Big Church Sins vs. Small Church Sins: Who’ll Throw the First Stone?

Stone Thrower StatueBig churches and Small Churches bring different gifts to the body of Christ. They also face different sets of temptations, based on their size.

The biggest problem with church size isn’t that there are too many big congregations or too many small ones. I also don’t think there is an ideal church size or a bad church size.

The only problem with church size is when it becomes an excuse for Christians to throw stones at each other.

In the last few weeks, I’ve read, heard or been in conversations in which people have complained about sins of the big church or the sins of the small.

All of them made some valid points. But in all but one case, they named the potential sins of one side/size without mentioning the potential sins of the other.

 

Two Lists for Three Good Reasons

I’ve started compiling two lists based on these articles and conversations. One list of temptations that big churches are more likely to fall into and a similar list for Small Churches.

I offer these lists today, not to make anyone feel bad or to cast blame, but for three reasons:

1. To show that every size has its dangers. No one is immune to fault or sin.

2. To make leaders aware about the potential temptations their size makes them more susceptible to.

3. To encourage everyone to stop worrying about the speck in our brother’s eye and deal with the beam in our own. 

Neither list is complete (probably never will be), but I think they make a good start.

 

Some Sins Aren’t as Size-Specific as We Think

Some sins that are regularly attributed to one size of church are actually seen regularly in churches of all sizes.

For example, people like to say that megachurches tend to be driven by a dynamic lead pastor and some are nothing more than a personality cult. While that is certainly true for some big churches, there’s no shortage of Small Churches under the spell of a single leader. They’re just not as well-known as the big guys.

 

Not Inevitable or Exclusive

None of these sins are inevitable. And none are exclusive to the size they’re listed under. But it doesn’t take a peer-reviewed study to see that certain tendencies are more frequent in churches of particular sizes than others.

And I am absolutely not saying that big churches became big because of their list, or that Small Churches are small because of theirs.

These are merely potential problems with higher likelihoods for certain sizes. We need to be honest about them or we’ll never be able to guard our hearts or our churches against them.

 

List #1: Big Church Temptations

It’s great when churches grow. But growth comes with new challenges and dangers. Here are a few obvious temptations that grow larger with the size of the congregation.

 

Anonymity & Passivity
The larger the church, the more attractive it will be for people who want to remain anonymous and passive. Most healthy big churches work really hard, through small groups, missions trips, community service and more, to counteract that. But some of it is inevitable. Big churches will always have a higher percentage of anonymous, passive attenders than small congregations.

 

Consumerism
No, not all big churches got that way because of a consumer-driven mindset. But it is big churches, more than smaller ones that are more likely to hold their main weekend services with a “Sit back, relax and enjoy the service” attitude. Sometimes they’ll use those exact words. I know. I’ve heard it.

The bigger the church, the more people, skill and funds they have to put into a high-end religious show. Big church leaders must always guard against this temptation and many of them do. It’s always important to assess whether we’re training active disciples or just pleasing passive consumers.

 

Appeasement
Most of the big churches I have attended have had wonderful, passionate, biblically-based preaching and teaching. But once the mortgage, payroll and other financial commitments reach the monumental levels of a megachurch, the leaders must constantly resist the temptation to say what people want to hear in order to keep the money flowing and the dollars rolling in.

 

Compromise
While appeasement might lead a pastor not to preach against certain sins, compromise is the choice to call something holy that God has declared unholy.

Yes, Small Churches have been known to compromise, too. But the temptation grows when the church does.

 

Pride
I admire anyone who can preach to 10,000 people or more every week and not let pride take over. That must be a heady rush. I don’t know how well I could handle it.

 

False Perception of Success
It’s easy to think God must be blessing us when people are coming and the offering baskets are overflowing. I’ve actually heard pastors use terms like “the numbers don’t lie”. The problem is, they do.

Gathering a crowd is not a determiner of righteousness, faithfulness or kingdom effectiveness.

 

 

List #2: Small Church Temptations

Obviously, I’m a cheerleader for Small Churches. But that doesn’t mean I’m naïve about the potential problems that come with smaller congregations. Just like the big church list, none of these are inevitable. And there are millions of healthy churches all over the world that don’t have these issues. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking they can’t happen if we don’t stay vigilant about church health.

 

Controlling
This is one of the primary challenges for Small Churches. People who want to be in control look for a small pond.in which they can be a big fish. The controllers can be clergy or non-clergy. Either way, it’s a problem.

The only one who should control any church is Jesus.

 

Legalism
This is the Small Church flip-side of big church compromise. Some smaller congregations seem to base their entire existence on opposing the Sin Of The Week. They often do this as a pendulum-swing reaction against compromise.

Legalism and compromise are both diversions that keep churches from doing ministry that matters.

 

Self-Righteousness
This is the Small Church alternative to big church pride. While leaders of large congregations have to resist Nebuchadnezzar’s sin of patting themselves on the back, Small Church pastors must resist the temptation to believe that their small size is evidence that they belong to a righteous remnant.

Statements like “we’re the only church in town still preaching the gospel,” which I actually read from a Small Church pastor recently, aren’t just arrogant, they’re ignorant.

 

Stubbornness
Small Churches can adapt fast to new ideas, methods and needs if we’re willing to. Unfortunately, we have a well-earned reputation for being the opposite of adaptable.

Sometimes, in our desire not to compromise on biblical morality and doctrine, we become stubborn about methods and structures that need to change.

 

Laziness
Small Church pastors are some of the hardest-working people in the world. But when years of hard work fails to produce the promised numerical growth, it’s easy to get discouraged. And it’s a short step from discouragement to laziness.

I sympathize with those feelings. But I reject that attitude. Every person and every group deserves the best we have every time we minister to them, no matter how big or small they are.

 

So what do you think? Do you have any potential temptations you can add to either list? (Especially your side of the list?)

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(Protester Statue photo from Adam Baker • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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7 thoughts on “Big Church Sins vs. Small Church Sins: Who’ll Throw the First Stone?”

  1. Really good post with very helpful “temptation lists” My only quibble is that I’d put “appeasement” in the “common problem list. When a member of a small church demands control, change of direction, or for someone to look the other way on a family member’s sin, small church pastors are just as tempted to appease. If that person is a large contributor, the pull may be MORE intense because it could bring down the whole church. Almost never does any one contributor pull down a large church…it takes offending a group of them.

    Great stuff…keep up the good fight to bring pastors from all ends of the spectrum together!

    1. Thanks, Dave. You may be right. Certainly appeasement (like the rest of them) can happen in a church of any size, but I haven’t seen as much of it in Small Churches as in big ones. That could be just from my limited view, however.

  2. I did a double-take when I first glanced at the lede. I thought it asked, “Who’s gonna get stoned first?”

    Seriously, to the small church temptations I’d add:

    1. Isolationism – a lot of small churches tend to be islands unto themselves, and they’re okay with that. They are commuter congregations that drive to meet in a location whose surrounding residents are totally unlike the congregants. And they like it that way because they don’t want “those people” bringing their problems to “our church.”

    2. Objectification – other small churches want people to enter into and join the congregation but for nefarious reasons. “We want you to help us keep the doors open.” The goal isn’t rebirth or transformation; it’s a commercial transaction that contributes to the mortgage, utilities and pastor’s salary.

    3. Rebellion – some small churches are hard on their pastors. Rather than graciously accept their leadership, these churches treat their pastors like employees and insist on maintaining control no matter what.

  3. Random Thoughts

    I love small churches and I love big churches! There’s a reason why we have 32 flavors of ice cream… Because just vanilla or just chocolate gets old. As believers there should be no stoning unless the one throwing the stones is without any fault, which we know isn’t possible. With that said… I was apart of a smaller church where the Pastor often used the excuse “well, God just wants us to be a small church” and of course, with that came all the great things about a small church to pat himself on the back and convince himself that God wasn’t into growth… Many of the excuses or detriments that you already listed. After years of that teaching I almost started to buy into the fact that God wasn’t concerned about numbers and growth, BUT guess what HE IS! He died for All, not just One, although He would have died for just one and he’ll go after just one because his love is that intense! But I dislike, not the theory, but the excuse of Pastors/leaders who convince themselves that God is not in the business of growth and saving lives. If we were to ask God “Do you want our church to grow? Would you like us to have more influence in our community? Are there people in our community that need to know you? I can’t imagine Him saying “No!” Now if the church isn’t ready for the growth then that is a different subject… That’s the subject of “Get you stuff together” so you can be effective! I hope I didn’t miss the point, but I so love how you see the side of both coins. Both the larger church and the smaller church are blessings from God! On a positive note, one thing I learned from this Pastor was what the greatest gift in the Bible was.. You know prayer, speaking in tongues, healing, prophesy, etc…. Well, the greatest gift is the gift that is needed at that time! And maybe so it is with the small church and the big church, whichever that sinner walks into and is needing at that time, whatever that community needs at that time… Both have pros and both have cons, but I pray that each are ever reaching, always seeking, and never satisfied (with status quo)

    1. You’re so right. The idea that we should ever settle for “us four, no more, close the door” goes against everything in me – and it’s counter to the heart of the Gospel, too.

  4. While I tend to agree that appeasement ought to be in the “common to both” column as a temptation, it might be harder to pull off in a smaller church than in a larger church; because, in a smaller church, everyone will soon know about it. And then the self-righteous types will stubbornly and legalistically demand control over the lazy, compromising attitude that allowed it.

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