Part VIII. The Problem with Big Churches

The New Millennium: a change in perspective?

Stuart Murray’s book Laying Foundations was somewhat of a watershed, in that it paved the way for a new strand of planting literature that was less formulaic and more reflective on what was trying to be achieved by the planter or denomination. In 2000 Steve Timmis, future co-author of Total Church, edited Multiplying Churches, in which one can discern a similar move away from some of the presuppositions of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) and towards smaller, more relational models. He maintains that it is the gospel opportunity that should determine the timing and place of a plant rather than adequate funding for what earlier writers would have seen as pre-requisites before launching: “Church planting does not have to wait until there are sufficient funds to rent a large school hall, or support a full-time minister. Neither is it vital that a constitution be written, a pulpit purchased, hymnbooks acquired, nor quality musicians found to lead the first ‘public’ meeting.”

A much simpler approach to planting presents, says his future co-author Tim Chester in an article in the same book, “an opportunity to re-invent church along radical biblical lines” in much the same way as the apostles had to in the light of the Gentile conversions, as recorded in Acts 10-15. He writes: “Good church planting forces us to re-ask questions about the gospel and church; to re-invent churches that are both biblical without religious tradition and relevant without worldly conformity”.  Throughout this book the contributors emphasize the need to keep the Gospel message central, look again at the biblical story and realize that less is often more. Timmis writes:

“To many people, church is synonymous with buildings, Sunday meetings, constitutions, officers, printed programs, music groups, PA systems etc. But this is far from the truth. As Luke has shown us… church is a group of God’s people gathered together committed to apostolic doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. All criteria that can be fulfilled by the smallest of groups.”

On why Big Churches and 50th Anniversaries might be reasons to grieve!

Tim Thornborough, in his article, notes the sheer variety of ways in which true gospel communities can emerge in contrast to the rather monochrome templates provided by the CGM. He believes an unthinking adoption of CGM methods could not only be unwise and inappropriate, but also theologically and spiritually dangerous:

“The impression given by much church growth literature… is that there is a magic formula which will cure all ills and lead to revival. Such promises are attractive, as are the mega-churches that tantalizingly model them. But perhaps their real attraction lies in the way they offer growth without risk, or even, dare I say it, without faith in the living God who gives the growth.”

Tim Chester sets out the biblical basis for having smaller congregational expressions:

“The household model of New Testament practice embodies key apostolic principles. The apostolic church chose to divide, rather than grow beyond what could be accommodated in a home, to safeguard apostolic principles of church life. Household determines a size in which mutual discipleship and care can realistically take place…. The church in the New Testament grew by dividing, not by building larger auditoriums.”

These convictions are shared by Moynagh. Much of the North American literature, especially in the 1990s, advocated starting with over a hundred and presupposed an exponential increase in numbers,  Lyle Schaller, for instance: “Although it is easier to begin with a couple dozen enthusiastic pioneers who enjoy being together, it may be wiser to plan that a) the first worship service will exceed two hundred people and b) the attendance will not drop below two hundred in that first formative year. This may mean an attendance of three or four or five hundred on that first Sunday.”

In contrast, Moynagh sets out to encourage leaders of small churches to have planting in mind from the outset, saying that “no church need be too small to help spawn a new congregation.”  Although “many small church leaders are frantically busy just keeping their heads above water… (and) new forms of church, it seems, may never get a look in”, he encourages them with the statistic that there is “a clear link between congregational size and the probability of growth”; namely, the smaller the church, the higher percentage chance of growth in ten years.

So, for these authors, the size of the church does matter: the very apostolic principles of congregational life demand that it be small enough for everyone to be adequately cared for, equipped – and also sent out.

(As an aside, as I enjoy my Sabbatical at Regent College, I heard this week of a question Eugene Peterson was asked in class when he was lecturing here.  A student asked him “Can I be a contemplative pastor when my church numbers over 800?”  He answered; “No.  Next question.”)

The fact that these emerging communities should not become ends in themselves, but rather have further future multiplication as part of their DNA is seen from Chester’s hard-hitting comment:  “It may be that a fiftieth church anniversary is not an occasion to celebrate the faithfulness of God, but one to lament the stagnation of his people.”

Back to Mission and Church staying together

Chester, particularly, challenges some of the theological conclusions Murray makes in Laying Foundations, especially in the area of the relationship between ecclesiology and missiology. He maintains that, in places, Murray confuses church planting and denominational expansion and dichotomizes church planting and social justice. The result is that he does not see planting as an end in itself but an agent of Mission. “But,” writes Chester, “what sense does that statement make if at the heart of God’s mission is the saving for himself of a people?”

Surely, he argues, “it is the church that makes manifest the eternal reconciling purposes of God.”  He has a similar problem with Bosch’s accusation that the Christendom church had ceased to point to God, but pointed instead at itself. Chester says this is: “deceptively attractive, but runs contrary to biblical missiology. The heart of Old Testament mission is precisely the fact that by pointing to themselves as they embody life under the rule of God, the people of God draw attention to God himself.”

In Total Church, co-authored with Timmis, Chester summarizes two different views of the interplay between missiology and ecclesiology, before pointing out their media res:

It is sometimes said that those committed to church planting fall into two camps. The first camp are those whose primary concern is with mission and who see church (in the form of church planting) as the most biblical or most convenient way to pursue their commitment to mission. The primary concern of the second camp is the church. They see mission (in the form of church planting) as the best way to pursue their radical vision of the church… There is a third camp: those whose primary concern is gospel-centered communities, whose priority is the gospel and who see Christian community as the natural expression of the gospel.

It is this over-riding, almost symbiotic, unity of missiology and ecclesiology that characterizes the thought of writers such as Chester and Timmis, and enables them to advocate both a rigorous church planting strategy and yet not be bound to one particular model.


One comment

  1. Richard Wiebe · · Reply

    Hi, agree with your article, it was forwarded to me by Paul. I recently hypothesized with him what would happen if every Christian merely sought out to evangelize there own neighbourhood by first seeking to discuss faith with their neighbours Christian and Non leading to a community church plant eventually with those you already pray for but hardly know your neighbour! Today’s Christian go to church in a different neighbourhood sometimes even city! this removes the idea of real functional community and moves into the realm of religion I theorized. Therefore house to house ecclesia which is far less structured may be a primitive but most biblical method of ecclesia planting. Have you read any of Frank Violas books on this I suggest an older one called Rethinking the wineskin.

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