Are Large Churches Dangerous to Community?

While the growth in size was welcomed, it also required more pastoral effort to mitigate the effects of the increasing size.  But increased time and attention to these details at the expense of more traditional pastoral responsibilities is not Peterson’s primary complaint.  His is a theological concern.

But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex.  It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him.  The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self.  We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me.  We can escape upward or downward.  Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward.  A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.

Peterson closes the letter by stating his belief that “crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex.”

In the past year, for the first time, I’ve pastored a church of fewer than one hundred people.  While we have seen an increase in the size of our young congregation, we are- using American church standards- nowhere near being a large church.  I have enjoyed this.  The extra administrative and strategic efforts required by a larger congregation simply aren’t needed in our church.  To be clear, I’m working harder than ever, but the work has more of a pastoral edge to it: listening, praying, questioning, studying, leading.

But again, Peterson’s gripe is more theological than what I’ve been observing in my own experience.  A church, if I read him correctly, that feels and behaves like a crowd is an impediment to the ways the Gospel transforms people in community.

How do you see this?  Does Peterson overstate his case, or is he on to something important that is difficult to hear within the American way of measuring growth and success?

My pastor once told me that a church of 300 people seemed like an ideal size to him.  Anything greater than this was evidence of God’s sending nature, pushing a portion of the congregation out to begin a new community of faith.  His words resonated with me, and Peterson, as he has done many times, now gives me new language to think about old dilemmas.

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David Swanson
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville] on Chicago's South Side. He blogs often and has authored countless articles for prominent Christian publications.