they both represent the equivalent values in their own cultural milieu. The benefits and dangers are very similar. In both contexts there is the precious possibility of those who come actually being ministered too, and enjoying rest and refreshment in the worship of God.

The challenge, then, is to find ways of actively engaging those attending—not by making them busy, but by providing moments of active learning alongside more passive listening, and proactively connecting what happens on a Sunday with what will happen from Monday to Saturday.

Uniformity versus differentiation

The consistent vision of the NT is not that everyone sees things exactly the same way—nor that there is unlimited diversity. The presence of four gospels, with their varied interpretations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sharing a core set of ideas, bears eloquent testimony to a vision of bounded diversity. There are different ways to understand faith—but there are limits to that difference, and going beyond those limits takes us outside orthodox faith. Alongside this, the NT vision is insistent on the cultural and ethnic diversity of the redeemed people of God from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9).

In a culture (and, at times, a church) which does not appear to believe in boundaries of any kind, large churches offer the virtue of focus and intention, usually expressed in a mission statement and an articulation of vision and values. (When church leaders extol the virtues of the Anglican ‘broad church’, I always want to ask ‘How broad?’. Mysticism, pantheism, animism, Sea-of-faith non-realism? When does this ‘virtue’ become a liability?) The answer of our culture to this question is to insistent on uniformity through brand identity—and some churches and church networks appear to have adopting branding in an less than critical way. The danger here is that we lean towards making Christian widgets in a religious worship factory, rather than forming disciples in all their diversity. I was recently speaking to a friend who leads a medium-sized church, who from time to time has new members coming from larger churches near by. His observation was fascinating: those used to large church life often find it difficult to settle in to a context where there is much wider diversity of views and outlooks than they are accustomed to. Within large churches, do we want everyone to look the same?

The challenge, then, is to offer a diversity of subcultures within the overarching shared values and goals of the church as a whole. Is there diversity of worship styles across congregations? Is there a diversity of learning opportunities? Do we take into account cultural differences—and, perhaps most challenging, how do we handle diversity and difference of theological views and perspectives? Bringing everything down to a single point is no more biblical than bringing nothing to resolution.

Activism versus stillness

The dynamic of the NT is a constant movement from activity to rest, and back again. The first thing that humanity did in the seven days of creation was to rest. Only God can rest from his work; we need to work from rest. Jesus sends the disciples out on mission—but not before he has called them to ‘come aside by yourselves with me for a while and rest’. There is much debate about what it means in 1 Tim 2 for women to be ‘silent’—but in fact such silence was the cultural precondition for learning, and it is enjoined on the men just as much as the women. When people come to church on Sunday, do they come to rest?

The cultural pressure is to noisy activism and programmatic busyness, symbolised by the relaxation of Sunday trading laws, but infecting all of life. This seeps into our churches, so that people are (in Milton Jones’ words) afraid of church in the same way they are afraid of helicopters: they don’t want to get caught up in the rotas. There is a real possibility in larger churches for the aggregation of ministry, often by a paid team, holding out the chance of rest and refreshment (which of course sits in some tension with the danger of passive consumerism). But there is a real danger that we seek to give everyone a job to keep them busy—so that they come from a busy world and a busy job to a busy church.

The challenge here is to incorporate stillness, and the silence that goes with it, into the noisiness of larger churches. We need to explore the virtue of listening to God, and find alternatives to an activist spirituality.

Larger churches might be formed by cultural change—but they can also be a gift to the wider church. Cultural pressures will always threaten to push kingdom values out of shape, so we need to be constantly alert to how we can remain true to God’s call on us, and continue to be a blessing to others.

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21 thoughts on “What did large churches ever do for us?”

  1. Hi Ian, Thanks for yet another insightful article. One to add to the list from my perspective as someone who leads a medium sized church twinned with a larger one is that larger churches tend to produce their own ‘micro climate’ and so make it easier for new people on average to explore faith. The downside is that this same factor tends to isolate them from the realities of life outside the ‘bubble’. I suppose the answer is for larger churches to constantly seek to be about the bigger picture and actively supporting smaller churches who don’t enjoy this benefit. NB what is the Milton Jones phenomenon?

    • Correction – the above was off the cuff and inaccurate – just checked – 4 largest of the 17 pay 40% of total Deanery share – apologies – but point broadly stands – economic support and facilitation of wider ministry

        • how strange – I thought it was always based solely on a fairly simple algorithm of head count/electoral role/income. One would also expect large churches to be tithing to charity/mission (like small churches) – but larger churches with larger incomes will be giving away significant sums.

          Ian referred in his article to the large Trent Nottingham Vineyard. I happen to have the figures of their giving for some research I did – in the past 17 years they raised £10.5 million pounds for building projects of which they gave away as gifts to benefit local projects £2.4 million pounds. On top of this they give 22% – yes, 22% of all regular income “to benefit those outside the church”. No wonder they have grown rapidly and been blessed by God so abundantly.

          • That is amazing Praise God And to think that many people are still suspicious of charismatics and Pentecostals!?

        • In Chester there is an ability to pay multiplier. In Salisbury a similar system but with fewer limits on max/min. Coventry did have (still?) a complex socio-economic multiplier.

  2. As a member of a middle-sized parish church, I find the drain to large churches (which then occasionally “plant” in parishes rather than send people to support the churches that are already there) rather disheartening. I know this sounds churlish.

  3. Thanks Ian, for a very insightful and timely analysis. Our congregation is plateauing at around 100 adults (which makes us medium sized I guess?), and we’re struggling a bit to see how we can change that. This post is really helpful in considering the advantages and disadvantages of a larger church, and whether it’s necessarily good to aspire to grow much larger. We’re realising that growth is not just in terms of numbers and reach, but also in depth of discipleship and relationships. We take heart from the knowledge that most of the addressee churches of the New Testament letters were likely to have been what we would consider small or medium sized!

  4. Hi Ian,
    Another cracker on your Blog.
    Now this: “It always seems odd to me that the excellence of a cathedral choir is lauded as enabling encounter with the transcendence of God, but an excellent band set-up with professional lighting and sound is sniffed at as ‘performance consumerism’, when they both represent the equivalent values in their own cultural milieu.”

    Some discussion or evaluation of this comparison excites me.
    Choral music in cathedral or collegiate settings, whether accompanied or a capella, is in my view largely free of the MSG elements which are otherwise unavailable without electricity!

    Peace, from a former chorister and choral scholar and professional (classically trained) singer.

    • It seems to me that there are many similarities. Both excellent choral music and an excellent band can lead us into genuine worship, help us to appreciate God’s majesty, and draw us closer to him. Both can also be “just” performance; the same event may be performance for some and an encounter with the transcendence of God for others.

      Both cathedral choirs and worship bands attract genuine worshippers and those with no belief in God but who enjoy the music – as participants as well as congregations/audiences. This is not altogether a bad thing: the gift of music (of any style), and the words that are set, can be used by God as one way of leading people to himself.

  5. Hi Ian. There is a really good (admittedly American) study on church growth* which shows that much ‘growth’ is the result of ‘sheep stealing’ from less ‘attractive’ churches.
    Your numbers may be up but at whose expense?

    * :Stealing sheep : the church’s hidden problems with transfer growth
    William. Chadwick
    Leicester : IVP 2001
    Creation Date:

    • “Steal” ? That suggests they were owned by someone first – they are Christ’s not some local pastor’s.
      Sheep go where they are fed by green pasture. Yes, there is consumerism at play – but how did a church become big? By having something attractive in the first place.

  6. David, we’ve been at the 90-100 mark for a few years too. One of the thoughts that challenges me repeatedly is the question of whether I / we are content to simply become complacent with a comfortable number …if in the process we lose sight of the call to be a disciple-making community which not only grows ‘deeper’ disciples but also ‘births’ new ones.

    Either we need to be willing to grow numerically bigger, and in the process be willing to embrace the different challenges that brings. Or we need to stay the same size purposefully and missionally, by repeatedly ‘sending away’ some of our ‘deeper’ disciples either to plant new, or to help strengthen existing smaller churches, while still bringing new people to faith ourselves.

    I know I’d personally prefer the numerical growth. And I believe the constant ‘sending’ approach would also be a perfectly appropriate approach. But I couldn’t justify a choice simply to remain static and not be bringing new people into the Kingdom of God.

  7. What happens when all those who are ,mobile leave for the big church? I used to go to charismatic evangelical large church but now without a car it is a local parish church with a congregation of about 50 mostly over 50 years old. No families or young people and we are looking for a minister for a link with a similar congregation. Is there no concern older people?

    • Hello jean…I think that’s a gaping hole in so many churches. You will have a hard time finding a church which has a clear mission vision that includes anybody ‘old’. Their joining a church is nowhere lauded as much as a young family. Children and families are highly desirable…but few are watching the ageing nature of society.

  8. You are right. There are many appeals for ministers to families and young people. If older people are considered it is as being physically dependant rather than spiritually needy

  9. I’m going to turn 70 in May of this year. My mother-in-law lives in a retirement village five hours drive from the city where we live. She is visually impaired and has severe arthritis. My brother in law and his wife attend the church she was part of for thirty years.

    Hardly anyone at that church would now know who she is. Age tends to isolate the aged. I live ion New Zealand. The same admiration for youth and families you refer to is in evidence half way around the world. That leads me to suspect it is a world wide phenomenon.


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