Should the Primary Expression of Church Gathered be Small or Large?

Yesterday I spoke to our church community about why our primary experience of church needs to be smaller rather than larger.

By ‘smaller’ I mean a group where:

a) every person is known by name.

b) where it is not difficult to share a meal together.

Obviously then, a large group is one where we no longer know one another personally and a genuine meal becomes a very challenging prospect. It is my strong conviction that if we are to be effective at making disciples and at fulfilling the biblical understanding of what it means to be ‘church’ then our primary experience of gathering together needs to be in more of a household / familial setting rather than a large community worship & teaching event.

On Sunday we looked at the theological and biblical reasons for a church to be both large and small, as well as the practical and pragmatic reasons for preferring small or large. While you can argue quite convincingly at a pragmatic level for either option, (‘big’ or ‘small’) the exercise we did together showed quite clearly that when we consider the biblical descriptions of church the evidence for ‘small’ is much more compelling.

Perhaps the critical word in this conversation is ‘primary’. I am not suggesting there is no place at all for a larger group to get together or that a large gathering is redundant, but I am seriously advocating that we see the larger gatherings as being of secondary importance. For example, most churches I have been part of say ‘come on Sunday and if possible be part of a home group or similar’, but if you can only do one of those two then choose the Sunday event. I believe it more appropriate to say ‘make sure you are part of a smaller gathering and if you are able, join with the rest of the crew on Sunday – but if you can only choose one, then choose small.

We managed to come up with 8 biblical/theological reasons for the primary experience of church to be small and only 2 reasons for it to be large. See the chart below. We whiteboared this stuff on Sunday as well as looking at the practical / pragmatic reasons for either option.

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As we did this exercise on the whiteboard, the bleeding obvious was that the ‘theological/biblical’ reasons for church being large quadrant was almost empty.

The question that arises out of this, that we will be exploring as a church is ‘what does this mean for us?’ I know many people will prefer ‘large church’ as the main event, but if we are ‘people of the book’ (as we Baptist like to imagine ourselves) then what do we do with the biblical descriptors of church?

So, I am interested to see how others perceive this issue. Bearing in mind the question is about primary expression not ‘only’ expression. I see a sociological value in different size groups and I do see that different objectives can be accomplished by different groups.

But if our primary task is to make disciples I find it hard to see the large group as the first port of call.

That feisty Eugene Petersen has some good stuff to say on this:

“You can’t do gospel work, kingdom work in an impersonal way. We live in the Trinity. Everything we do has to be in the context of the Trinity, which means personally, relationally. The minute you start doing things impersonally, functionally, mass oriented, you deny the gospel. Yet that’s all we do.”

from here

Jon Reid has also added his own thoughts on this matter. Skip over here

to read his mind…

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12 thoughts on “Should the Primary Expression of Church Gathered be Small or Large?

  1. Hey bro,

    I reckon that what you have done is highlight the fundamental difference between large church and small church thinking – large church often draws its imagery from the Old Testament and small church often aligns itself with New Testament thinking. Not saying that one is better than the other (ie OT vs NT) just that they tend to lead down different paths of expression.

    My personal preference is the NT expression of church (ie predominantly “small” and numerous) – as I think it offers a more holistic way of understanding the mind of Christ. He often would say, “you have heard it said… but I will show you a better way”. I think small is a “better way” but am learning that I need to live with grace along side larger expressions also.

    good wrestling Hamo – I might refer to you as Mickey from now on (you MUST go and see “The Wrestler” – I will refund your money if you are not 100% satisfied – offer only extends to mickey… er, I mean – Hamo)

  2. Hi Matty – the wrestler is on my list!

    As far as church goes though… While I get the gist of what you are saying in terms of how our maginations are formed, I tend to think it very dangerous theologically to try to understnd ‘church’ thru an OT lens

    We finish up with temples, priests and lots and lots of laws! It’s not to say your asessment isn’t accurate in some environs, but if someone were to argue for the shape of church based on OT practice I think we wouldfinish up in a very weird place.

    I am very happy to be shouted down on this issue as I prob gravitate more naturally towards big and structured, but I find it dfficult to see church like that in scripture

  3. Hi Hamo, I like what you are saying, I belong to a small to meduim church 60-80 people , I also have a home group in my home and that would be the highlight of the week for me. I guess both can have their ups and downs and I think in a small group envirnment you really have to be prepared to work with people more intimately which can be very hard going, I think you also havve to be willing to be open and have your life spoken into if necessary , it can sometimes take years to reach a level of freedom and trust with one another which we have found and you can still end up with people who come and go and seem to flounder in their walk with God. It can be alot more confronting and also a great blessing.

  4. I am growingly moving towards this view as well, though how it ‘looks’ in your average church would be interesting.

    The church I am at now has definately afforded me the opportunity to interact with a far greater ‘range’ of people than where I was previously. And for them the concept of ‘small’ wouldn’t even enter their minds. In fact, it is because of my interactions here that I am questioning more and more the ‘large’ gatherings as PRIMARY focus.

    It is definately true that, if small groups AND a large weekly gathering are offered…you will have a hard time to get people to the small groups. Something drastic would need to change to challenge this.

    Even in this, my area of ‘interest’ tends to be youth/young adult. Now, without getting off topic and discussing the merits of these ministries, I am definately being ‘challenged’ to think what large and small could and should look like in this setting. What emphasis do we place on large events? How do we equip and encourage more SMALL stuff to happen. I could go on for hours about where my mind is at here, but won’t!

    Good discussion point though Hamo.

  5. that’s precisely what I was getting at Hamo… temples, priests, laws (rules).

    Sorry – not meant to imply all big churches are like this, but the references for building such systems, from my limited experience (and practice), often come from a “kings and priests”, big, bigger and biggest = favour of the Lord type-thinking – something that seems more prevalent in the recounted history of Israel (pre-Christ/OT) than in the teachings of Christ (NT).

    But I am aware of the necessary tension of holding the two testaments together and finding God in both/and rather than either/or.

  6. Hamo said,“We finish up with temples, priests and lots and lots of laws!…if someone were to argue for the shape of church based on OT practice I think we would finish up in a very weird place.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head there mate. Whether a church conciously uses OT as their base or unconciously, that’s how I see larger churches, as temples with all the baggage of laws, professional ‘priests’ (with a professional/layman divide), etc.

    Like you I’m not against the larger organisations/gatherings, but I agree that the primary focus must be on small ecclesia. If there is a conflict between the existence of the small ecclesia and the larger organisation, the small’s interest must win out.

  7. Hi

    A very thought provoking post from a theological point of view. On the practical side there are a few other benefits from being big. However I think it is both big and small but perhaps not as we know it. We are a larger church in the Uk (St Andrews Chorleywood) but 75% of our members meet in smaller missional communities (MSCs)up to 3 Sundays each month. On the 4th Sunday we all meet together. This gives us the advantages of both big and small. There isn’t enough space to go into all the details but there is some more info on our website, Thomas Crookes in Sheffield also follows a similar model.

  8. Interestingly this was the sermon topic at Subi C of C last Sunday (I listen online.) Now of course, they tackle it differently and take the ‘small group and Sunday’ approach, but it was actually a very well put sermon IMO. Mike Bullard presented it and was pretty forthright in his speech.The key sentence roughly went ‘Meeting in small groups is not an optional extra, it is absolutely necessary. There are a lot of things in the Christian life that cannot be expressed in this larger gathering.’

    Very interesting the journey God is taking MANY churches on:)

  9. It seems to me from your whiteboard illustrations that you have started a theological discussion from a pre determined veiw that small is better and then used scripture to prove a point.

    There is precident in the NT for both large and small gatherings and meetings where Jesus and Paul preached to large masses and Paul spoke into church communities that were somewhat chaotic. as well as house churches meeting in homes. we need to also remember the book of acts was the church in its infancy and that we now have a whole range of modern conveniences that facilitate the gathering of greater numbers. pa systems buildings, chairs, motor vehicles.

    I think the truer perspective is that we need large and small. wheels within wheels. large gathering but house church groups under a common leadership. Jesus, who is our model for life and ministry met with the 12, 70, 120 and the multitudes. he even pulled off dinner for 5000 men and their families. The key point is are we effective? is our small gathering or large assembly really reaching the lost? And are we fulfilling the mandate in Matt 28:19 & 20. it’s an interesting discussion though.

  10. Perhaps we are simply exposed to the fact that different people will gravitate to either small or large, and find cultural & scriptural reasons to do so, thereby justifying their decision.

    I love to believe that a large group is an amazing resource that, properly harnessed, can quite literally save the world.

    In some cases, this happens!

    In other cases, large groups just stroke the ego of those involved.

    I think to be part of a legitimatly & and intentionally small group (ie, less than 20), a certain bravery & radical-ness is required, because there is nowhere to run & nowhere to hide.

    I think it also takes a certain boldness & bravery for a small-church leader (or leaders) to continue to keep it small, by branching, rather than getting excited about it getting bigger.

    I keep wanting to do something small, but it is fear (of failure, exposure, time deficits etc) rather than a lack of opportunity, that holds me, thus my observation…

  11. Richard – my point is that the ‘primary‘ expression of church needs to be smaller rather than larger. As yet I have had no one convince me away from this theologically. I think when you read the NT it is difficult to come at the question without that presupp!

    To clarify: I can see examples of different sized groups in the NT, but that does not make a case (theologically) for either large or small.

    What is most compelling is the argument of form following function. If our primary task is making disciples then we need to ask how we best do it.

    I don’t think anyone can argue en masse is the answer.

    I think we can argue for different sized groups pragmatically and sociologically – no problem there – but I think the biblical evidence grows pretty thin when we try to do this.

    Convince me?! 🙂

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