Big Box Religion

This morning I read a newspaper article (yes, they still make newspapers) about recent numbers in employment and wages. Despite declining unemployment, companies are keeping wages low. This doesn’t make sense to economists who would expect a shrinking pool of potential workers to create higher prices to get them. But that’s not happening. The reason is consolidation. There are fewer companies out there to choose from. The number of jobs for workers in small businesses (50 employees or fewer) fell significantly in the last quarter. Big corporations take up more of the employment pie than they used to. So while employers are finding fewer options for hiring, workers are also faced with fewer options for places to work.

So much for the economics lesson. What could that possibly have to do with faith? I think the same pattern is happening with churches. The number of small churches is declining and Christians are consolidating into megachurches.

Consider the example given in the newspaper article: “Think of a town with a few hardware stores, a couple of appliance stores, and a lumber yard. Those businesses all, to some degree, compete for workers. But if a Home Depot opens and those other retailers close, people in the town will have fewer employment options.”

In 1996, the church I work for moved to a larger building six miles north of its old location. The new location was right across the street from a small neighborhood church. In the example above, we were the Home Depot. I had lunch with the worship pastor from that neighbor church this week. He’s not bitter. He understands that we aren’t competitors like the mom-and-pop and big-box stores. But we are two players in a shifting landscape of religious consumerism, whether we like it or not.

This trend reflects what is happening in our culture at large. Start-ups and mom-and-pop shops are on the decline. As we entrench ourselves in consumerism, we elevate big-box expressions of our institutions. Cuisine is served at chain restaurants. Art is served in 24-screen cineplexes. Friendships are delivered by digitized news feeds. Government is growing ever-larger. And worship is experienced in faceless crowds or, worse still, via web stream. In almost every sector of society “big players” rise to the top and local projects struggle. Want to watch Breaking Bad? You can choose Netflix or Amazon. Want to read a book? Amazon or iBooks. Want Italian? Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill. Want to worship God? You can choose the church with the organ or the church with the guitar.

This is a troubling concern for those of us who lead churches, at least in terms of its potential to limit local expression. Discipleship should never be imported and mass marketed. God intends to use each church uniquely as a local expression of his grace, not as a clone of something that worked on the West Coast, delivered to Texas via market research and production value.

Allow me another example from commerce.

My son, Zach, plays cricket. We live in a part of town with a very strong Indian population so cricket is the sport of choice. The movie theater in our neighborhood shows Bollywood films. Indian markets and restaurants abound. The southern border of our neighborhood is an interstate freeway with a row of big box stores. One of them is Dick’s Sporting Goods, a national chain with 558 locations. When Zach’s friends invited him to join their cricket team, we went to Dick’s to look for supplies. He needed a bat, a ball and maybe some wickets. But the store attendant looked at us with a blank stare. His store is situated in a neighborhood with more than 4,000 South Asians where weekend pickup cricket games happen at every vacant parking lot and sports field, but he doesn’t stock cricket equipment. If you want to buy a cricket bat in Dallas / Fort Worth, you have to get it out of a Pakistani dude’s garage.

Dick’s Sporting Goods doesn’t have anything against cricket or the Indians in my neighborhood who play it. The reason they don’t stock cricket gear is that all the purchasing for the chain is done on a national level. All the purchasing agents attend the same conferences and trade shows. They don’t live in my neighborhood and therefore aren’t attuned to the needs of my neighborhood.

When church leaders attend conferences, hear about a church in another state that has experienced tremendous growth, and return home with a blueprint for copying that success, we wind up repeating the same mistake Dick’s is making.

There is a growing segment of the church that is rallying against this kind of cloned consumerism. They advocate for more smaller expressions of church — little bands of believers that reflect the personality of a particular place and minister there — small groups who adopt neighborhoods, church plants who mentor in schools. The most ardent followers of this idea insist that big churches should sell their buildings and dissolve into neighborhood-based pockets of blessing.

But I think there is more to consider here.

First of all, big churches are a reflection of our culture. We church folk seem to spend a lot of time talking about relevance. We scream from our stages to convince people that the Bible is relevant. We’ve got a magazine called Relevant. It seems that our greatest fear is to be irrelevant. In a culture where every other product and message is delivered via mass market, isn’t it relevant to package the gospel the same way? I understand the counter-cultural appeal of intimate groups, but is smallness really the gospel-shaped paradigm that should define how we deliver our message? I wonder, if the church was truly committed to speaking the cultural language of our day, if we wouldn’t insist on even bigger scale — on global cooperative projects to end poverty, on redemptive art and film in wide release, on projects that bless and change entire cities. These are the cultural idioms that our neighbors understand.

Secondly, size creates synergy. I grew up in a tiny Baptist church that could fit in one of the Sunday School rooms where I currently work. And while its small size did contribute to closer connection, it was also terribly limiting to our reach. It’s hard to dream big in a church of 80 people. Certainly, God can supply any need for any size group, but God also works in the real world where isolation is stifling and size matters. Luckily, our little church participated in a cooperative program with lots of other churches. Through that program, we were able to contribute to projects that affected the world in ways we could never have undertaken alone: orphanages in South America, gospel crusades in Siberia. Big churches harness more resources to bring larger kingdom impact. Do we have to be careful about relying too much on our own understanding and spending power? Of course. Is that a reason to abandon big dreams and scuttle big plans? Of course not.

I’m not interested in being an apologist for either big churches or small. After all, I’m a small groups pastor. I firmly believe that life change happens in the context of small groups. Regardless of how big our large group gatherings become, we must always insist on their existence as a conglomeration of small groups. After all, almost every large church, including the one where I serve, was once a small group. The challenge for us is not to pick the right size churches and build a lot of them. The challenge is to make disciples in a way that honors the unique gifting of our people and the culture we are called to bless.

Let’s not let big become bland. Let’s not confuse big with dumb. Let’s not appeal to the least risky, least unique common denominator. Let’s grow the church without becoming Home Depot. That might mean starting a church cricket league.

I know where to buy the bats.

Ryan SandersComment