Sunday, January 03, 2010

Big church responsibility to look out for the little people

The Crystal Cathedral in California - photo from Wikipedia

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 bless├Ęd 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.


Alan in Belfast said...

Having gone downstairs for a cup of tea with my wife, I quickly discovered that not only has she been to Crystal Cathedral in California, has slides of the building (and its ten thousand panes of glass) and heard stories about their Christmas nativity pageant which featured real elephants ... but we also have a Christmas ornament ("a porcelain angel") that just got wrapped up and put away this very afternoon that was given to her from the Crystal Cathedral gift shop.

Scanned slides and photos will follow on the blog at a later date!

Anonymous said...

The fact that I want to go there because it looks awesome proves your point entirely. If the brand gets in the way of the message, it can only be a bad thing.

whynotsmile said...


Lila Gribben said...

In some ways I think that yes, branding may have a negative impact. But on the other hand, a big church will be better known in the local community and may result more people taking an interest in the church. This may only be idle curiosity but it could result in a person hearing the gospel which is a good thing. That person may not be drawn to a smaller church.

Also, much of the 'reaching out' work that is done by bigger churches probably isn't advertised as much as we think it would be. If the motives behind generous donations to charities and smaller churches are pure, then the true nature of Christian giving is to do it in secret and the Lord will reward the giver openly. (There is a verse in the bible which explains this properly but my memory is failing me at the minute!)

I'm split two ways about this one!

Alan in Belfast said...

Good points. My impression (ok, my prejudice) is that rather than "a big church [being] better known in the local community", it is better known across a much wider area than would be its natural parish. They become commuter churches and commuter youth groups.

Heavy irony here since a few months before we moved to Lisburn we had moved - for sensible, non-contentious reasons - from attending a church within walking distance of the house to one that we passed four others (of various flavours) to get to. And now we're in Lisburn and haven't switched anywhere closer, we travel 15 minutes up and down the motorway to get there. So there's an acknowledged bit of pot-calling-kettle-black going on!

Size and recognition can create safe and low-risk spaces for people to come and hang around where they might not feel up to barging into a much smaller community.

I don't think size and/or brand are inherently wrong. But they have dangers and responsibilities.

There's probably a parallel post about the dangers and responsibilities of being small.

Mark Thompson said...

Excellent post. I must confess I generally encounter a more authentic faith among people who gather in modest buildings - these are the folk who faithfully soldier on regardless of trends and flavour-of-the-month congregations that often come and go. The dangers of being small are an unfortunate pessimism and the tendency that a few individuals are relied upon too much and can become burned out.

Alan in Belfast said...

Mark - since there won't be a parallel post on "being small", I'd extend your dangers to add: spending all your resources (people, time, money, elbow grease) just trying to keep the environment up and running - in terms of buildings, heating, administration, newsletters, flowers - leaving little bandwidth free to be a community and be in the community.

Mark Thompson said...

Alan - yes, you're right. You can also add something along the lines of "prone to exploitation" in the sense that small churches are sometimes preyed upon by ruthless types who fancy themselves as leaders, and can become a big fish in the small pond almost overnight. A larger church congregation is usually in a better position to prevent that happening.

The Wee Brown-Eyed Girl said...

The phrase, 'the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed' is what springs to mind. C.f. Shane Claiborne's 'The Irresistible Revolution' esp. Chpt 12. Incidentally I know of some folks from larger congregations who have deliberately gone to smaller congregations specifically to help out in a certain area of ministry e.g. children's work and I think that's a great picture of what you're talking about. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Our own congregation (pretty small) sent requests to our neighbouring (larger) congregations to ask if anyone might like to come and join us to help out.
It's a big thing to ask someone to leave a big exciting congregation to join a smaller one, so I couldn't say I was surprised at the lack of responses.

Gladys said...

Christianity Today had a cover story last year on marketing Jesus, 'Jesus is not a brand.' You can read the story here. Lot of issues come up that may/may not be related to the size of a church:
The cover image for this story was Jesus inside a Starbucks logo (instead of the mermaid-like girl we normally see), which I thought was clever, but unfortunately I can't find that graphic.

Alan in Belfast said...

It was part of the reason we moved. Not really the whole reason for considering a move in the first place, but a lot to do with where we ended up and where we've thus far stayed even though we've moved out of the parish.

Andrew Arbuthnot said...

As a member of what once would have been described as a large church, and having ministered in smaller churches, I can whole heartedly agree with the notion that we can become over-awed in our own accomplishments as church congregations, and therefore rest on our laurels.

I am in the process of looking for a new spiritual home, one which will allow itself to adapt to my just as much as I adapt to it.

When we look at the major revivals throughout history, from the Early Christian Church (pre-Rome), through to the Wesley's, to Azuza Street, the souls were reached.

We need to get back to the accesible buildings at the kerbside