In the search for genuine community, believers have even more options to consider these days than ever.
A British pastor visited my friend’s church in Los Angeles, and what he told them all shocked them a bit.
The secularism and skepticism about Christianity in Europe makes it very hard to plant churches there. With the cost of big church set-ups and social resistance to religious ceremonies, many evangelical churches are quickly giving way to house meetings. The UK’s church growth is starting to look more akin to Asia’s model than the Western three service times, coffee bar and childcare set up.
This pastor said he was witnessing the same trend in big American cities. “Your country isn’t quite where England is yet, but it’s getting there. The church here also seems to be moving in the same direction.”
Not Slamming the Family
Let’s pause for a quick caveat.
In the wake of some big-name pastors stepping down from their role or renouncing their faith, it’s become vogue online to bash megachurches and the people who support them.
No one from a larger church wants, needs or deserves to be slapped with “My house/small church is a better, more biblical community.” A common temptation for us is to become overzealous about some newly realized truth and then frustrated with other believers who don’t think about that topic the same way we do.
However, God and the apostles didn’t specify exactly how church ought to look for good reasons. Church is about honoring God, redirecting our hearts toward him and inviting others into this kind of living rhythm.
Jesus didn’t discuss the future look of the church much beyond, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV).
“What we need is the Holy Ghost hospital,” Nicky Cruz said on the Gary Wilkerson podcast, pointing out what the church must be regardless of size.
“Open the door and let those wounded people, hurting people come in, rich and poor, black and white. We need to start preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ straight and never give up.”
How church is shaped depends on social limitations—like having religious freedom or not—the wider culture and however the Spirit choses the move.
Whether to Go Big or Small
Famous pastor and writer Francis Chan made a splash when he voluntarily stepped down from his position, not because of a personal scandal or crisis of faith but rather because he was troubled by the difficulty of discipleship in the megachurch model.
His book Letters to the Church is a fascinating view into one man’s struggle with how we can best reach our world. An excerpt is available on the website for the house churches he’s helped plant.
However, parts of his defense for house churches seems slightly hyperbolic when comparing them to large churches.
House churches are not immune to difficulties, and the pastors of house churches can still experience exhaustion and burn out. Also, as one pastor and planter of multiple house churches points out in his blog, the people who attend are not inherently friendlier, more faithful or doctrinally sound.
In fact, he mounts a compelling case for choosing big church.
Of course, there will always be voices who only advocate for one type of church. Often, this is the result of painful experiences in the past, though it may also grow out of strong personal conviction.
To them, Bonhoeffer’s words about the church seem apropos: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Finding the Genuine Community for You
In his discussion about what size church needs to be, Karl Vaters wrote, “Our desire for a minimum viable size has more to do with personal preferences and cultural norms than with biblical standards for health and effectiveness.
“It’s okay to have preferences. But we should have the integrity to acknowledge our preferences and state them accurately.”
In the United States and many other Western countries, believers have the luxury and blessing of an overwhelming amount of church options. Religious freedoms allow us to even have this discussion about how big churches should be and where they should be held, while Christians in other parts of the world have only one available choice, or none at all.
Since we have the privilege of this freedom, we should carefully consider our reasons for pursuing a certain type of church and how we will overcome inevitable obstacles.
Large churches can feel about as personal as a blues concert, but Christian author and business coach Steve Bremner warns that house churches can similarly devolve “into a social club for those tired of traditional church.” Either model has the potential to lose its true heart as a place to encourage and exhort each other toward a deeper relationship with God.
Relationships will always pose challenges, whether it’s finding them in the first place or making sure that they don’t lose focus on God or become echo-chambers where nothing new is ever introduced to challenge us.
Church community, at its heart, is about genuine connection with our heavenly Father and earthly family.
Living in real church relationships is not easy, but it will always be worthwhile.