| AM JUST as jealous as I can be ... in a holy sort of way, of course. My church of 200 attenders didn't make the recent list of the 50 most influential churches.|
Dr. John Vaughan of Church Growth Today asked 2,000 of the largest non-Catholic congregations in the nation to recommend churches for the listing. This method of data collection is a bit biased from the get-go, but take the results for what they're worth. No surprise that Willow Creek (Bill Hybels) and Saddleback (Rick Warren) were first and second, respectively. (See related article)
Their influence is, of course, indisputable. And the other churches listed are influential, too; not much of a question there.
But are such rankings a good thing?
Christian Schwarz in his book, Natural Church Development, reports a worldwide study of churches to see what makes them healthy. He looked at all kinds of churches from all over the world to see if there were some characteristics common to all healthy, growing churches. His team studied over 1,000 churches in 32 countries on six continents and analyzed 4.2 million responses to arrive at several conclusions, not the least this one:
"On average, smaller churches are the better churches. To say it in a simplified way: 'The larger, the worse.' This pattern is so significant that it is difficult to see why no one else has come across this pattern. Instead some authors even proceed from the opposite thesis, namely 'The bigger, the better.'"
Vaughan notes that he sought responses from large church pastors. Could it be they admire that which is -- could it be? -- far less healthy than smaller bodies?
At any rate, there are far smaller and healthy congregations that making disciples who are active in the world as they participate in pro-life and prison ministries, build houses in the inner cities and tutor at-risk kids; who evangelize the lost and shine Christ's love into the darkest and most needy places of their communities.
Such listings of "Top 50" anything in the Kingdom of God are suspect in my book. Many churches who don't make the cut are blessedly "influential" given their size of congregation and locale and are having impact beyond normal expectations because their faithfulness to Scripture, their attention to Christ-like discipleship, and their prayers set them apart as world-changers. Whether seven, or 70, or 700 in attendance, they are getting it done for the glory of God; and they are too many for Dr. Vaughan to find and feature.
We should all rejoice in churches that are "mega" if indeed they are making disciples in the mold of Jesus. Anybody who would be jealous of that needs God to do some more warming of their cold hearts. But we should rejoice no less, and perhaps should publicize as much, smaller congregations faithful to carry out the commission of our Lord in places where the "mega" has no chance of thriving.
Could it be that the next Billy Graham is memorizing John 3:16 in a rural Vacation Bible School today? And a young Mother Teresa is beginning to recognize the desperation in her streets from the vantage point of an inner city church? Or, perhaps the discoverer of the AIDS vaccine is about to be aborted before a loving Christian woman, standing with six others from her church, reaches out to pray for the mother in crisis. Maybe somewhere in America a church has just accepted a pastor whose influence will launch 20 missionaries in the next 20 years from a middle-sized churched in a middle-sized town in the Midwest. Or might a little girl sitting in a house church somewhere be receiving the lessons from God she needs to be another Susannah Wesley?
These all might be the exclusive and likely work of the megachurches with multi-million-dollar budgets and the best speakers in the country.
But I doubt it.
The Church is alive and well. And the healthiest among them, I have this hunch, are not in that top 50 list. Not even close. Gut feeling aside, healthy churches, like people, are found in all shapes and sizes.
Matt Friedeman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary. Respond to this column at his blog at "EvangelismToday.blogspot.com."
More columns by Matt Friedeman