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Why Do American Christians Prefer Big? by David Fitch

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A few weeks ago I had a prolonged discussion with a friend (who I’ll call Jack) who is about to leave his mega church home after being there many years (not Willowcreek by the way). My friend went on a soliloquy describing the waste of his church on gadgets, mega tv screens, the latest in technology, only to discard it all with something completely new in 6 months. He waxed eloquently on the dynamics of a mega church authoritarian pastor getting egotistical, dictatorial, set above accountability, leading the church into huge debt problems and then using the pulpit to raise more money and defend his character issues. He described how big churches seem to feed the ego character issues of powerful leaders. The pastor is removed from accountability, being known by others in the church, and set above the congregation. Jack had experienced all this first hand. He and his wife literally cannot stomach being part of this church any longer. What kind of church is he and his wife visiting in seeking out a new church home? Another mega church.
Why do mature faithful American Christians, when looking for a church, look for “big mega” versus just looking local for a local community of Christians that resides closest to where they live?

I suggest three reasons and offer 3 things small local missional communities need to do to overcome these bad cultural habits of Americanized Christians

1.) Big is seen as a sign God is there. To the average American Christian, a big church is a sign that God is doing something. The bigger the crowd the more God must be working! Conversely, a small community is viewed as dead. The “big is better” understanding goes deep into our culture. It is part of the fabric of Americana. It is the way American business operates, sports, media, television, publishing. Everyone loves a crowd.  And this is why American Christians cannot help themselves looking for “big” when looking for a church.

Of course, missional communities should not try to “compete” with this. Nonetheless, I think our gatherings must be intentional about displaying that God is present in this gathering and He is mightily at work in this body of people. It just looks different and (can I say this?) it is more real (less clouded by celebrity and special effects). Missional leaders should keep the gathering simple and be intentional about leading us into an authentic encounter with the living Christ from which we are sent into the world. This takes leaders who can be present “among” us and be known by us whereby we can join with them in being present to God and submitting to Him. Here we encounter His reality as Lord over our lives and world, from which we can be sent and know that reality in the world. Too often our small gatherings lack an awareness of His special presence among us. I believe if Jack could understand this, he’d consider going to a small local gathering differently.

2.) A celebrity pastor/teacher is a known quantity. He/she’s got a following, a resume, a book, a radio program etc. It is therefore unsettling for people who are used to this to enter a small community where they will be taught by someone or a group of people who are unknown. People are most comfortable with a pastor, a teacher, a known quality because the sermon is how they view Christianity. Celebrity Christianity drives the American church.

Once again missional communities should not try to emulate the celebrity pastor thing. Nonetheless, we must pay attention to the teaching role in our communities. We must recognize excellent teachers in our midst, develop them, and see that they are proclaiming gospel into our context/the issues of our everyday lives. Not everyone is a teacher. We must facilitate the gifted teachers in our midst and fund the church’s imagination with powerful proclamation of the Word into our immediate context as well as good consistent up-building of the church in understanding the whole story of God. I believe once Jack could see how powerful contextual proclamation can shape the life he lives in and the problems he faces and the manner in which he is called to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord in his life, work and neighborhood, he’d consider becoming a part of a local missional community.

3.) Big church is less messy. They can go and leave, get what they think they want, and be given a task. Most American Christians see church as an amenity to be added on to their lives. Christianity for the average American Christian is a.) going to a church service, learning something and expressing some praise to God, b.) giving a tithe, c.) getting involved in 2-3 hours a week of volunteer service. Most Americans choose where they can do these things in ways where they “get the most” out of a.) and can do c.) in a way that appeals to them. The more conveniently this can be done the better. Large mega churches excel at accommodating this.

Again, missional gatherings should not try to duplicate this aspect of American church either. But we can help people understand the power of true community, of being present in one another’s lives and in the communities we live in. We must not make ‘missional community’ something people must “do”: a more demanding program. We must work to enable people to live the lives they already lead more powerfully, with more missional awareness, with Kingdom priorities, in a way that is more interconnected so that the Kingdom is birthed socially in our midst. We must provide ways of initiating people into this way of life that is not onerous!! I believe this is incredibly important because people coming from American church are going to so quickly misunderstand missional community as a more demanding (legalistic) program (see my debate with Anthony Bradley here). I believe if Jack could have an easier way to understand what he is being invited into in a missional community, he’d consider going to a smaller local gathering differently.

I think these are tumultuous times in mega church land. I see waves of people leaving mega churches. They are in danger of becoming the next disenchanted generation with Christianity because of their experiences of bad church. Will missional communities offer a bridge to these people?

What say you? Why do people resist “going” to a small community? How do you think missional communities can build bridges to those leaving mega churches? Or should we?

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