Why Do American Christians Prefer Big? by David Fitch

imagesA few weeks ago I had a prolonged discussion with a friend (who I’ll call Jack) who is about to leave his mega church home after being there many years (not Willowcreek by the way). My friend went on a soliloquy describing the waste of his church on gadgets, mega tv screens, the latest in technology, only to discard it all with something completely new in 6 months. He waxed eloquently on the dynamics of a mega church authoritarian pastor getting egotistical, dictatorial, set above accountability, leading the church into huge debt problems and then using the pulpit to raise more money and defend his character issues. He described how big churches seem to feed the ego character issues of powerful leaders. The pastor is removed from accountability, being known by others in the church, and set above the congregation. Jack had experienced all this first hand. He and his wife literally cannot stomach being part of this church any longer. What kind of church is he and his wife visiting in seeking out a new church home? Another mega church.

Why do mature faithful American Christians, when looking for a church, look for “big mega” versus just looking local for a local community of Christians that resides closest to where they live?

I suggest three reasons and offer 3 things small local missional communities need to do to overcome these bad cultural habits of Americanized Christians

1.) Big is seen as a sign God is there. To the average American Christian, a big church is a sign that God is doing something. The bigger the crowd the more God must be working! Conversely, a small community is viewed as dead. The “big is better” understanding goes deep into our culture. It is part of the fabric of Americana. It is the way American business operates, sports, media, television, publishing. Everyone loves a crowd.  And this is why American Christians cannot help themselves looking for “big” when looking for a church.

Of course, missional communities should not try to “compete” with this. Nonetheless, I think our gatherings must be intentional about displaying that God is present in this gathering and He is mightily at work in this body of people. It just looks different and (can I say this?) it is more real (less clouded by celebrity and special effects). Missional leaders should keep the gathering simple and be intentional about leading us into an authentic encounter with the living Christ from which we are sent into the world. This takes leaders who can be present “among” us and be known by us whereby we can join with them in being present to God and submitting to Him. Here we encounter His reality as Lord over our lives and world, from which we can be sent and know that reality in the world. Too often our small gatherings lack an awareness of His special presence among us. I believe if Jack could understand this, he’d consider going to a small local gathering differently.

2.) A celebrity pastor/teacher is a known quantity. He/she’s got a following, a resume, a book, a radio program etc. It is therefore unsettling for people who are used to this to enter a small community where they will be taught by someone or a group of people who are unknown. People are most comfortable with a pastor, a teacher, a known quality because the sermon is how they view Christianity. Celebrity Christianity drives the American church.

Once again missional communities should not try to emulate the celebrity pastor thing. Nonetheless, we must pay attention to the teaching role in our communities. We must recognize excellent teachers in our midst, develop them, and see that they are proclaiming gospel into our context/the issues of our everyday lives. Not everyone is a teacher. We must facilitate the gifted teachers in our midst and fund the church’s imagination with powerful proclamation of the Word into our immediate context as well as good consistent up-building of the church in understanding the whole story of God. I believe once Jack could see how powerful contextual proclamation can shape the life he lives in and the problems he faces and the manner in which he is called to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord in his life, work and neighborhood, he’d consider becoming a part of a local missional community.

3.) Big church is less messy. They can go and leave, get what they think they want, and be given a task. Most American Christians see church as an amenity to be added on to their lives. Christianity for the average American Christian is a.) going to a church service, learning something and expressing some praise to God, b.) giving a tithe, c.) getting involved in 2-3 hours a week of volunteer service. Most Americans choose where they can do these things in ways where they “get the most” out of a.) and can do c.) in a way that appeals to them. The more conveniently this can be done the better. Large mega churches excel at accommodating this.

Again, missional gatherings should not try to duplicate this aspect of American church either. But we can help people understand the power of true community, of being present in one another’s lives and in the communities we live in. We must not make ‘missional community’ something people must “do”: a more demanding program. We must work to enable people to live the lives they already lead more powerfully, with more missional awareness, with Kingdom priorities, in a way that is more interconnected so that the Kingdom is birthed socially in our midst. We must provide ways of initiating people into this way of life that is not onerous!! I believe this is incredibly important because people coming from American church are going to so quickly misunderstand missional community as a more demanding (legalistic) program (see my debate with Anthony Bradley here). I believe if Jack could have an easier way to understand what he is being invited into in a missional community, he’d consider going to a smaller local gathering differently.

I think these are tumultuous times in mega church land. I see waves of people leaving mega churches. They are in danger of becoming the next disenchanted generation with Christianity because of their experiences of bad church. Will missional communities offer a bridge to these people?

What say you? Why do people resist “going” to a small community? How do you think missional communities can build bridges to those leaving mega churches? Or should we?

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19 comments on “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big? by David Fitch
  1. I’m down with all that, certainly… one (very minor) push back…small does sometimes mean a dead or dying church…if the witness isn’t there to the Kingdom, if it is insular, if it maintains an implicit culture, a church can be small and still not be a representation of the Kingdom…

  2. Greg Flagg says:

    I think this sort of fits in with #3, but as a former youth pastor in a non-mega church I can say that family programs tend to be a BIG draw for people to go to the larger churches. Churches that can offer large, attractive, professional and safe places to drop off their kids tend to bring people through the doors. I bet more people transition between churches for kids/youth programming than for their view of the pastor. I’m struggling with this a bit in my own family as I desire to be in ministry, hopefully in a smaller, local community church environment, but there is a pull to make sure there is a place for our daughter.

    However, I think in there is something to having a church where everyone worships together and learns to be a part of the community together, kids included. This can demonstrate the importance of families to the church in a more holistic way rather than having special places and age-specific worship for everyone in the family.

  3. Dan Jr. says:

    David,
    As a former Mega Church Pastor I’ve know all these to be true. You’re saying what many of us have been nervous to say face-to-face.

    The difficulty in speaking to this issue is in coming across like a “disillusioned hater”. My own church planting denomination is championing the mega/satellite/organizationally-sparkly approach. It’s touchy, touchy to dialogue around whether Mega is unintentionally reinforcing our consumer/individualistic/celebrity/pragmatic tendencies.

    The mega mindset seems to have crept into the missional church culture as well. It really is often an un-critiqued ideology. Here’s my thoughts on mega-n-missional http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2012/10/go-small-go-missional.html

  4. Jon says:

    Smaller churches often feed into this. Most smaller churches aren’t truly missional. They’re just failing in their attempts to get big. Why would someone choose to go to a small church that is simply trying to get (or be) big and deal with all the envy that exists there (often expressed in criticism of the big neighbor) when they could just go to the church down the road that’s already big?!?

    • gene smillie says:

      Yeah, Jon, that’s my take on all this too. Maybe because I have frequented “smaller churches” all my life, and have only had minimal experiences with mega-churches (all of which surprised me as being quite qualitative, by the way), I see more small-church people resenting even the growth in their own churches. Some folks just love “our little church” so much they don’t WANT to see too many new folk come in. I don’t know today’s statistics (Fitch no doubt does), but in years gone by a vast majority of self-identifying Christians in America attended churches of less than a hundred, regularly. Has that overall tendency really changed that much, or are the few mega churches just more visible because of their notoriety and, as Fitch suggests here, the celebrity status of their pastors? Admittedly a congregation of thousands is striking, but I don’t know that it accurately represents “American Christendom” as a wide general sociological phenomenon.

  5. Greg says:

    I suspect that gathering in ever larger groups preserves the appearance of relevance and keeps us from having to acknowledge that our world is post-Christian. As the numbers dwindle we stream to fewer but larger venues, refusing to read the obituary of Christendom. Long term hope lies in mustard seed communities that inhabit a post-Christian environment.

  6. Brian Burchett says:

    Just seeking some clarification: how big is big? Is a mega church more than 1,000? More than 5,000? The percentage of all churches in America with more than 1,000 in attendance is very small. Most Americans who attend church probably attend a church under 200.

  7. Brian Burchett says:

    Make I offer a small suggestion? Try to avoid using quotation marks when you want to emphasize a word. While this is more and more the fashion to many readers these look like scare quotes, which are traditionally understood to indicate a sense of disagreement with the word/phrase/term. So a phrase like: be present “among” us, might be taken as: be present (supposedly) among us (but not really). If I were to write: David Fitch is a “missional” blogger … that would suggest that I’m trying to say David Fitch is a so-called missional blogger … which is not what I want to say at all.

    • Brian Burchett says:

      may I … not … make I

    • David Fitch says:

      Thanks Brian,
      but don’t scare quotes also imply that I am simply alerting the reader that the word or phrase is being used in an unusual, special, or non-standard way? In my case an intensely theological way? What other ways might I achieve this effect?

  8. Sue says:

    I would like to see some statistics supporting “most Americans prefer big church”. I am not sure that is true. We need to see how many people actually attend both small and mega churches across America. Then that needs to be broken down into actual definitions of what mega and small represents.
    I attend what you would consider a small church of 200 and the majority of people who attend there left larger churches to get away from their long distance approach as well as perceived distance from true Christian teaching.

  9. Beau says:

    Great reflection!

    Most simply from my vantage point people do not want a small missional church because they don’t have the imagination to see how they and people around them could flourish.

    Most people start with “what they’ll get” and therefore a smaller missional church that demands a missional life, intentional community, actually LEADING something is hard to see as congruent for that original question in their mind. It won’t give them much if they stay passive and they can’t stay passive in that kind of church. .

    • Dan Jr. says:

      Beau,
      Well said “most people start with what they’ll get”. this a very tough ingrained mindset to get disciple people out of.

    • Jon says:

      Beau,

      I think your first paragraph reveals the bias that we are all tempted towards and is part of the point I made in my earlier comment. To say that ” people do not want a small missional church because they don’t have the imagination to see how they and people around them could flourish” is to imply that a small missional church is not already flourishing.

      People want to be somewhere that is flourishing. We almost always equate flourishing we size…even if it is accidentally. As long as we believe (or talk like we believe) that this is true and communicate to our people that this is true we cannot expect anything other than the quest for the mega church that we see already from both “attendees” and pastors.

  10. Mark says:

    Church, mega or otherwise, is hard.

  11. Kelly says:

    What say you? Why do people resist “going” to a small community?
    In my experience going to a mega is simply easier than the hard work it takes to find, create and/or fit into a small missional community. I also know that a lot of small missional communities are created out of dislike of the mega system, so its existence seems to come off as a little bitter and/or angry. People seem to sniff that out pretty quick, and since 95% of most people don’t like living in the tension, where I think a lot of missional communities find themselves in, they leave. Lastly on this point, megas offer exceptional goods and services. So, why would someone want to enter into some small community that is awkward, still figuring things out, questions and doubt are present, kids might be running around in our midst, etc., when I can go to a facility where I am met by a cheery greeter, cold AC, a cup of Starbucks coffee, directions to a multi-million dollar kids area with bounce houses and Jesus holograms, followed by a rockin’ praise service. At this point, even if I think the dude preaching is a buffoon, I can just read my iPhone until he stops or head out to the coffee shop for a refill and maybe stop by the bookstore. In my experience, it has been very hard to get people to leave the ease of that involvement.
    How do you think missional communities can build bridges to those leaving mega churches? Or should we? I think as people who follow Jesus we should always be willing to offer a bridge, just don’t expect many from a mega mindset to walk on it. As someone who has tried to create one, and I guess failed at it, here is what I learned. Don’t create out of dislike for organized church or mega church. I struggle with this answer because at the same time I believe that if you’re beginning to think your chruch resembles Walmart more than Jesus, then you should do something about it. The problem is that if you decide to do something about it by challenging or questioning the system in the hopes it might foster change, you come across like Dan Jr. said and are labeled a “disillusioned hater” or “unhealthy” or maybe worse in a church structure “unsubmitted”. If you find yourself labeled as any of these, you might as well leave because any chair you had at that table will be gone the next time you show up. So, you leave and try to form another community, one that’s more missional, but it’s created more as sort of a middle finger to the system you came out of versus an actual call of God to make a community that is the living expression of Jesus. If you have started a missional community as a sort of middle finger, don’t invite anybody to become part of it until the middle finger is healed and not so prone to go up. Maybe a way to build a bridge is by simply telling the truth about what your missional community actually offers and what the mega actually offers. Then if they choose the missional, make sure what you have said it contains is actually evident and not just words.

  12. Leslie says:

    We are in Australia. And we have been part of a 20000 member church in Texas, A missional church in Sydney, Australia, a Baptist church and now a Sydney Anglican Church.

    If we had a mega church in our area we would attend because it gives my kids the ability to form friendships with Christ following kids who will also go to their same school. A church of 200 here will often have kids spread out all over Sydney attending various private schools. Also, we know lots of non Christians with young kids. If we want them to be in an environment where church members can talk to them, it often means they need to feel their kids are safe and not being a distraction. It is painful to watch unchurched families attend a church that isn’t prepared for three year olds whose parents have no idea how kids should behave in church. Those families rarely come back, and so they are hardly ever invited.

    While mega churches may look all sparkly, they usually are also doing the grunt work of diaper changing and pushing the cry-cart. 250 member churches that want to stay that size inherently provide a warm welcoming environment for the staff’s kids, but I see a lot of families on the edges of these churches that fall by the wayside.

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  3. [...] Why does it seem that so few people want to give a small church a chance?  David Fitch suggests some answers in his blogpost “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big?”  [...]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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