Megachurches get most of the attention, and rightly so. They are a phenomenon to behold and experience. Gargantuan sanctuaries, expensive technology, talented musicians, articulate preachers.
Researchers at the Hartford Institute claim there are 582 churches with a weekly attendance of at least 1,800. Their every-five-years survey concludes the average attendance is 4,092 with a budget of $5.3 million.
Once upon a time, buses were the vehicle used to grow a megachurch. Then came technology and the wow factor —especially pageants and festivals. More recently, the trend is toward multi-site strategies that gather thousands of people in different locations listening to the same preacher.
Those thousands can number up to 75,000 on 37 campuses in seven states, as Life Church of Oklahoma demonstrates. Texas has the most, of course, including Second Baptist and Lakewood in Houston.
I have attended worship in megachurches over the years and have no negative impressions. I am quite proud of my nephew for serving as a senior executive in one. I watched him preach recently and was impressed by his composure before an audience of thousands.
I, on the other hand, preach to 16 people on a typical Sunday, plus another dozen or two on line. Most of the latter don’t tune in during our worship hour but find a more convenient time to access our Facebook Live broadcast. It has doubled our listening audience. We are thinking of spending $10,000 to install real equipment instead of the Samsung phone attached to the discarded wheelchair we use to make our camera mobile.
My sister asked for my professional assessment of her son’s sermon. I said a few words but privately thought: “I’m almost twice his age and looking at 16 souls on Sunday; he’s preaching to thousands. I should be asking him for advice.”
I like my sixteen souls, though, and have found great contentment in serving them as pastor and preacher. The Bible says “true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth.” I don’t pretend to be godly, but I am content with the congregation I have.
Last week 24 of us showed up for worship. As did another 30 or so people. It was our All Saints Day. We eulogized four of our congregation who died this past year. It was friends and neighbors of these four who swelled the size of our gathered group. When we invited anyone to light a candle in memory of someone loved and lost, 14 of us walked to the altar, lit a flame, and announced a name. It was the most moving service I have experienced in a long time.
I’m not sure you could do that in an auditorium of ten thousand people. There are some advantages to the church of sixteen.
Here’s another. Last week our weekly vocalist was in an accident that totaled his car. He was shaken but still said to me when I called on Saturday morning, “I’ve got a ride to church tomorrow. I’ll be there to sing. I need to.” I don’t know what he meant by that last phrase, but I told him, “I’m bringing some food to the house.” I took half of the way-too-much chili my son had made, added a whole tray of left over food from a birthday reception of another church member, and delivered it to his home in west Asheville.
There are advantages to a church of sixteen.
Here’s another. I know my people and love my people. I know them all by name. I know enough of their virtues and vices to exercise the spiritual gift they also are required to exhibit: forgiveness! We try to embody what the Bible says about God: slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
I guess people in megachurches need to forgive people also. But it seems it would be easier just to associate with those you know and like. But I don’t know: I’ve never led a megachurch and time is running out. Where I preach we worry about finding somebody who knows how to turn on that Samsung and roll that wheelchair where it needs to be.
We need megachurches with mega-budgets and mega-ministries because there are mega-cities with mega-millions mired in mega-problems. But we need micro-churches because there are as many people who fall between the cracks of our religious enterprises and depend upon a stranger here and there to do the good gospel work of hospitality, generosity, and joy.
Did I tell you that the largest part of our small congregation comes on Sunday afternoon after the sixteen or so have gone home? They come to our little church to get a meal, a hot home cooked meal served with the hands and feet of Jesus. I don’t preach for them, but I am proud that some of the sixteen Sunday morning preached-to people show up on Sunday afternoon to serve supper … the Lord’s Supper, I believe … to those who need it most.
It is the calling of the church of sixteen, the under-the-radar glory of the micro-church.