“God is doing amazing things!” is the Christian way of saying, “Look, we’re popular.”
The idea that faithfully following God’s will is associated with people attending (or donating to) churches, ministries, and organizations is a fallacy that can be debunked by simply looking around us. Islam is growing, Mormonism is growing, and so is Kim Kardashian’s Twitter following. They could all use the exact same logic: that popularity equals success. If we gauge God’s favor by the numbers of followers we have then Justin Bieber is probably God’s newly anointed prophet.
But Christians are addicted to popularity. Denominations focus on church planting, pastors obsess over attendance, budgets rely on congregational turnout, and we pay special attention to Christian leaders who are famous.
In a Westernized culture captivated by success and money, we often make judgments based on the size of a church — or organization, ministry, and community. But our preconceived opinions are often wrong.
Take megachurches for example. Both positive and negative attitudes are immediately associated with them based solely on their size. One of the predominant assumptions I’ve heard about them is that they’re too impersonal. “I will never attend a megachurch because there are just too many people and I’ll feel lost in the crowd!”
At first glance this seems logical. How can you feel close and connected when the congregation has thousands of people? I once said that exact same thing, but then I actually visited a megachurch. What I discovered was shocking: Megachurches often (but not always) do a much better job of fostering community than smaller churches.
Why? Because megachurches realize that they’re, well, MEGA! And in order to create community they devote tons of time, energy, and resources into developing genuine ways for community to happen. They do this by intentionally building and maintaining a great network of small groups and ministries where individuals can interact and get to know each other on a deeper level.
Smaller churches often assume that a smaller congregation size automatically equates to a better sense of community — it doesn’t.
In a desperate attempt to imitate the popularity of these monumental faith organizations, many smaller churches — “minichurches” — often make the fatal mistake of trying to copy megachurches. They stretch their already thin resources to make sermons catchier, videos sharper, worship louder, websites cleaner, and programs bigger, burning themselves out by foolishly trying to compete against something they were never meant to become.
The death of smaller churches is regularly blamed on their inability to adapt. But oftentimes failure is the direct result of leaders who frantically try to adapt too fast. Churches that do this ignore and alienate the core community, the ones who have faithfully attended the church for years because they actually liked it for what it was. And as the leadership plods on toward unrealistic goals, chasing higher numbers, they turn a blind eye to the loyal niche of people who have supported them all along.
It’s easy for churches to suffer from an inferiority complex that is undeserved, and they mistakenly assume that the booming church down the road should be their ultimate end goal — it shouldn’t. Just because the worship team sings out of tune, the building is old and falling apart, and the pastor hasn’t published a best-selling devotional doesn’t mean that a church isn’t faithfully doing God’s will.
There are thousands of small faith communities doing it right by striving to make the world a better place by passionately following Christ’s example. These churches understand that Christ-centered community trumps the value of popularity.
So which is better: large communities or small ones? Neither! Numbers, attendance, and popularity shouldnever be used as indicators of spirituality. Expansion should never be pursued at the expense of righteousness.
In a society obsessed with consumerism, we have mistakenly used growth charts, predictive modeling, quarterly forecasts, stats, and numbers as indicators for success. Instead, we should be striving for the fruits of the Spirit. Thousands of Christians can get together yet accomplish nothing, while tiny pockets of believers can be transforming lives — and vice versa. We need to start recalibrating our goals towards Christ’s commission to serve, sacrifice, and love instead of treating the church like a Fortune 500 company.
Before assuming numerical growth or decline is a sign of God’s favor or judgment, prayerfully consider how you can use your faith to help the poor, shelter the homeless, generously give to those in need, comfort the hurting, protect the vulnerable, and selflessly make sacrifices for the benefit of others. Focus on achieving the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5), passionately loving God (Mark: 12:30) and serving the world around you (Mark 12:31). If these Christ-centered values aren’t eagerly embraced and acted upon, then the numbers are worthless.
Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Red Letter Christians and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
Image: Churches vector, Baobaby Studio / Shutterstock.com