Mark Day, a Baptist pastor in Hamilton, reckons with our devotion to ‘bigger is better’, and hopes for revival: “the making of a disparate people into one. Not by the power or might by the spirits of the world, but by the Spirit of Christ.”

David Farrier’s exposé on Arise Church, their history of exploitive internship practices, and leadership abuse more generally, has certainly struck a nerve. Some have leapt to their defence and others have relished in the pile-on. For my part, I recognize a self-righteous and self-protective temptation. Part of me would like to defend Arise as brothers and sisters in Christ. Another, admittedly stronger part, would like to attack. It’s nice to feel like we’re on the right side of a thing!

Neither motivation can be called Christlike. What ought to impel me, in the Spirit of Christ, is to speak the truth unflinchingly (which Farrier’s reporting and other critiques have done) but somehow also speak it in love, not only for the sake of the victims, but also for the perpetrators. Moreover, I think that I ought to follow Christ’s command to examine the log in my own eye before digging out the speck in my brother’s.

“Speaking the truth in love,” as Paul directed us, is a hard challenge. We often mishandle either side of that equation. So too facing up to our own sins; I certainly would prefer to avoid being confronted with my own.

What follows is an attempt to speak the truth in love, and to turn that speech inward. It is not so much about Arise, though it may appear that way. It’s about us, and about what we truly value.

Is Big Good? 

Numerous analyses have been made in response to the Arise reporting, many of which seek to understand and offer critique of the megachurch phenomenon. In the Baptist world, Alan Jamieson wrote this piece: Easter Sunday in the megachurch. Jamieson is sharp in critique of megachurch values, and honest in his reflections about the lures and temptations of leading a large church. He says:

Round it goes. Pride up, sacrifice down. The consumer desire for bigger and better is insatiable and the cost to provide it just keeps on rising. The charismatic leader is no longer judged by their character and formation in Christ, they are followed for their communication prowess and like-ability. And those just aren’t Jesus values. That is hyper-modern consumerism infecting the church.

This is helpful and humble reflection, intensely aware of the dangers. I have a quibble though, which is that although Jamieson notes the potential danger, he ultimately downplays the actual and consistent effect of big churches. He says the issue is not so much whether a church is big or small, but whether it truly embodies Kingdom values. He says the SWBC / Spreydon Baptist Church story shows it is possible to grow into a large church sustainably, and in such a way as to not abandon Christlike values.

In principle I can partially agree with that. ‘Big’ is, strictly speaking, neither good nor bad. There's no number set out in scripture at which we should cap church membership and attendance. And depending on your metric, there are benefits to big churches. Their ability to marshal resources in a time of crisis, for instance, can often outstrip that of several smaller churches.

But I’m not optimistic that big churches can be considered a good, or even neutral thing. "Big" exerts big influence, whether we like it or not, and much of it is not good.

‘Big’ has Influence

Consider an analogy. Sometimes people say that a piece of technology - a car for instance - is neither a good or a bad thing, it’s just a thing. A tool. What matters is how we use it - the type and the quantity of use, and how it lines up with our values. Of course there’s a limited truth to this. The Holden Colorado I can see parked outside has no overwhelming moral character in and of itself, for good or ill. But history shows repeatedly that as much as we use tools, we often end up used by them. As much as we think we are its master, technology often comes to master us.

We know that cars have dramatically changed the way we think about community, place, relationships, and the resources we consume. We rely upon the car. It’s difficult to go without one. Our lives and lifestyles, aspirations and expectations, are all quite different from what they were before its invention and widespread availability. Reliance on the car also means reliance on a global, mostly unseen, and costly system of extraction and distribution. Indeed, this is a relevant analogy, because arguably the car made the megachurch possible!

Again, none of that is necessarily good or bad. The car itself is ‘just a thing’ - but its effect is not neutral. It has shaped and continues to shape our lives.

So too, big churches are not neutral phenomena. They are not just something that we influence with our application of values, but something that by their very nature influences and has an effect upon our values.

Big is Blinding

‘Big’ exerts an imaginative power in us and over us, and one that we often do not see. 

Big churches, like big businesses and big cities, are often blind to the effect of their own bigness, on themselves, on those around them, and on the wider world. ‘Big’ develops a gravitational pull; things begin to revolve around them that previously didn’t. People and resources are drawn to them (and by implication, away from other places). This is all true in church culture too.

A cursory look at recent church history & culture, especially in the evangelical world, should make this obvious. We aspire to be like those ‘successful’ big churches; heroize pastors who have ‘made it’ - where ‘made it’ nearly always applies to pastors of big churches. ‘Big Church’ is a Big Industry: conferences, books, models for management etc. The music that dominates our Sunday mornings (much of which I love!) is mostly from big churches. As long as I’ve been conscious of church life, I’ve noticed the temptation to competition between congregations, pastors, and denominations.

All this filters down to the individual, congregational, and pastoral mind. If big is good, then bigger must be better, and in our highly pragmatic, technocratic culture, the natural desire is to do that which makes us bigger. We then become methodologically driven, seeking for strategy and efficiency and profit (in human, conversion, or financial terms), rather than seeking faithfulness. Ends then begin to justify means; churches get modeled on businesses, and the humans within them are dehumanized into resources. As an aside, I think ‘HR’ is an abominable phrase, especially in church.

And then there are more direct effects. I remember listening over a decade ago to an NZ pastor talk about his big church in relation to a smaller church nearby. I’ll leave all names and locations out. He talked glowingly about how they had helped this smaller church through a time of decline and transition. He didn’t put it this way, but what was apparent to me was that this ‘transition’ really meant something like absorption. I thought to myself: this sounds like palliative care! Anesthetizing the smaller that it might go gently. This may have been necessary in the context; I don’t know the details. I only remember thinking at the time that what was articulated as a partnership, seemed to me to really be something else.

The Problem isn’t Just “Big” :: What is?

But of course, devotion to ‘big’ is not the only, or even the worst thing, going wrong in the church today. Jameison rightly sees the temptations of megachurches as symptoms of our having been co-opted by a ‘hyper-modern consumerism.’ That’s on the money. Consumer Christianity has been evident and written about for decades now. In his comments on Arise’s use of interns, AJ Hendry points to a church shaped by neoliberal capitalism. We might consider too that our culture is influenced by political and cultural imperialist assumptions, of the British and American varieties.

There’s merit to all those analyses, and many other takes on the state of the church worth hearing. What they share though is a deeper and more ancient problem - I’ll call it idolatry - that far predates modern capitalism or consumer culture. A critique that transcends partisan politics, for left and right flirted with this idol, and with which the world is deeply in love. Scripture spends a great deal of time throughout its pages challenging this narrative of the world.

The earliest explanation of this might be the story of Babel. There in Genesis, a great technological innovation, the brick, which humanity discovered, has enabled a new type of building that could reach higher and higher. Unlike mud structures, these bricks could support their own weight, so up they went throughout the world: ziggurats and pyramids and temples. But Babel was the first. The Babel builders reckoned they could reach heaven by their great tower: transcend their limits; rise above their low status. They desired to make themselves great, and that meant pursuing big.

God cast judgment on the builders of Babel, confusing their language and scattering them. The issue was their hubris. They’d forgotten what they were; forgotten the order of things. So he stopped their progress.

We in the west - where the church is in numerical decline, and the wider society is hurtling break-neck speed away from the faith - are experiencing such a scattering now. Our society is riddled with the spirit of Babel. The world’s structures are so massive, so overwhelming, so hubristic, and enforced with such violence, that they will most certainly crumble.

Judgment begins with the house of God. The realization of the damage done in pursuit of Big, currently exposed in the trail of intern destruction, and the smaller churches absorbed by the larger, is being revealed to us. We must reckon with the revelation.

Am I accusing all big churches or their pastors of being possessed by something like the spirit of Babel? Yes and no. For sure I’m not judging anyone’s conscious motives. I am simply reiterating that big is blinding, and adding that most blinding of all might be blindness to our own motives and aspirations, and to the effect these big superstructures might have on us.

I do think we are living at a time of great change and upheaval. Not the end of days, but it feels that way. In such a time we must not put our hope in big, for that will fool us into thinking we’ve found success. We must ask rather the same question we must always ask: what does it mean to be faithful?

What Then is the Solution?

You might rightly be asking what I would propose as an alternative, or if I am simply a negative guy content to slam the big church idea and walk away. I’ll now propose a few ideas, none of which are unique to me, and leave you to flesh them out.

Let me be clear first about what I’m not saying. I don’t imagine that I have the one idea, model, or solution to our problems; and I know that one size does not fit all. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each church-community ought to discern for itself what Christ calls them to do. These are not meant as legalistic proposals, but perhaps the following are principles for our time:

1) Perhaps we should discipline ourselves by self-limitation. Maybe there is a theoretic cap to the healthy size of a church. A company in the army for instance is about 150 soldiers, which is about as many as a single officer can lead with familiarity and trust.

2) Our assumption should move towards growth-by-mitosis, rather than by accumulation; where possible, planting new churches before expanding our building.

3) Pastors aim to work ourselves out of our jobs; first by raising up people who can or could replace us when it’s time to move on; and second, by ‘equipping the saints for the work of ministry’ so thoroughly that the pastor is not required to do it all.

4) Voluntary dissemination of decision-making power within church life, in the hope of members discerning the mind of Christ together, rather than being led only by the vision of one or the few. This means leading with almost the exact opposite approach as the military commander.

5) Active efforts to fight against the wrong sort of competitive spirit. We might challenge ourselves to champion one another, celebrate each other’s success, rather than compete for ‘market share.’

Ultimately, I believe no merely practical solution will be enough. No single discipleship or outreach program, social initiative, business strategy, doctrinal affirmation, or outreach is the answer. That would be the spirit of Babel too; a search for a technological tweak to the system. I know that my suggestions above could be exploited, too. Legalistically splitting a church every time it hits 150 attendees might be needlessly chaotic and divisive; discernment by membership, if conducted in the wrong spirit, a recipe for squabbling factionalism.

What I believe we really need is true and deep revival, and for that, we must hope and pray and wait upon the Lord to deliver. I do not mean merely the charismatic manifestations we associate with revival movements, though I do pray for tongues and prophecy among us to build up the church. I mean fully a renewal of Pentecost; a fresh realization of the outpouring of the Spirit on all God’s people, that we might be re-energized and re-possessed by the Holy Spirit in devotion to Christ and to the glory of the Father.

Pentecost, after all, is the exact reversal of Babel. Where the Babel builders in their hubris had their language confused and scattered; at Pentecost the Spirit poured out on the humble waiting disciples, and the many nations gathered could hear in their own tongue. Revival is the making of a disparate people into one. Not by the power or might by the spirits of the world, but by the Spirit of Christ.

In the time since beginning to write this article, Joseph McCauley, Pastor of St Luke’s in Tauranga, posted the following

The time of the contemporary mega-church as the exemplar and popular paradigmatic icon of the local church has come and gone. It will have its place but, in our nation of predominantly provincial cities and small towns, it’s not going to be the pot at the end of the rainbow so many pursue. A new day is dawning, though it hasn’t yet arrived. We are currently in a liminal space, a wardrobe between two worlds, the dead ends of yesterday behind us and the newness of God’s tomorrow ahead. There are lamp posts pointing the way though, scattered here and there. Early adopters who looked out of place in the old paradigm but now appear to be perfectly positioned for the new. Prophetic voices who seemed nonsensical yesterday but today seem strangely in tune. Perhaps, in places, new realities can already be seen. Here and there, hints of the following…

It’s worth reading the full post. I think it is an apt and I dare say prophetic word, both in the assumptions it deconstructs, but also in what it proposes to build. 

Mark Day is pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church, Hamilton, and has recently started writing reflections on the state of the world here:

Photo: 'Climbing high' by Mike Crudge and household.

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