The religious world is full of people with wacky ideas that have no basis in scripture. Andy Stanley is one of them.
As the senior evangelist at North Point Community Church, which averages more than 30,000 worshippers at multiple campuses, it’s clear that Stanley thinks big when it comes to assemblies. But he crossed a line February 28 when he tried to promote his own place of worship at the expense of small churches in the Atlanta area.
Stanley’s gripe went like this: “When I hear adults say, ‘Well I don’t like a big church. I like about 200; I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say: ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids.”
The tirade triggered an outcry that made Stanley realize how obnoxious he sounded (so obnoxious that his church demanded that YouTube yank the video clip). He tweeted an apology within four days and later elaborated on it in an interview with Christianity Today. “The Twitter response rightfully pointed out the absurdity and contradictory nature of my comments,” Stanley said.
But it’s clear from the interview that he still thinks large churches are superior, especially when it comes to student ministries. He is wrong.
For starters, God is no more a respecter of large churches over small churches than He is of Jews over Greeks (Acts 10:34-35) or of rich over poor (James 2:1-4).
The church did start big in Jerusalem, with 3,000 people baptized in one day (Acts 2:41) and the Lord adding to the group daily after that (2:47). The number of believers then quickly jumped to 5,000 men (4:4), and a pattern of rapid growth temporarily took root in Jerusalem (5:14, 6:7).
But other examples make clear that small churches accomplished great work, too. When persecution drove most of the saints out of Jerusalem, God used the zeal of smaller groups to evangelize Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, 4). Multiple congregations also gathered regularly in homes in the 1st century.
In addition to biblical precedent, modern reality exposes the flaws in Stanley’s logic. The average U.S. Protestant church has fewer than 200 participants, and a recent Duke University study found that the bigger a church is, the less involved its followers are.
“By nature they are more anonymous places,” researcher David Eagle said. “Your comings and goings aren’t noticed from week to week, and you may not face the same encouragement – or pressure – to attend as in a smaller church.”
I have seen that firsthand and have never belonged to a local congregation where Sunday attendance exceeded 250. Even in congregations that small, the level of brotherly awareness ebbs and flows as the membership grows and shrinks.
Stanley preached his enormity gospel right after hosting a “Walking Wisely” weekend for 4,600 middle school students. The response to that event convinced him that young people need huge numbers to be inspired. But that thinking attributes more strength to numbers than to the gospel, which is the power of God to salvation (Rom. 1:16).
Young people whose faith depends upon the size of their church peer groups may lack the stamina necessary to survive a difficult spiritual journey (Matt. 7:13-14). Parents arguably may be wiser to join smaller churches, where their children won’t be able to hide and will have more opportunities to be involved.
Our teenage son started participating in worship years ago by reading scriptures and helping serve the Lord’s Supper. Now he regularly leads singing. In Bible classes of 10 or fewer students, all three of our children do their lessons because they know their teachers will ask questions – and if they aren’t prepared to answer in class, they will have to answer to Dad and Mom at home.
In clarifying his comments, Stanley acknowledged that he was “extraordinarily irresponsible” to suggest that all parents should join large churches for the sake of their children. I certainly am not arguing the opposite now.
I’m just saying the decision about where to worship should be made based on substantive spiritual assessments, not superficial numbers.
God wants everyone to repent (II Pet. 3:9), so He certainly appreciates big churches. But the New Testament is virtually silent on the topic of congregational size. Stanley and other preachers should consider that before spouting nonsense from the pulpit.