I recently attended a gathering of bright and talented leaders who are dedicated to improving the Church of Jesus Christ. I love breathing the same air as these folks because, despite its many faults, I love the Church and still believe it holds the key to bringing a better world into existence. Deep into a discussion of church consultations and coaching, one of my colleagues shared the controversial opinion that it is time to give up on the small membership church and put our attention where it will do the most good: larger churches. Now granted, when we say “larger” we meant anything with at least 200 people in worship. Not large when compared to the best examples of the mega-church movement, but 200 has a far greater chance of becoming 300 someday. The question left unanswered was, if all of our attention would be given to helping larger churches to become even larger, what would happen to the smallest congregations among us? If I had asked that question, I believe the answer would be “Who cares? Ignore them. Close them. Run them out of business. Starve them out. Kill them off.” I think some folks are embarrassed by the “abject failure” of our smallest congregations and want to put them out of their misery.
We've been sold on the notion that if you don't seat at least a thousand in your auditorium or have a live satellite feed simulcasting to your multiple campuses, you really aren't worthy of speaking on behalf of the Church. We come by this honestly enough. A growing proliferation of celebrity pastors spend so much time writing books and selling seminars that I honestly wonder how they find the time to run a church. They seem to offer the irresistible promise of “If I did it, you can too.” Let's lay all the cards on the table. That just isn't true. I have nothing against congregations with all the latest bells and whistles and cutting edge techniques like a cafe in the lobby. I have nothing against gifted pastors who are called to teach beyond their local congregations either. I've learned a lot from the likes of Nelson Searcy, Andy Stanley, Rick Warren and Adam Hamilton. These people have invested in me over the years through their writings and I am the pastor I am today because of them. But to suggest that massive bigness and commercial success is all that matters is misguided. That's like saying nobody should play baseball unless they can compete with the New York Yankees. Too bad, Little League. It's like saying that no one should put on a play unless it's on Broadway. Too bad, Middle School Drama Club.
I'm not saying that there aren't some real biblical flaws in most little churches. There are. Whether big or small, the Church exists to make and mature disciples who make and mature other disciples. That's not happening in many of our largest churches, let alone our smallest. Willow Creek Community Church did a self study several years ago and discovered they did a great job of attracting a crowd of seekers. They did a great job of inspiring and entertaining, but they did not meet their own expectations as disciple makers. This is a church where truly money is no object. They have the best teachers, musicians, facilities, publishing departments and media teams. Smaller churches rarely have the best of anything by the world’s standards and often spend more time caring for the physical and emotional needs of the church family than discipling each other to maturity.
The dirty truth is that what we call church growth and vitality has two prongs. One is the truly biblical emphasis of making and maturing disciples. The other is keeping this disciple-making enterprise on a paying basis. Pastors cost money. So do facilities, musicians, publishing departments and media teams. Bill Hybles, Adam Hamilton, and Mike Slaughter are gifted business men, visionaries and leaders as well as pastors. So are most of the entrepreneurial celebrity saints that have captured our attention, admiration and, well, jealousy. In the theater, a “triple threat” is that gifted performer who can act, sing, and dance. In the Church, the “Triple Threat Pastor” would be the one that can effectively make disciples that honor God like the apostle Paul, lead the people and process of a growing organization like Steve Jobs, and remain holy and pure in the process like Mother Theresa. Just like in the theater, the triple threat is extremely rare. There simply aren't enough of them to plant a “mega-church in every community.” Holiness and purity is always an expectation, but if I have to choose between the apostle Paul and Steve Jobs, no offense to the iPad I'm writing this on, but I will choose the disciple-maker every time.
More disciple-makers means more churches that know how to make and mature disciples, whether they have fifteen people in a living room or fifteen thousand in a stadium. Remember though, the first disciples made disciples without facilities, paid staff, social media strategies, or media teams. It was simply people talking to people and living life together with Jesus. That's how disciples are made. Anything beyond that has to do with putting it all on a paying basis. The paying basis is optional. Making and maturing disciples is not. Personally, I want to keep making disciples and I want to make sure the smallest congregations around us know how to do it. God always did the best work with the things that are small, unexpected, and broken. Killing off the weak has never been God’s style, so let's not start now.