Bigger Christians, Not Bigger Churches

My wife and I recently put out the big bucks for a month's membership at the local YMCA. We've talked for a long time about the need to be healthier, but had yet to do the necessary things to make it happen. We had to be at the Y for something last week, and that did it for us. Unfortunately that was a week and a half ago, and I still haven't gone to work out. Obviously I was there on the day we signed up, so that should count as a visit even though I didn't do any exercise while we were there. When they gave us a tour, it was hard not to feel a bit out of place. I'm in the worst shape I've ever been in, not having done anything competitive in a decade. Yet walking around the Y, there were plenty of people sweating profusely and enjoying it, as well as guys lifting weights so heavy that when the bar went back on the rack, I could feel the floor shaking. (Sure, there were also plenty of people there in a physical condition much closer to mine, but I didn't take as much notice of them.)

While it felt intimidating in a way, there was also certainly a sense of it being right. If we had walked around the Y without seeing anyone who looked healthy, there would be a serious problem. Health clubs don't exist just to get people to sign up; they're there to help people get healthy.

Pause those thoughts about a health club for a moment and think about a church. The focus in churches often comes down to how many people are there. Or, broader than numbers of people, churches easily focus on the "ABCs of church growth": attendance, buildings, and cash.

I need to preface the remainder of my remarks with admitting that for most of my life, I've had an anti-large church bias. I'm not sure what to attribute that to, except the fact that I had always been in small churches, and I guess we all like to think we're doing things better than everyone else. I've gotten rid of the bias during the last two years, which has been very convenient in timing as I've been on staff at a large church for the first time.

Giving up my bias, and experiencing some of the goodness of a large church has helped me to realize something simple about small churches: there is some reason that they are small. It's possible that the reason is that they're in a rural area and have already reached and discipled everyone within driving distance, but I've yet to come across such a church (although there are some great churches in small towns). More likely causes for a church remaining small could be disfunction among members, no interest in engaging the world around them, a lack of leadership ability, a refusal to accept change, etc., etc., etc. Generally, if we are communicating the message that Jesus preached and have any serious roadblocks out of the way, churches will grow. This is my disclaimer to establish that I am no longer a Christian with an anti-large church bias, which some of you may need to keep in mind in the rest of what I write in this post.

I once heard Dallas Willard say, "We need to stop counting the people who come to our churches and start weighing them." Obviously he wasn't advocating that we place scales around our churches and start singing, "O Jesus, Lord of My Girth" (all credit to Stu Smith for the hymn title). Rather, he was making the point that the number of people who come is only relevant if they are reliably becoming more like Christ in the substance of who they are. Or, back to the health club, the number of members is irrelevant if no one there is getting healthy. Although health clubs would probably go out of business if it was a rarity to have members become and stay healthy, it is highly possible to have a very large church whose people do not naturally become any more Christlike as time passes. We can work hard, do everything with "excellence," be extremely well-organized with strong leadership at all levels, and if those components are in place, chances are that a church in our culture will not have trouble drawing a crowd. But those characteristics in themselves say nothing about whether or not people in the church are naturally growing in their love for God and others.

Another way of looking at what we're aiming for, which I've also heard Dallas Willard and James Bryan Smith talk about, is that rather than aiming at building bigger churches, we should aim at building bigger Christians. Surely some health clubs get this right. They exist to help people get fit, and if they do that extremely well, I doubt they have trouble finding business. If I were a health club director, my primary goal would be to get as many people as possible onto a reliable path to getting and staying fit. So, as a pastor, that means that my primary goal is to help those under my influence to enter ever more fully into "the life that really is life" (1 Tim. 6:19), leading them in the kind of lifestyle that will naturally produce the love, joy, and peace of Christ deep within them as they learn to rely on God's grace.

Also as a pastor, it means that I have to be experiencing the kind of life I'm promoting to others. I suppose that health clubs can run successfully as businesses without fit directors, but that seems difficult. Pastors can certainly build big churches without having had their characters transformed to be very significantly like that of Jesus, but it's very difficult to build "big" Christians without doing so. In fact, without Christ's character growing in us through God's grace, we likely won't even know what it would mean to make "bigger Christians" and may not even realize it if we met one. Because we naturally lead people to become like us, building bigger Christians requires those in Christian leadership themselves to be apprentices of Jesus, learning to do everything he taught us. (See my earlier post, "Is Leadership Overrated?")

Maybe I'm giving health clubs too much credit. I'm sure they also occasionally fall into the trap of focusing on expanding their customer base without giving the needed attention to how effectively they're helping the people already there become healthy. If that's true, the largest health club in your town is not necessarily the one most likely to help you get in shape. And the largest church may not be the place that can most effectively help you experience Jesus' kind of life. Size is not the point. The point is bigger Christians, not bigger churches.