Several weeks ago I was one of more than a few small church pastors listening in to the backstage interviews at the Catalyst Conference. Folks of my sort are somewhat skeptical of folks of that sort -- not really the folks, so much as the machine the folks are a part of -- and what we were hearing was not very encouraging. Conferences like Catalyst and its progenitors and imitators appear to be predicated on the idea that the number one problem facing evangelical churches is lack of success. How to get success and keep success. And who best to teach us how to do this than successful pastors? By which it is usually meant pastors of large churches. This is how pastors with radically different philosophies of ministry end up on conference stages together: they both have huge churches.
One of the Catalyst speakers in his address said that every church has the Holy Spirit but that some churches have that something extra that makes them special. The crowd ate this up, and indeed, this seems to be the implicit message of all conferences, kits, consultations, and systems of this kind: You may have the Spirit, but do you have _______?
This not only implies that God isn't enough, it only feeds and stokes the insatiable idolatry for that "x factor" the fans of these programs are operating out of. "Sure, I've got Jesus. But I need the tips, techniques, and know-how to take it to the next level!"
The level above Jesus? There is a place that is better or more "successful" than having Jesus?
Do we need the Spirit plus something?
So I asked somebody. Us gawkers got to chat with some of the Catalyst bigwigs, and it was actually a very encouraging, very profitable tool. But one question I asked was, "Why are there no small church pastors speaking at Catalyst?"
I know what the answer is. They aren't considered successful. And even the small church leaders who attend Catalyst don't want to hear from small church leaders. They want to hear from the "successful" leaders. So they can figure out how to be successful too.
The answer I got was initially "That's a good question." And then the follow-up was something like "They aren't well-known enough," which is a good answer.
And then the respondent recommended we small church dudes check out The Sticks Conference. And he elaborated. The Sticks Conference is for pastors in small towns.
What wasn't said, but was nevertheless something I "heard," was that small church equals small town. Because, again, if you have a small church in a big town, it is not successful. The implication is that the only acceptable reason for having a small church is that you are in a low populated area where there aren't a lot of people.
So I checked out the website for The Sticks. It is indeed for pastors of small churches in small, mostly rural, towns. And the speakers are all pastors of megachurches that are in small towns. Each of the speakers' bios glowingly related how large they had grown their churches, as if that is the point of the conference: get big.
<> Thanks, Sticks, for dispatching with the preoccupation with size.
Even the concept of The Sticks, which was suggested as an alternative to the success-obsession of the other conferences, is that if you are in a small church, your job is to get bigger.
Good grief, we idolize numbers.
We haven't gotten the memo. The number of Christians isn't increasing! Wake up, Church.
The megachurches are growing, but the Church is not. Isn't that telling us something? Doesn't that say that all this emphasis on getting big isn't working? It's sucking in consumerist Christians happy with our bells and whistles, but our discipleship is failing, our evangelism is failing, our savoring the supremacy of Christ is failing, our loving our neighbors is failing, our exalting the God of the Universe is failing, not because those things are failures but because we aren't doing those things.
I love Acts 2. I'm not gonna trot out the "It's descriptive, not prescriptive" card, but I will at least mention that a lot of the leaders clinging to "And God added to their number daily" are subtracting the entire rest of the book where the apostles were boldly preaching the gospel, commanding shared-life community, and explicitly exalting the glory of God. They didn't put on a seeker service.
Our idolization of numbers is so heinous, preachers like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes get free passes. It must be working, right? Their churches are huge! They're reaching lots of people. Who cares if it's a Jesus-deficient and gospel-less Christian version of karma? They're biiiig.
Is this jealousy? Am I anti- big churches? Nope. There are just as many, if not more, big churches where the gospel is preached and the community is being discipled and is loving their neighbors as there are small churches that suck on all the things that matter.
And that's my point. It's not about numbers. It's about faithfulness. It's about pastors pastoring and the whole community worshiping. It's about health. It's about following Jesus. It's about trusting God.
Whether you're a tall, grande, or venti church, if your overriding concern is numbers, you're an idolatrous church.
Be faithful, and God will give the increase in his measure and in his time.