Mega Churches vs Small Churches: A Battle that Misses the Point
Large and Small Churches are All Flawed
American Christians are all in contention about church size. Size (small and large) and numbers do not necessarily indicate good or bad, wrong or right, successful or unsuccessful. Some smaller churches proclaim that megachurches are stealing sheep from smaller flocks; that people are drawn to mega churches by the celebrity of the pastor or church; that there are more leaders that fall into sin because fame, money and power have corrupted them; that they all preach a watered down gospel; that too many people get lost there; that all they care about are numbers. There is some truth to all of these; however it is not a blanket truth. There are many mega churches that have become so big because they are rightly dividing the word of truth, bringing souls to Christ regularly, teaching and practicing discipleship, and ministering in many ways faithfully to their communities and around the world.
On the flip side, some mega church leaders have been heard saying that small churches are unsuccessful churches; that they are unsuccessful because they don't have enough faith; they aren't evangelizing; they're not making disciples; the pastors are preaching an anemic, watered down gospel; they're out of date in their worship style (all small churches sing out of hymnals and play the organ), etc. Sometimes true. Often times not.
These are all generalizations and blanket statements which have resulted in division - an "us and them mentality." As one who has belonged to mega, medium, and small churches, I have found that every one of those negative and positive components can be found in churches of every size and style.
The bottom line is, as long as churches are immersed in this battle, they are missing the point that they are all the Body of Christ, the Church. They are failing to see what Jesus counts most important for churches to do to represent and glorify Him.
If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us."— C.H. Spurgeon
Jesus' Only Concern
In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus spoke to seven individual churches. Many of the churches He addressed were what we would consider today as "successful" churches. Some were large, some were small, some were wealthy, some were poor, some were well known, some were more obscure. Jesus was concerned, however, about two things only - their hearts and hands.
The Church at Ephesus: The large, Loveless Church
"I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary" (Rev. 2:1-3).
Ephesus was one of the largest, most magnificent cities in the Asian province. It was a city full of idol worship and boasted great temples for their many gods. The largest of all was the temple of Artemis. It was a large and magnificent edifice and considered one of the seven greatest wonders of the world in ancient times. It's safe to assume that the Church at Ephesus was of considerable size. In Acts 19 there was a massive riot in the city because the silversmith's (led by Demetrius) who made the shrines and idols of Artemis, felt threatened and feared losing their livelihood because people were being drawn to the church of Ephesus in large numbers (vs 26). Considering it was a city of around half a million people and perhaps the greatest religious center in the province, it must have been a significant number for them to be worried. A city-wide riot ensued.
With this backdrop and the opening passage where Christ addresses the Ephesian church, we get an idea of what is really important to Christ for this large church.
Does this sound like a successful church? To some, it would seem so because they are serving the Lord diligently in their works. That is only one marker of a healthy and vital church though. The church of Ephesus was missing the most vital component of being a church pleasing to the Lord: a passionate love for God. "Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Rev. 2:4). This church had fallen into routine. They were zealous for the work, but they left their love for Jesus behind. The word "left" could be translated "to send away." I wouldn't doubt if they were saying amongst each other "Look at all we've done for the Lord," rather than "Look at what the Lord has done in our midst." Where was their passionate love for Jesus? Were they looking to glorify themselves or the Lord?
In the end, Jesus told them to remember from where they had fallen. Why? When we remember how lost and spiritually bankrupt we once were, we are redirected to all that God has done for us, and we remember why we loved Him in the beginning. Jesus told them to repent, or He would remove their lampstand. While they may still exist as a church, their light and influence in their community would be removed.
As a church we must love Jesus, or else we have lost our reason for existence. "— C.H. Spurgeon
The Church of Smyrna: The Persecuted Church
"I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9).
The city of Smyrna in the day of Paul was second only to Ephesus. It was a seaport city that sported a magnificent harbor. The city was nestled at the base of Mount Pagus upon which stood the great temple of Zeus. Historians believe that almost 200,000 people inhabited the city of Smyrna. It is difficult to say whether the church at Smyrna was large, small, or in between because of their circumstances. However, Christ issued no rebuke to the church at Smyrna, despite the hardships they faced. They seemed to be getting it right.
The church at Smyrna resided in a wealthy community, with a large Jewish population, yet their church was impoverished. This could be one indication they were a small church; however, they were also going through a tremendous time of tribulation and persecution. Unbelieving Jews were making their lives difficult. Yet in spite of these obstacles, they stood their ground and remained faithful to the Lord. God was pleased with this church because they were rich in their spiritual lives (vs. 9). They loved and glorified God, and their service and perseverance sprang for from that love. This is in contradiction to why the Ephesian church labored in service. Jesus warned them in the next few verses that many of them would be tested by being thrown into prison, but that they should not fear. "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." He called them to continue to be faithful to the end and they would receive their reward. We see in this passage what Christ most valued in the church there. Love and passion for God which manifested in their faithfulness to the end.
The Church in Pergamum: The Compromising Church
"I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is, and you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells" (Rev. 2:12-13).
Pergamum at the time of John's writing was the capitial and political center of the Roman province of Asia Minor. Like Ephesus and Smyrna (also part of the Roman province of Asia Minor) the city was full of pagan worship of god's such as Athena, Dionysisyus, Zeus, and, being the capital of a Roman province, Caesar was also worshiped as a god. It was a city rich in the arts, being home to a ten thousand seat theater, the world's second largest library, a stadium, and rife with grand temples to Caesar and many of their gods.
Pergamum was so saturated in pagan and cult activity that Christ called it Satan's throne. Satan chose Pergamum to be his war room, or mission command, so to speak. Pergamum was under the rule of Satan. It is likely that many of the parishioners of the church there had been converted from pagan worship. Though the Bible and history do not tell us the size of the church there, Christ gave us a clear picture of what He wants for the the Pergamum church and the Church past, present, and future.
Taking note of the opening passage, Jesus was pleased with the work they had done, the fact that they did not deny His name when Antipas was martyred (the Antipas Jesus was referring to was not Herod Antipas, but a Pergamum Christian martyred for the name of Christ) and had held fast to His name. And yet, the church in Pergamum is also known as the compromising church.
But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolations, which thing I hate (Rev. 2:14-15).
The church was compromising their faith by tolerating people in the body who were influencing many with doctrines of idol worship and sexual immorality. Darkness and light cannot co-exist in the same household of faith and glorify God. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. God promised if they did not repent He would bring judgment against them. But rewards were coming if they repented and overcame.
Today, many in the Church are tolerating, even defending sexual immorality and false teachings in their churches. Some in church leadership are often afraid to address such issues so as not to offend anyone. Disciplining such things is not politically correct. They compromise, and now we are seeing the rotten fruit it is bearing in the Church and in our nation. These are the types of issues that should be we should be concerned about, rather than size and celebrity. They are issues today in churches of every size.
The Church at Thyatira: The Corrupt Church
"I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first" (Rev. 2:19).
Thyatira was a small city, bustling with commerce. Most of the people worked a trade and were members of a union.
Surely this church was a healthy, pleasing church to Christ. Works, labor, service, even love and faith, and perseverance. It seemingly had all the earmarks of a healthy, vital church. But not everything was as it seemed:
"Nevertheless, I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess to teach and seduce my servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she would not" (Rev. 2:20-21).
Surprising isn't it? A seemingly faithful church who loved God had allowed a woman, claiming to be a spokeswoman for God, to bring this kind of teaching and seduction of members into their fellowship. How abominable! This church sounds similar to the Corinthian church. Notice that the Lord had been patient by giving her a chance to repent, but she refused. So why was she still there? Why hadn't the church leadership sent her packing? Why were they standing still while she remained leading everyone into spiritual and moral decay? Does this kind of thing happen only in big churches or only small churches? Does every church the size of the Thyatiran church have this sin on their heads? Of course not.
The Church at Sardis: The Dead Church
"I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead (Rev. 3:1b).
Ouch! That's getting right to point. They were known by reputation to be a church that is alive (in existence only, most likely, not in zeal) because of their works, but Jesus emphatically told them they were dead. Much like the Ephesian church, they were just going through the motions. There was no life or vitality in their love and faith in Jesus. As William McDonald put it, "It did not sparkle with the supernatural." Most likely it was formal, ritualistic, and dull; without passion or zeal.
In verses 2-3 Jesus told them to strengthen what little remains because it too was dying. Their works did not meet His standards. He was telling them to renew themselves in Him, and build up their faith and love. As in many of the other churches, He called for repentance or judgment would come.
Interestingly, Jesus acknowledged that there are a very few who are faithful and undefiled and they would receive their reward. Jesus promised in verse 5 that those who overcame He would not blot out their name from the Book of Life, but would confess them before His Father and the angels.
The Church of Philadelphia: The Faithful Church
"I know your works, See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied my name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie--indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown (Rev. 3:8-11).
I find Jesus' great approval of this church interesting. He was pleased because of their works, their obedience to His word, and they had not denied his name. Some of the other churches had some of these qualities also, and yet Christ ended up calling them on the carpet for something they did wrong. Not so with the church at Philadelphia. He had not one word of correction or rebuke for them. He promised them some great blessings. I think the key was that they were obedient to His word and all that involves. They loved Him and others and demonstrated this in all they did. Obedience is born out of love for God. "If you love me, keep My commandments ( John 14:15). This is the kind of church that pleases God - a faithful and obedient church.
Not all churches the size of Philadelphia were known as faithful churches. Nor were churches of a different size. It was each individual church's choice to choose what kind of heart and service they would have for God.
The Church at Laodocea: The Lukewarm Church
"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' - and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked -- I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:15-19).
"Wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked," - these are harsh words and leave us with no doubt what the Lord hates in a church the most: Apathy and indifference, pride and arrogance. I love the way William McDonald put it,
"The church at Laodicea ... was lukewarm enough to deceive people into thinking it was a church of God, and so disgustingly lukewarm about divine things as to nauseate the Most High. Furthermore, the church was characterized by pride, ignorance, self-sufficiency, and complacency."
Eli Weisel said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference." It seems this was the reality in the Laodicean church. Before you are done reading this passage on the Laodicean church, you fully expect to hear God declare they are done for, no hope, they blew it. But instead, God showed them the cure for their wretchedness - gold refined in the fire that they may be rich, white garments that they may be clothed, and eye salve that they may see. Gold refined in the fire is a process of purifying. White garments refer to righteousness, and the eye salve to heal the eyes is so that they will be able to have true spiritual vision through the Holy Spirit.
This remedy is followed by a reassurance that God loves those whom He chastens. He has not given up on them, they need only repent. The beautiful ending to this entire passage is one of my favorite passages of all time. It is a word to the church who is not right with God, it says,
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him and he with me" (Rev. 3:20).
This is an invitation to come and open the door to His presence and glory; it is a promise of an intimate relationship with Him for those who seek it and are willing.
Lay Down Your Weapons, Love and Pray for One Another
It would be wonderful if we could all put down our weapons and stop shooting at each other about how other churches are wrong or bad because of style and size, and for lumping one set of sins or righteous living to one size. Didn't Jesus tell us to stop finding the speck in others' eyes and first remove the plank from our own? How can the world see the Church (capital C) as the Bride of Christ if we are all pointing the finger at each other and shooting arrows of condemnation? Small churches do good things, small churches do bad things. Large churches do good things, and large churches do bad things. The point is, we need to find unity in purpose, which is to glorify God in all things. We are in a battle against Satan and the darkness of this age, not with each other. If Christ tells us to love and pray for our enemies, doesn't it stand to reason we should love and pray for one another? We need to partner together. Some are hands, some are feet, but we all work together to glorify God.
If there is a large church that is watering down the gospel, pray for them. If there are well known celebrity pastor's, so what. Are they doing the work of the Lord? It is up to God, and the leadership of the church if they are getting too big for their britches. But being well known, in and of themselves is not a sin. Many can use it for His glory (think Billy Graham). We musn't lump all large churches with these wrongs. And large churches should not look down on small churches just because they are small. It is not proof that they are not a godly church. We are to focus on what God desires of us as individuals and as a local body, and as the Church at large, and support and pray for one another to glorify God in all things. We are to support and pray for the weaker and if any correction is to be done, it is to be done in love.
And let's remember a very crucial truth - God's people are the Church, thus we must love and build up each other. Though we worship at individual churches (small c), together we are one Body, one Church, one Bride. "For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (Rom. 12:3-5).
Charles Spurgeon's Words of Wisdom on the Church
"As a church we must love Jesus, or else we have lost our reason for existence. "
"If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did joint it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us."
"A church may have a very short muster-roll, and yet it may be very dear to God, who thinks more of quality than of quantity, more of obedience than of numbers."
Warning the Body of Wolves in Sheep's Clothing and False Teachers
It is certainly biblical and very necessary at times to warn the sheep in God's flock against preachers, teachers, and churches that are teaching false doctrine that will lead to dire consequences if people follow them. There are prosperity/name-it and-claim-it preachers who tell their flock that riches are God's blessing and if you do not have them you are not giving enough or are in sin somehow. Meanwhile, these charlatans are taking all the "love gifts" of their duped flock all the way to the bank. Lear Jets, mansions, fancy cars, and fat bank accounts are all they are looking for from their congregations and TV/radio audiences. Yes, church and Christian leaders need to warn.
Paul chastised the Galatian church, for example, for listening to teachers who were saying that certain Old Testament laws were still binding, and that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. Paul called this "a different gospel." It was a false gospel that tore at a critical essential of the Christian faith - salvation by faith through grace. Paul felt so strongly he said to this body "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?" In Philippians 3:2, Paul says, "Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved" (NLT). It seemed to be a common heretical doctrine in that time.
Jesus said to the people at the sermon on the mount, "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing..." (Matt. 7:15). The Apostle Peter spent most of his time in 2 Peter warning about destructive doctrines and false teachers, schooling his readers on their deceptive ways.
The time to speak out against other churches, preachers, teachers and ministers, is if they are teaching false doctrines and beliefs that destroy the one and only gospel, which is simply this: Jesus, sinless man, but fully God, died on the cross in our place, to take the penalty for our sin. He rose from the dead, and ascended to the Father, and will return again. He did this as an act of grace, not because we earned it. When we repent of our sins, and place our faith in Christ, we become His children and we are saved from eternal damnation. His Spirit indwells in us and leads us and guides us in our walk with Christ. Anything deviating from these basic essentials of the faith is false, dangerous and destructive teaching.
Another time to speak out against other churches is if the leadership is engaging in immoral behavior, and unrepentant or if they are tolerating, welcoming, embracing immorality in the church. The best way to determine these things is to go by what the word of God says, not what the current administration in Washington legislates or says, or the secular culture dictates. This is why it is so crucial to read and study the word of God regularly, so that we might be able to discern accurately when we are being taught the wrong things. Bankers are taught to recognize counterfeit by studying the authentic bills so closely that a counterfeit will be recognized quickly. So it is with the Bible, study it prayerfully and of course heed what it says, and you will be on safe ground.
"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loves us, we also ought to love one another" (I John 4:10-11).
© 2012 Lori Colbo