Posted by: Catherine Weston | June 15, 2012

Big Church

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a 5,000-seater auditorium waiting for the Sunday morning service to begin. Behind the stage, where the orchestra sat, was a bank of raked seats into which filed a robed choir of 150 strong (about the size of my congregation back home). We had a good view from up in the balcony, but it certainly helped to have the big TV screens so we could see close ups of what was going on.

During the service we sang some good songs, saw two couples commissioned for long term missionary service and about twenty people prayed for who were heading out for short term missions trips around the globe. As the pastor pointed out, you’re either going, praying, giving or disobedient! A collection was taken and a brief opportunity given to greet those around you.

Then the word baptism appeared on the TV screen and behind the choir some screens parted to reveal an alcove high up in the rear wall where a baptistery was secreted. There a family of four was baptised. Finally the lead pastor came on stage to give a message from a John’s Gospel, concluding a series that had taken two years. Another song and then everyone was dismissed to attend various Bible classes (and to allow the next congregation to use the auditorium).

It’s always good to experience ‘church’ in other parts of the world (I’ll leave you to guess which country we were visiting). So much of what we do on a Sunday morning is determined by our culture or subculture, so it can be helpful to see and hear what others do and see what there is to learn. Coming as outsiders we can also be in a position to critique, as we may not have the same cultural blinkers.  The same is also true in reverse.  I hope we are always ready to hear what brothers and sisters from other countries have to say about our churches!

So here are some strengths we observed:

  • God had clearly blessed this church with material resources undreamt of in a UK context. The building complex was like a small university campus with state of the art facilities for education, conferences, worship, recreation and catering. This enabled an extensive range of programmes reaching the wider community.
  • The church is totally committed to mission, both locally (particularly in poorer districts) and globally.  The missions’ budget alone came to £40 million annually!

However we did come away with some questions as to whether this congregation of many thousands could really classify as ‘church’ in the New Testament sense. The service was carefully stage-managed and impressively slick (I guess it would have to be on that scale) which meant that we felt more like spectators than participants. Is there a danger of professionalising the leadership too much?

That scale and level of expertise is great for the occasional celebration, but every Sunday? Maybe I’m just expressing my ‘small is beautiful’ European outlook, but I think there are inherent dangers in this model of church.

If I’d had the opportunity, I would want to ask how the leadership ensured their church members experienced the kind of Christian community where, through personal, servant-hearted relationships, they had the opportunity to grow as disciples rather than exist as consumers.

However, it is clearly possible to foster community and discipleship even if you have a morning congregation of close-on 1,000 souls, judging by our experiences in a different city church the following Sunday. Though large by British standards, the style of this church was much more personal. On this occasion we were led in full-throated song by two singers, a piano and a guitar. There was no orchestra, but the congregation is clearly used to singing from musical scores and the harmonising was terrific!  Here also were four baptisms, with each candidate interviewed for their testimony, which gave an immediacy and connection not really evident in our experience the previous week.

Is there an optimal size for a church fellowship? Does it depend on one’s cultural context?  What do you think?



  1. I was amazed at how personal the second church you mention seemed when I visited. It seemed to me they (as a church of a thousand) almost did a better job of welcoming than my church of two hundred!

    It probably does depend on cultural context. I feel like my church here is getting too big, but also that I’d feel very much at home in the second church above.

  2. Hello, thanks Catherine, really interesting to think about! 🙂 I’d always thought small is better but someone recently pointed out to me that the first church was a megachurch. When Peter preached to the people at pentecost, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” As you mentioned, I think the real problem is that we have an attitude that we are spectators in church. I find that sometimes I treat church more like a concert than Christ’s body of which I am a part. The early church seemed to do church much more like a family and on a daily basis, there was no passivity. Perhaps it’s harder to fascilitate Acts happening in a big church, but if you do then its much better than having a small church with a weekly cinema approach!

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