In 1965, there were only 93 churches in America that averaged over 1,000 in attendance. Today there are more than 8,000 of these larger churches in our nation, with many here in Southern California. Contrary to the claims of some pundits, the trend toward larger churches is not abating. Last year, another American church joined the above-1,000 category every three days.
Large congregations are nothing new to Christianity. The first church, in Jerusalem, began with 3,000 members and quickly grew to "tens of thousands," according to the book of Acts. Many Bible scholars, such as G. Campbell Morgan, believe the Jerusalem congregation grew to more than 60,000 members. Throughout history we have many examples of very large churches growing in Europe, England and America.
Today, the largest congregations are not in America but in Asia, Africa and South America. Recently I spoke at the largest independent church in the world, the largest Methodist church in the world, and the largest Presbyterian church in the world--all three in Seoul, South Korea. In Lagos, Nigeria, there is a congregation with 80,000 members and in Bogota, Colombia, you can visit a church that holds services in a soccer stadium to accommodate its 160,000 members. There are many congregations overseas that dwarf our largest American churches.
But church leaders who focus on the size of these churches--as illustrated by last week's On Faith column--miss the point. Instead, they should focus on the health of these churches, which causes the amazing growth.
All living things grow--if they are healthy. I don't have to force my three children to grow. They naturally grow. If I remove the hindrances, such as poor nutrition, their growth is automatic. If my kids don't grow, something is terribly wrong. It indicates an unhealthy situation, a genetic problem, or possibly a disease.
In the same way, it is natural for churches to grow. Jesus called the church "My Body." A congregation is a living organism, not an organization. It is a body, not a business. And if it's healthy, it will grow.
There is no correlation between the size and the strength of a congregation. A church may be big and strong, or big and flabby. A church may be small and strong, or small and wimpy.
Big is not necessarily better, but neither is small automatically better. Healthy, biblical, balanced churches are better!
So what causes a church to be healthy? The answer is balance. When a human body is out of balance it becomes weak and ill. Likewise when the Body of Christ becomes unbalanced, for any reason, growth is halted, weakness sets in, and death eventually occurs.
I believe the key issue for churches in the 21st century will be church health, not church size. When congregations are healthy, they grow the way God intends. The Bible says: "It is from Christ that all the parts of the Body are cared for and held together. So it grows in the way God wants it to grow." (Col. 2:19 NCV)
Church members should ask: "What is keeping our church from growing?" Your task is to discover and remove growth-restricting barriers so that natural, normal growth can occur. Seventy years ago Roland Allen, in his classic book on missions, called this kind of growth "the spontaneous expansion of the church." There are many examples in the book of Acts. If spontaneous growth isn't happening in your church, you should ask why not.
Church leaders sometimes look at larger churches with a mixture of bewilderment, fear, jealousy and even resentment. We wonder: "Why do some churches in a community grow when others don't?" And rather than rejoicing that lives are being changed by Jesus Christ, we're tempted to make unfounded criticisms and inaccurate assumptions about larger churches to justify our own lack of growth and vitality.
A common misconception is that to attract a large crowd you must somehow dilute the demands of Christ, compromise your convictions, sanitize the message, and cater to current marketing fads. This is pure baloney. In fact, we've found the opposite to be true: People are hungry to be told the truth in a clear, convincing way, and they want to be challenged to sacrifice for something greater than themselves. Americans are searching for significance, community, purpose and certainty--benefits that Christ offers.
One obvious characteristic of Jesus' ministry was that it attracted crowds. Large crowds. Enormous crowds. The Bible called them "multitudes." Jesus' ministry had a magnetic quality about it. He had no difficulty attracting people to hear him speak. They thronged to wherever he was, even if it meant traveling a long distance.
I believe that a Christ-like ministry still attracts crowds. You don't have to use gimmicks. You don't have to compromise your convictions or water down your message. I've found that you don't even need a church building to attract a crowd. But you do have to minister to people the way Jesus did!
What attracted the large crowds to Jesus? Jesus did three things with crowds: He loved them (Matthew 4:25, etc.), he met their needs (Matthew 15:30, Luke 6:17-18, John 6:2, etc.), and he taught them in interesting and practical ways (Mark 12:37, Matthew 13:34, Mark 10:1, etc.).
These are the same ingredients for growing a healthy congregation today. If you do these things, attendance will be the least of your problems as a church.
We often forget that the so-called megachurches were once small. Saddleback Church began in 1980 in my home with two families. For 13 years our church moved from one rented facility to another as our congregation grew. We even met in a tent for three years. Still, attendance grew to more than 10,000 before we built our first building. What was the attraction? Not convenience nor comfort, but changed lives! People want to go to a church where their lives are changed. If that is happening on a week-by-week basis in your church, you'll have to lock the doors to keep people out.
On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.