Small churches make news, too
By David Charlton
Special to The Courier-Journal
As the pastor of a church, I read with great interest the pair of front-page articles about megachurches in the Nov. 26 issue of The Courier-Journal. The articles provided a powerful reminder of the tremendous impact megachurches are having upon our society.
As megachurches increasingly influence both the religious and political agenda of our country, they are redefining what it means to be Christian and a church member in
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One of those implications is the damage suffered by all of the smaller churches that serve as the source of members for megachurches. The sheer size of megachurches creates an illusion of church growth that is not entirely accurate.
Though one of the articles quoted a researcher as saying growth in megachurches is occurring as many smaller congregations are dwindling, there was a failure to note the connection between the growth of the megachurches and the corresponding decrease of many other congregations.
A large portion of the growth of megachurches -- perhaps the majority -- comes as a direct result of people moving from smaller to larger congregations. A survey of churches in the
The result of this shift has been the decimation of countless smaller churches and the decline of community-based congregations. Just as more and more businesses succumb to the "big box" retailers, increasing numbers of small churches are losing members to the "big box" churches. And just as the loss of local businesses hurts neighborhoods, so does the decline of local churches that serve the communities in which they are based.
A less obvious, but perhaps more troubling implication of the rise of megachurches, is the creation of the "religious consumer." A religious consumer mentality, encouraged by the sheer range of options and activities at megachurches, is reshaping the mission and function of churches as prospective members "shop" for a church the same as they would shop for a place to get their hair cut or buy their groceries.
As the religious consumer shops for a congregation that will offer the widest range of choices for his family, he is asking, essentially, what will the church do for me?
This consumerism fuels the rise in coffee bars, "family life centers" that are basically religious health clubs, and a full schedule of activities to keep every member of the family busy.
While effective in attracting members, these may have little to do with the central mission of the church, which is to encourage people to be followers of Jesus and his way of life. Jesus said he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 10:39), reflecting an attitude in direct opposition to the spiritual consumer mentality that asks, "How will I be served?" -- rather than, "How can I serve others?"
This religious consumerism would certainly be alien to the persecuted early church followers, who worshipped in secret among the decaying flesh of
Perhaps the church in modern
Bigger, while helpful in attracting media attention and members, is not always better.
Finally, one could question whether the paucity of articles about small churches is indicative of a belief at The Courier that nothing newsworthy happens in such congregations. As media attention is often equated with significance, it is important to note that countless numbers of small churches faithfully serve their communities every day, gaining no attention except from those they serve.
While that service may not make headlines, it certainly makes an incalculable difference in the lives of millions of people.
David Charlton is pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Ky. He is a 2006 Forum Fellow.