Part of a conversation yesterday has stuck with me and rattled around my brain ever since. The subject of big churches had come up, and the problem that they tend to generate and grow their own character and “brand” quite distinctly from their near relatives around them.
Brand defined in terms of logo, style, youth work, terminology, architecture, cult following of the speakers and leaders, as well as the experience of worshipping or visiting one of their services. It’s very true of US mega-churches such as Willow Creek, Lakewood, Saddleback and the Crystal Cathedral but also true of some of the larger gatherings in Northern Ireland.
But with size comes responsibility.
Working for a large multi-national company, I’m aware that we take our Corporate Social Responsibility very seriously. Helping others – particularly the young or vulnerable, small charities or the technically illiterate– is a core part of the corporate ethic. You can see it too in organisations like the BBC with their internal fervour for fundraising ventures like Children in Need and Red Nose Day.
I’m not going to name names, but there are more than a handful of local Northern Ireland churches who have a very potent brand strength in comparison to the denominational grouping they belong to.
Now being big isn’t all bad ... but it does mean carrying some dangerous baggage that tends to explode with little warning when you’re least expecting it!
Youth groups can grow uncontrollably, sucking in teenagers from surrounding fellowships and beyond like a blessèd Dyson. Directing larger churches can put leaders under greater pressures as they juggle personalities, difference of opinion and the tsunami waves of crises. Some face financial temptations. Some big churches find it hard to focus on social justice.
There are many advantages to large scale, and the tendency towards impersonal experiences in the
pew seat can be overcome with good relational interactions amongst smaller subsets of the congregation long after the Sunday morning service has finished. Bigger financial clout can also make direct overseas mission and involvement easier to fund.
But I wonder whether these larger congregations intentionally seek to invest back into their wider faith communities and families?
Do larger gatherings not have a responsibility to find ways of meeting the needs of smaller brothers and sisters in their areas and within their denominations? Do they respond munificently to appeals for help? Are they generous with their members’ gifts and talents? Do they quietly and without fuss use their muscle to make miracles possible where otherwise they would flounder?
Now I repeat, I’m not naming names and I’m not casting judgement on specific churches. And I don’t speak from experience as I don’t belong to a large congregation ... unless 50-100 people on a Sunday morning now counts as large!
But amongst the more numerically blessed churches, I don’t see a huge body of evidence of practical investment in their smaller neighbours.
Size breeds brand, which tends to focus people inwardly, and not down and out.