Thursday, February 09, 2012

Intimidating With Bigness

Evangelicalism faced a recent premise challenging event when two Gospel Coalition members invited modalist T. D. Jakes to their Elephant Room conference.  If evangelicals are about the gospel and they don't get that right, they don't have anything.  This is my fourth installment offering analysis of this event (first, second, third).


Another obvious element of the Elephant Room fiasco is one very common in evangelicalism.  Their leaders, like many of those with another parachurch movement, have a preoccupation with size.  You hear numbers again and again referenced to validate success.  The bigness of the evangelical churches insulates them against doctrinal criticism like when Jack Hyles used his numbers as an argument against critics.  Size is intended to intimidate.  Largeness of church or number of books published mean status, opportunity, and popularity.  You could hear the importance of size to MacDonald and Driscoll with this exchange:

Driscoll: I want to say a couple of things. Thank you for joining us. You don’t have to be there. You were on the cover of Time magazine. You have options of where you go.
 MacDonald: This isn’t your biggest gig ever?
 Driscoll: It takes a lot of courage and humility to put yourself in an unscripted situation and to be outside of your normal crowd. And The fact you showed up to dinner last night, I was shocked.

We've got big fish with a bigger fish, the former recognizing what makes the meeting so important, his bigness (and I'm not talking anatomically).   This is the thinking of MacDonald and Driscoll (even as seen in the first minute and a half or so of this).   Maybe there's something in the water in the Chicago area.  Here is a classic read from Jack Hyles:

The church has a membership of well over 100,000 and averages over 8,000 baptisms per year. For many years the church has been acclaimed to have the “World’s Largest Sunday School.” Since the printed publication of this book in 1962, First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana has seen tremendous growth under the leadership of Dr. Hyles. The church now averages well over 20,000 in attendance every Sunday. This church has seen more people saved than any church in the nation. Several Sundays they have seen over 3,000 walk the aisle accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour.

Here is a classic read from Mark Driscoll:

Last year, 157 US churches were planted by A29. Last year we had 382 church-planting applicants, and right now we have 550. At our current pace, Lord willing, we could be over 1,000 US churches running perhaps 500,000 people on Easter 2016, if not earlier.

The point is, if you're big, then God is blessing you.  I contend that most of these groups are big, not because God is blessing them.  First, it's a David argument (2 Samuel 24), when tens of thousands died from his preoccupation with numbers.  Second, it's a Pharisee argument.  If you are sick, like the blind man in John 9, then it must because of something you've done wrong.  It's a faulty argument, same one that Job's friends used against him.  The same goes for numbers---you can't judge success by whether you have them or not.

I understand that people respect size.  It's money.  It's significance.  It's success.  It's popularity.  It's sales.  It's influence.  It's invitations.  It's validation.  Except that the Bible says that there might be a reason you're getting bigger, and it might not be because of something good.


Anonymous said...

We need to be careful when talking about size of church = spiritual state of the church. Small churches can be seriously off track, and large churches can be totally on track. So many other factors come into play besides size.

I used to belong to a large church. It was large because it stood for truth, and folks were out there searching for truth. When they came, they heard Biblical truth, and experienced the love of the congregation. i remember a person telling me that our church was large because we just told people what they wanted to hear. In a way, this person was correct. The people coming were tired of hearing silly stuff, and were ready for the truth of the gospel.

Kent Brandenburg said...

There is a biblical basis for doubting size. It's true that something right can get bigger, but it is rare even scripturally. And God's people are called a remnant. I think bigger churches should be more suspect because of it. They are already going to get attention because of their sheer numbers, but I've talked individually to thousands of the members of mega-churches and I have found that almost exclusively there are non-scriptural reasons that are their major factor for being in the church.

Steve Rogers said...

Bro. B,

Size really has been the determining factor in the minds of those that need a "fundamentalism" to be a part of. Many pastors will limit the preaching of their doctrinal convictions outside of the accepted list, in order to belong to someting BIG (at least in their eyes) like fundamentalism. The argument was and still is today, that we can't separate over any doctrine outside of the accepted list, because we need and God needs bigness in order to accomplish the Great Commission. The local church ministry of whatever size you minister in, is not enough. We see this in the evangelicals as mentioned, but bigness goes to the heart of the movement of fundamentalism.

Steve Rogers said...

Bro. B,

Don't know if you post links, but David Cloud published an article from the 1960s by Pastor David Nettleton on this idea of limiting your message or your fellowship. It goes to the heart of those that forsake obedience for bigness. It is entitled, "A Limited Message or A Limited Fellowship."

Micah said...

Kent, in general, your article is right on. A lot of these guys are preoccupied with size. The marketing, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, mutual public adulation & name dropping is gut wrenching. I won't name drop, but I have an insider's point of view.

However, it is a sweeping generalization to throw all large churches into the "unscriptural" category because of some ostentatious pronouncement Driscoll makes in ER2. It is misdirection to suggest large churches should be treated suspiciously because you suggest such is biblically rare.

Your article's point is as valid as the fact that the son is hot, but it shouldn't lead to generalizations. Size is not an indication of spiritual impact, small, medium or big.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I agree and thanks for the link.


Possibly every church wants to be big. Little churches want to get big and so big churches will get their attention, at least to find out how they got big and perhaps emulate it. Big churches are easy to criticize. I can hope that anyone has a great experience in a big church, and my interviews with so many are still not scientific, but there is a general warning about groups getting big in scripture, almost a biblical theology of it. And that should be taken into consideration, I believe. If you're church doesn't get big, when you are faithful to evangelize scripturally everyone in your area, and your church follows Scripture in its methods, doctrine, and practice, you aren't doing anything wrong that's keeping you small. I would say the same thing of the big church, except add 'resulting in bigness' at the end.


Micah said...

Thanks Kent,
What scriptures would you give to suggest there is warning against being a large church?

There are plenty for how to function and what not to do, but I am not aware of size limitations.

It seems to me that the more churches focus on effectiveness via preaching, Bible study/prayer, building community, sharing the faith and service, the more they will grow naturally.

it seems like the rub for so many smaller church leaders (attendance in 50 - 200 range) is the same rub of those who bodybuild. Many small churches and large churches do the same ministry things, but like the bodybuilders, the ones who use HGH and other testoterone/anabolic enhancers will develop and grow much larger and with great speed versus the ones who do it naturally.

It sounds like what you're saying is that many large churches feed their "body" unnatural elements that give short term gains, but bring potentially long term repercussions; and it's just not natural.

And I agree, if our pastor preached a religious Reader's Digest version of the gospel and we played rock music, not Christian music, literal rock, as in Perry Noble there at New Spring, then there would be an unnatural enhancement that would create some buzz.

I've always been a big strong guy, but I will never be a defensive linemen. There's big and strong, and then there's elite and gifted strength and size. And so it is with churches. Your gifts and strengths may take you to 200 or 400 people. But there are just other guys who are "bigger and stronger" and doing it a little differently, and thus build larger churches. They are not doing anything wrong, or pandering to anyone, but they've been blessed to have a large thriving church through gifts and leadership skills that are robust.

It's just diversity among the body of Christ.


Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Micah,

We're talking in generalities here (except your Perry Noble illustration), but as we move through scripture, we get a "spread out" teaching, starting with what God told Adam as a general teaching for mankind, and then illustrated at the tower of Babel. When the Jerusalem church didn't, God sent them all over through persecution. As Jesus ministered, He was asked why few should be saved, and His answer makes sense that this wouldn't get so big. He said the world would hate us. And He said "few there be that find it." I could develop this a lot more, but this kind of teaching lends itself toward doubting bigness.

When Hyles had the world's largest church, he talked like it was a modern Pentecost. Those people who didn't get large must be missing spiritual power. I still hear the same thing today.

I've had the advantage of getting bigger and than shrinking when we stopped using some of the methods that got us there. I've talked about those methods here and at Jackhammer plenty. What I'm saying in part is that people know how to get big if they have reasonable intelligence, and why it is they get big, and I've seen most of it relate to comfort, convenience, world, the flesh, etc. You give people what they want to some degree and mix that to a certain degree with what God wants, sort of like what Jeroboam did at the beginning to sell people on the Northern Kingdom.

Bobby said...

Good one bringing Jereboam into this. Classic example. He started with "The way God wants it done won't work". He made his own way andit was big! It even lasted for several generations.

He continued until he made priests of everyone that wanted to be one.

It is very much like fundamentalism and evangelicalism today. They start with the idea that God's way won't work. it is all downhill from there. They are at the point where just about anyone that says they are "called" to pastor is ordained eventually. Instead of the Bible qualifications being met, there are some man-made ones.

Why don't they give everyone that says they are called to be treasurer the money-bag? Maybe the legal tender is more important than the flock of God. For that matter why doesn't anyone announce that they are called to be janitor?

The mess grows because so few rebuke it. The Nobles, Driscolls, Jakes, and the rest of the rock star pastors go unrebuked as they continue in their pernicious ways.

They are big! So is the gang that went with Satan in the original uprising.

Let's keep proving all things with the Scripture. "to the law and prophets.,

Jon Gleason said...

The church is a body, and if one member hurts, the whole body hurts. If you have 2000 members and one of them is hurting, there's a strong likelihood you don't even know it. That's not a command that churches be small, it's just a Scriptural pattern that somewhat points that way.

We are supposed to be exhorting one another regularly so none of us get hardened in sin. The implication is that we will know each other well enough to know when someone is drifting towards sin. That's pretty unlikely if you have 1000 church members. Again, not a command to small churches, just part of the general pattern.

If you have 500 church members and one member stops giving, it probably won't be noticed at all. If you have 30, it really hurts -- so believers are much more aware of their responsibility. Biblically, it should matter if someone neglects their responsibility.

It's somewhat irrelevant if someone isn't keeping company with you (after you've been disciplined)if you don't even know them. It's somewhat strange to "tell it to the church" if 90% of the church doesn't know the people involved. How are they supposed to respond if they've never heard of these people? Church discipline suggests smaller churches, not mega-churches.

I could go on....

There are ways big churches can help with these things, but the general overall sense of the description of a church in Scripture is a closely-knit body of people which is small enough that pretty much everyone knows everyone else.

If our church suddenly and miraculously grew to over 100 people, I'd be investigating the possibility of starting a new work in another part of town.