Why do we assume when it comes to churches that size determines health? Why assume that a church of 300 must be doing well, while a church of 30 must be unhealthy and in need of revitalising? It could be possible that a large church of 300-500 people is really spiritually unhealthy and in need of serious revitalisation, while the 30-strong church is actually spiritually vital. (For American or African readers, if 300 seems small, please understand that that is quite large by UK standards.) To assess whether your church needs revitalising, here are six suggested measures of bad church health.
- Poor prayer life. Do all the Christians in your church pray together? There is a world of difference between a ‘prayer meeting’ (routine, dull, predictable, driven by habit, unimaginative, happening because it ought to) and a ‘prayer gathering’ (motivated by a real urge to pray about something, led with good preparation, filled with heartfelt prayer, praying for things that have not been prayed for before, going beyond habit in order to cast ourselves upon God, a gathering that happens because it simply has to – the Christians felt they had to be there). If your church meets to pray because of habit rather than because of a heart-felt desire, then the prayer life of the church really needs revitalising. More than that, are you modelling public prayer as an example of the kind of prayers people should be praying alone at home? The way the church prays in public will shape the way people learn to pray in private. The larger the church, the harder it gets to pray for people in public. If someone is ill and awaiting test results after a scan, it is hard to reveal that in front of 300 people, some of whom won’t know who you are talking about. The larger a church grows, the less it remains a fellowship (a strong argument for church-planting) and the more easily it can drift into a life together less and less bound together in prayer.
- God’s voice is no longer heard. The preacher preaches the Bible every week, so the church can claim to be ‘Bible-centred’, but is God’s voice being heard? Ask yourself how often people say of the preacher ‘How did he get on?’ and how often they ask ‘What did God say to us through that sermon?’ The danger for any church is that the preaching ministry goes in one of two directions: either it becomes tame or hostile. The tame preacher wants to keep everyone happy, to get their attention and make them laugh, to charm them with good illustrations, to make church fun. There’s nothing wrong with putting people in a good mood as such, but the problem is that this always ‘letterboxes’ church into quite narrow parameters. You can’t be sombre and warn of eternal realities, not can you be truly ‘awesome’ (lets reclaim that word!) and lift people up to the heights of spiritual joy. In the end, the preacher’s message gets tamed by the need to sustain the chat show atmosphere. So people come to church expecting to enjoy the hour and not go away changed, just feeling good. They never expect to hear God’s voice. The hostile preacher, meanwhile, castigates his congregation on everything. All is doom. No one in the world wants to hear the gospel. These are dark days. The church he is preaching to is as hopeless as any other church around them. We are living in a carnal age. The Church is dying in Britain. Then the preacher starts attacking the sins of his congregation as though he himself doesn’t commit them. Donald Macleod used to warn us in systematics class to ‘beware of flailing your congregation.’ He was right. The best preachers know and admit that they themselves are the greatest sinners. The hostile preacher approach can be as man-focussed as the chat show approach. In just the same way, God’s voice is not heard, because the preacher is so ready to ladle out his own despair. He doesn’t preach the power of God, because he doesn’t expect it. I suspect the chat show preacher will gather a crowd better than the hostile preacher, but both need revitalising, and that revitalisation comes through rediscovering a great sense of God. When God is great in our thoughts as we worship, whether in song or prayer or reading God’s Word or preaching, then our souls will be filled with the joy they seek and the gospel will be good news. We will gather around God’s Word because we are hungry for God to speak, and the preacher doesn’t get in the way of the Word, because the Word he preaches makes us rejoice in God. Whether large or small, does the preaching in your church need revitalising?
- No one has been saved in the last two years who is over the age of 21. A large church has lots of families, and loads of children’s and youth work reaps a harvest of those being saved. This is wonderful! Praise God that young people are being saved and baptised into the membership of the church. As a Christian parent I can’t over-estimate the joy this has brought us as young people are being saved. But think. The Church grows, but the new Christians are almost all related to existing church members. While a church-plant of a mere 20 mission-minded people looks outwards to reach unsaved folk in the local community, a church of 300 may not notice that the Lord is saving only those who have grown up in the church. As the young people marry each other and the next generation follows, so the church becomes more ingrown, even though it is large. Also, a church of 300 can soon become inward looking simply because it takes a lot of effort just to keep up with each other. As a social unit, 300 is a lot of people to get to know. Why would you look beyond it for friendships, when the church programme is busy and occupies lots of time? That is one reason why so many churches reach their glass ceiling and never grow beyond it. They lose sight of their mission to reach the world around them, but this is masked by the wonderful things the Lord is doing in saving the non-Christians who have been part of the church gathering for years. Does your large church need to revitalise its evangelism and reach the unsaved adults who live around you in their thousands?
- You can hide, and you can also be lost. When a church reaches a certain size, it is easy for people to drift in and out on a Sunday and never be noticed. This is particularly true if you are single. I was a single in a large church once. When my fiancé joined me, it was striking how much more attention people gave us, compared to the previous year when I had been there on my own. So what about the person who is in a bad way spiritually, who can slip in and out of your church without receiving the friendship, understanding and counsel that they need? What if they were disciplined in another church and ran away to yours? Who will get close enough to help them come to repentance? In the same way, will people notice if one person drops out of attending a church of 300 or 500? In a church of 30 or 50 they will be missed. I am impressed by many larger churches I know well that conscientiously work hard at pastoral care, but we shouldn’t assume that a large church will always be a healthy church when it comes to pastoral care, while a smaller church must need revitalising. The smaller church may be doing pastoral care much better.
- Obsession with the church building. A church is planted in all the energy and vigour of the early days, looking outwards, meeting in a community hall or school, and focussing on evangelism and connecting with the community. But the day comes when a significant building project is needed, the fund raising takes years, the build required is the big story that takes over the church’s life, and the management of the facility takes all the energy of the fellowship. Then people dislike what has been done, or argue over the money, deacons resign in protest, or people withhold their giving. Building projects can often lead to trouble down the line. Or maybe it isn’t that bad. It is just that the building is visible, tangible and pleasing on the eye, and gives the sense of something happening, when it can mask a spiritual malaise because the church has been so focussed on bricks and mortar that it has neglected its spiritual life.
- Losing the habit of sending. A healthy church should always be sending their best into ministry and mission, whatever size they are. So your church may be large, but is it mentoring young adults, and indeed those thinking about entering ministry in midlife or serving in mission in early retirement? Are you training people to preach, and giving them opportunities to test their gifts and get experience? That is harder to do in a big church with a team of experienced preachers. Are you getting new people involved in evangelism out there in the community? When the assistant pastor or youth worker moves on to serve in another church, will you recruit their successors from among those you have been training up in your own membership? If you have 450 members to work with, why would you need to advertise outside the church to find a replacement? Yet it happens. Large churches can fall into the same trap as small churches – thinking that all the best people will come from outside. A mark of your spiritual health is that you are sending your best people into ministry and mission.
If you are in a larger church, I hope your church does well on all the above six tests, and please don’t think that they an exhaustive list. My heart’s desire is that every church should get to more than 200 people as the Lord brings people to a living faith in Christ, and that they then send people out to plant new churches. I am not saying small is better. But the underlying question is: which churches need revitalising? Small churches may really need it, if there are spiritual issues that keep them small, though that isn’t always the case. A church of 30 Christians can be healthy on all the above five measures. But a church of 300 can be just as spiritually sick as a church of 30. Indeed, it may even be more likely. Don’t be afraid of telling a church of 300 that they need a process of revitalisation.