"When Bigger Is Better"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts January 30, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-47
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Is Bigger Better?
Today I need to get something off my chest. It's one of my pet peeves. Are you ready? I get really bugged by drink size inflation. Yes, drink size inflation. Now I realize that this is a trivial thing given all that's going on in our world. But I still get bugged by drink size inflation. You know what I mean. In the good ol' days you could go to 7-Eleven and get a medium sized Coke, maybe even a twenty-ounce large if you were really thirsty. But this wasn't nearly enough sugar and caffeine for 7-Eleven's parched customers. So they invented the Big Gulp, a whole quart of tasty carbonated sugar. But when that wasn't enough, the store came out with the Super Big Gulp, which weighed in at 44 ounces, and was about the size of the average human stomach. Yet that still didn't satisfy some customers, so 7-Eleven now offers the X-treme Gulp, whose 52 ounces will quench the thirst of a whole basketball team, I figure.
But the inflation of actual drink sizes is only part of my pet peeve. There's also the inflation of drink size labels. You know what I mean. It used to be that you could go into a coffee bar and get a small coffee. But that's almost a thing of the past. Smalls are very rare today. Instead, you have to order a tall. (Although I'm not a Diedrich's regular, I have to commend the company for sticking with the old faithful small, medium, and large for their drink sizes. Hooray for a fleeting moment of honesty!
Now if you were to ask the inflating institutions why they don't serve small drinks, and why everything has to be bigger, or at least sound bigger, their answer would be simple: That's the way people want it. That's what sells. When it comes to beverages, bigger is better - bigger sizes, or at least bigger descriptions.
Churches are rather like beverages in this way. The majority of Americans, including vast numbers of Christians, think that bigger churches are better. Who wants to go to "medium sized" church when you can go to an "X-treme Gulp" church? After all, they have dazzling facilities, often with full health clubs, full-service coffee bars, twenty-piece orchestras in worship, and just about every other perk imaginable. Surely, the average person reasons, the bigger church must be better, and that's why people go there.
But is it? Is bigger better? And if so, under what conditions? And if not, when is bigger not better? And how does this impact us? Should IPC be a bigger church? Would this be better? Or not?
Church Growth in Acts 2
Let's return to our Scripture text for a moment. After describing what the earliest Christians did, Luke adds a comment about what God did: "And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." After Peter's first sermon 3,000 new believers joined Jesus's disciples to form the earliest church. Yet this wasn't the end of its growth, but just the beginning. Acts 4 reports that not long after Pentecost, the early church numbered about 5,000 (4:4). Now that's some impressive church growth, don't you think?
The example of the earliest church provides strong evidence in favor of the proposition that bigger is better. Of course for even more persuasive proof that the church should grow we need only to go back to Jesus himself. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28 he tells his first disciples to make disciples from all nations. These new disciples were to go and make more disciples, who would go and make more disciples, and so on. So wherever the church is faithful to Jesus, wherever the church is filled with the power of the Spirit, wherever the church is fulfilling its calling to communicate and embody the good news in the world, there the church will be growing in size as well as, one would hope, maturity.
This would suggest that, in general, bigger is better. Though there may be a few exceptions, such as a church in the midst of a Muslim country, a godly church will be a growing church.
Is a Bigger Church Always a Better Church?
Yet, is a bigger church always a better church? Is a growing church always a godly church? No. Churches as human institutions can grow for reasons other than godliness. Plop a new church down in the middle of a rapidly growing community and that church will almost always experience church growth no matter how ineffective or unfaithful it might be. Churches can also use clever marketing schemes to grow their numbers, selling programs, promises, and even Jesus (or a downgraded version of Jesus). Sometimes their marketing strategies include putting the less-saleable parts of Christianity in the fine print, things like sin or commitment to Christ.
So, though a godly church will be a growing church, a growing church is not necessarily a godly church, and a gargantuan church is not necessarily much godlier than the small church down the street. You can't simply use the last verse of Acts 2:41-47 to evaluate a church. Remember, a solid church will also be devoted to "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." A godly church will experience awe as God does wonders and signs in its midst, and its members will exercise sacrificial generosity in their care for one another. A godly church will have all of these things in place, besides church growth.
The fact that you can't prove the godliness of a church from its numerical growth has led some churches to defend their smallness rather than consider why they aren't growing. I've heard major leaders in our denomination, for example, argue that small churches are better, because big churches have obviously sold out to the culture, while small churches have remained faithful to God. It's as if Jesus had said, "Go and make very few disciples from all nations" or something like that.
As a matter of fact, when I first came to IPC, I heard this argument from several of our church leaders. Back in 1991, we had just over 500 members. Yet on the south edge of town South Coast Community Church had grown to over 10,000 members. (In the mid-nineties, after much turmoil, South Coast became part of Mariners, which moved its operation to the South Coast campus.) When you're a church of 500 that's losing members, and you're in the shadow of a 10,000 member church that's growing rapidly, this begs for an explanation. And that's what I got when I first arrived. It went something like this: "South Coast is so big because they make the gospel easy. They water down the truth. We're committed to the real gospel. We call for real discipleship. So that's why we're small. We're really better than South Coast, even though they're so much bigger."
This made me curious to learn how South Coast was downgrading the gospel, so I got about ten of the pastor's preaching tapes. And you know what? There wasn't any watering down at all. Just excellent communication of the real gospel, the whole gospel. So I realized that what I had heard from IPC leaders was really just a rationalization. Rather than examine why our numbers were stagnant, we attacked South Coast's growth. We were stuck in defensiveness and envy.
My friends, we're no longer in that defensive mode, thank God. And we've grown a bit in the last thirteen years, by more than 50% or so. That's a good thing. Perhaps more importantly, our ministries have grown. We have way more people involved in discipleship and mission than we did in 1991, probably three times as many. We have maybe five times as many people involved in regular Bible studies. We're stronger in most of the items mentioned in Acts 2, in fact. So I'm grateful to be able to say that I think we're on the right track.
But, when it comes to "the Lord adding to our number those are being saved," we have a long way to go! Permit me to do a little spontaneous survey. How many of you became Christians through the ministry of this church? [pause] That's great. I praise God for each and every one of you. But, as I read Acts 2, God is just beginning with us.
Being a Missional Church
Friends, at this time in the life of our church, it's essential that we remember our calling to be a church for others, a church that exists for purposes and people "beyond ourselves," a church that is a missional church. If you've been around here for a while, you've heard me use that language before. If not, I should explain that "missional" doesn't mean only that we care about world missions and support lots of missionaries, though both are crucial. Rather, as a missional church we understand that God has sent us on a mission, a mission to represent Jesus Christ in this place. We've been sent to communicate and live out the good news right here in Irvine and South Orange County. Or, to use the language of Acts 2, God has sent us to this place so that, among other things, he might add to our number those who are being saved.
I need to pause for a moment to clarify a couple of crucial details. First, our mission as a church is not to grow bigger. We're not to focus our energies primarily upon becoming a larger church or, heaven help us, establish numerical goals for our growth. Yes, numerical growth is important. Yes, it's a sign of a healthy, godly church. But it's not the target. We're to focus on being a godly church, on reaching out to our neighbors, on communicating the good news in word and deed. If we do these things, then growth will come.
It's rather like a marriage. I want to be a good husband. But I shouldn't make this my goal. Rather, I should focus on loving my wife, caring for her, being kind to her, listening to her, and so forth. If I do these things, I will be a good husband, but not because I made this my main goal.
So it is with church growth. We don't focus here. But if we're doing the right things as a church, then our church will grow. If we're falling short in some areas, then we won't.
My second clarifying detail comes straight from the text of Acts 2:47: "And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." You'll notice that the added folk in this verse aren't Christians moving over from another church. Of course back then there wasn't any other church from which believers in Jesus might move. Today things are different. The majority of people who join our church were already Christians when they first came here. It's great to welcome these folks, of course. I'm delighted to provide a church home for Christians in our community who don't have one already.
But God wants to add to our number, not only unattached believers, but also brand new believers. He wants to add to those who are being saved. Now, the truth is that this is perhaps the one place where we most need to grow as a church: adding those who are being saved. Though each year a number of people become Christians through our ministry here, God is just beginning to reap a harvest through us. That's because we're just beginning to grasp our calling to be a church that exists for purposes and people "beyond ourselves."
The Example of Veritas
I could point to many examples of how God is preparing us to add new disciples into our fellowship. So many ministries are poised for an advance here, including: Primetimers (our seniors ministry), Salt Company (our singles ministry), Mommie Time, the college ministry, the high school ministry; and so on. But I want to focus on Veritas.
As most of you know, Veritas, Latin for "truth," is the name of our new worship service. It launches officially at 11:30 next Sunday morning, though it's been meeting in a preparatory mode during January. Veritas, a "post-contemporary," rock band-led service, is meant especially to connect with Gen Xers and Twixsters, though others are of course welcome.
Why are we doing this service? One major reason is to provide a worship setting for members of our own church family who don't relate to the modes of our existing services. I'm referring primarily to younger folk, of course. We need a place where our high schoolers, for example, can worship in ways that don't require them to go through a cultural translation process.
What do I mean by this? Well, let's think about music. I love choral music. I often listen to choral recordings by choice. Give me Bach, or John Rutter, and I'm a happy man. But you know what? Most high schoolers don't share my appreciation for fine choral music. I think they're missing out, of course. But the fact is that they mostly listen to rock music of various kinds.
For 28 years we've been telling our high schoolers that they need to be in worship, that it's good for their souls. Yet for 28 years we've wanted them to come to a worship service in which they just don't relate to the music. And for 28 years our high schoolers have been telling us what they think of this idea by not coming to worship. Sure, a few have been faithful. But the vast majority of our young people haven't joined our worship services.
You can hardly blame them. Perhaps a thought experiment will help you to feel what I'm talking about. Suppose the Session voted to change the course of our music ministry of IPC. No more choir. No more bell choirs. Just a rock band every week, with lots of praise songs and an occasional hymn. Now I expect that many of you wouldn't be all that happy. And if we said you just had to learn to worship in an idiom that was foreign to you, many of you would vote with your feet and start attending another church.
My friends, it's finally time for us to stretch farther in the direction of the next generations, to open the arms of this church to people who will worship God if the mode isn't a stumbling block.
But, having said this, Veritas is not just about getting our own youth into worship, as important as that may be. It's also about reaching beyond ourselves into this community. It's about providing a place of God-centered, truth-filled worship for the people around us who would connect readily with a rock band and projected visual images.
Veritas is not only for disconnected Christians in our community, however. It is also a place - like our other services - where we welcome those who don't know the Lord. It's a place for the curious, for seekers, for folk who desperately need to know the Lord. My heartfelt and consistent prayer is that through Veritas hundreds of young people (and others) will receive Christ as their Savior and Lord. This is also my prayer for this service as well, I might add.
Yet we must avoid the error - and the arrogance - of thinking that this sort of thing can be programmed. We can be faithful in our planning and preparation. We can make every effort to communicate effectively with the younger generations. But we cannot make people into disciples of Jesus Christ. It is God alone who can add to our number those who are being saved.
So our task is to be faithful, obedient, and prayerful. Prayerful. My friends, I want to urge us this day to unite our hearts in prayer for our church's outreach to those who aren't yet believers. Veritas is central to this ministry, of course, but it's not the whole thing. We need to pray that God will work in and among us all, in our life together and our life when apart. If we pray, and if we are available to God, he will indeed add to our number those who are being saved.
Is bigger always better? Not necessarily. But remember: a healthy, God-honoring, biblically-faithful church will be a growing church.
I believe that God wants this church to reach out more welcoming of our neighbors of all ages. A result will be that our church will grow. And you are part of missional process. Your prayers will make a difference. Your friendliness to our guests will make a difference. Your inviting your friends will make a difference.
Sisters and brothers, over the years God has given me a growing passion to reach those who don't know Christ. They are our next-door neighbors, our colleagues at work, our fellow students. In many cases they are your spouse, or your children, or your parents. I want us all to stretch so that people of all ages might receive salvation through the ministry of this church. At times I'll do things for the sake of reaching others. Sometimes these things might bug you a bit. And for this I apologize. But I'm willing to risk making you a bit mad for the sake of reaching people for the Lord. I hope you'll be willing to take the same sort of risks in your own life too.
May we be a church in which God is adding to our number day by day those who are being saved!