Monday, October 27, 2008

Phillips' Theory of Ecclesiastical Gravity{tm}

A beloved friend was telling me about his town. He registered bemusement at the phenomenon of a passel of megachurches, interspersed among smatterings of little tiny churches. Why were the big churches so big? Why were the little churches so little? Why would people drive an hour and a half to get to one of the big churches, instead of just going to a closer, smaller one?

So I shared the eponymous answer: Phillips' Theory of Ecclesiastical Gravity{tm}

That theory states that Large church bodies attract smaller bodies.

You can see it everywhere. I saw it when I lived on Biola campus, when I attended Talbot Theological Seminary. There were little churches around; but basically everyone either bused off to the nearby Evangelical Free church pastored by Chuck Swindoll, or far off to John MacArthur's Grace Community Church. There were a couple of other larger churches, then many small ones.

Why? Oh, lots of reasons. People like to be part of something that seems to be alive, succeeding, happily "going somewhere" — not something that seems to be stagnant, ingrown, stale, defending a small patch of ground to the (imminent) death. They like churches to be spiritual supermarkets, with everything already stacked neatly on the shelves and available at bargain prices. They don't like to have to request things, then wait (sometimes years) for them.

And they sure don't like to have to work for them, themselves.

I generalize, of course. But this is the consumer mentality that David Wells has discussed and Fisked so well and thoroughly.

Good thing, or bad? Bad, mostly, I'd say. We should go to church for Jesus. Go because He orders us to do so (so it's rebellion to refuse), go to learn of Him (cf. Colossians 3:16), and go to use the gifts He gives, in His service (1 Corinthians 12:7, etc.).

So... go hear a Big Name — where I'm redundant to a factor of 500, or 5000? Or go hear a little name with a big God and a live Bible, where there's some actual need for my gift?

You can say this is gross oversimplification, and I won't entirely disagree. Church selection is, these days, a complex decision. Especially if you're part of a family. Not like in the apostles' day, where your choice would be to go to First Baptist of Colosse, or... not to go at all.

But I will say this categorically: I think many people at enormous churches shouldn't be. I think many who pastor enormous churches shouldn't. I think many enormous churches shouldn't be.

One Dan's opinion. Your milage may vary.


Robert said...

That choice gets really hard when you're the parent of teenagers. I understand both sides of the argument, but it's really hard to ask your kids to go to a church where they only minister and have no real opportunity for fellowship and being ministered directly too on their age level (and saying that as a parent who never sent them to children's church). I'm not sure we made the right choice, but we went with the big church...may change once they're gone, but for now...

NothingNew said...

Great post Dan, I couldn't agree with you more.

This quote from Spurgeon also supports your point.

"Are we not all in danger of trusting
to religious machinery, and leaving the
work of the Lord to be done by secretaries,
committees, missionaries, and so
forth, whom we half regard as substitutes
for ourselves?" - Charles Spurgeon

Lieutenant Pratt said...

Excellent post, sir. I want to bring to your attention one small detail. I think the choice in the 1st century was actually First Presbyterian (wink, wink).

Rachael Starke said...

Having now spent almost equal parts of my Christian life at one of the aforementioned megachurches, and at a church one tenth its size, I'd have to agree. I became a Christian at the Superchurch (while attending the affiliated Supercollege), and immediately fell prey to what I can only look back on now as spiritual bigotry - the attitude that no one who chose to go to a smaller local church could possibly be as godly or committed. Compare that to the little church I joined when I was first married - we had everyone from RefBaps to Evangellybeans to WilsonWannabes.. you name it. We had about twelve single people, the same number of widows/single parent, and the rest inbetween. We happily called ourselves The Island of Spiritual Misfit Toys. You couldn't be all fleshy and ignore the "quirky" ones or the ones you didn't think you related to. And the more I grew in my understanding of what it means to be a body, with funny shaped toes, blemishes and bruises, the more I loved it. And, I discovered that the ones I first sinfully judged to be beneath me, became my dearest sisters and brothers in Christ.

We're now at a church that is exploding - went from ~200 to 600 in a little over 3 years - and we're thinking carefully about how NOT to become a SuperChurch.

DJP said...

Lt Pratt — LOL; thanks, that case could be made.

But not by me!


DJP said...

Rachael — so well-said. Thank you.

Kate said...

One of my personal, big, push-button issues with the Church today is unity, or the lack thereof. Since moving to the Bible belt, we have noticed on numerous occasions that there are numerous small churches within blocks of each other. Just the other day, we saw 2 different Baptist churches RIGHT NEXT to each other!!! While I see valid arguments against "mega-churches," part of me rejoices to see so many believers living in unity.

We don't attend a mega-church; there aren't any in our small Mississippi town. Even if there were, we would only attend if the preaching were Biblical. We attend the local PCA, and we LOVE the strong Biblical teaching we receive there. But still, I wonder... why are there SO MANY churches? Can't we agree on the essential, salvific issues (The Apostle's Creed, Calvin's 5 points) and agree to disagree on the nonessentials?

Jay said...

There's one mega-church in my college's town, and pretty much every college kid goes to it. It's not a bad church, by any means, and they do a good job of ministering to college kids in particular.

However, I'm glad I was invited to go to a small Baptist church with a group of four friends of mine. No, their college ministry isn't as flashy (though they do have one), they don't have as cool of music and the minister is an old man who actually wears a suit instead of a t-shirt and jeans (gasp!). However, I actually get to know people there. I get to fellowship with people who are at various stages of life (instead of being sequestered into my own age group), and I also get the accountability and the challenge to grow spiritually that only comes with a small group.

Matt said...

Excellent post, Dan. This is so relevant. We attend a small(ish) church of about 300 that offers gospel and sound biblical doctrine. In fact, making some biblical decisions has recently caused our church to shrink somewhat. While I don't think keeping numbers up at the cost of sound doctrine is wise, I have been saddened to see good people peel off to megachurches. Some of course left because sound doctrine "hurt their feelings", but some have left because they seemingly don't want to get their hands dirty by doing the extra work that a smaller church requires.

The megachurches you cite are at least pastored by men (Swindoll & MacArthur) who don't hide behind the veneer of being popular. The megachurches that do well around here either preach health-and-wealth, or they stay up with all the latest trends like listening prayer, or The Shack. It's sad what sells these days.

Can't we agree on the essential, salvific issues (The Apostle's Creed, Calvin's 5 points) and agree to disagree on the nonessentials?

You forgot one essential - pressuppositional apologetics :-)

Seemingly, there's two ways to achieve unity. One is to insist on a core set of doctrines, the other is to not insist on anything that could be potentially controversial. The "unity" on display in so many megachurches isn't necessarily a sign of health. Sometimes it's a sign that the church has merely stolen sheep from churches that aren't selling out Christ.

Kim K. said...

This reminds me of when my husband was a university student. We attended a large popular church - good theologically - but wanted to try something different. One Sunday we attended a really small Baptist church. About a week and a half later we got the obligatory home visit from the pastor and one of the deacons. They told us that they really hoped we would come back, in fact, the ENTIRE Sunday School was praying for us to come back. I guess our idea of blending in didn't work out too well!

Carol Jean said...

We recently left a mega-Saddle-Creek-y style church where the youth department was leaning emergent. We made the change with 14- and 17-year-olds in tow - I'm sure violating every rule of every good Christian pop-psychology book! Truly, our kids are being traumatized by having to sing hymns week after week and being deprived of a rockin' worship team, deprived of their friends and their social lives (said with a mix of sarcasm and sad seriousness).

We didn't realize, until we were out of the mega-church fog and into a smaller church, how upside-down and off kilter things get in a mega-church. What we found in a church of 400 is an integrated church! Young and old worshiping and studying the scriptures together - something we had not experienced in 20-years at the mega-church. We had come to view the extreme age-segregation as normal and desirable. Our previous church had gotten to the point where there were even segregated worship services (traditional service with hymns, plus two other services in different genre that appeal to other demographics).

I have been shocked, SHOCKED by the level of biblical literacy of the people in this congregation. There's something to be said for people who have spent 60+ years in a solid, Bible-teaching church! The wisdom I've been missing hanging out with people my own age all these years!

We have also been shocked, SHOCKED by the number of older people at this church who have recently left various mega-churches because they felt pushed out, unwanted, or completely bewildered by the drastic changes in their churches.

We also experienced our first church business meeting, which was a real treat. In addition to giving advice to recent newlyweds, the congregation actually discussed issues and really voted on them. This is very unlike what we were used to in the mega-church, where everything was pre-decided before the meetings and the votes were mostly formalities. Somehow, this seems to be more of a functioning body than the mega-church machine we recently left.

Regarding the teenagers: It ain't been easy! While they DO understand the reasons we had to leave and even agree with the reasons, change is hard. I wish we had changed when they were much younger. We have inadvertently conditioned them that "bigger is better" when it comes to church and to expect everything to be over-the-top: ipod give-aways, lock-ins with 200 kids, mega-retreats where they're supplied with Red Bull.....So now they're in a youth group with 15 kids and going to a corn maze and someone's house for a wiener roast. There are actual COWS grazing behind our church (we actually like that part!) And the weekly soprano with taped accompaniment music. It's been two months and they haven't made any friends.

But, they're hearing God's word preached faithfully (and VERY thoroughly)from the pulpit and have a youth pastor who is an actual grown up and doesn't dumb down the lessons (current series: church doctrine) Previous church:'s a gray area. I have to trust that God will be faithful and will provide for our family. His word will not return void. But steps of faith are never easy.

JackW said...

Well, I find this quite interesting because my limited experience has leaned in the opposite direction. There are no mega-churches in my area, mostly smaller churches that are single elder led, lack of real expository preaching, no perceptible spiritual growth, but otherwise ok. I visit Parkside Church in Cleveland which is a plurality of elder’s rule, expository preaching, lots of growth going on and I find myself wishing there was a mega-church like that in my area. Admittedly my visits to Parkside have been too brief to have a comprehensive view of it. My thinking is that expository preaching, plurality of elder’s rule, and the fruit of spiritual growth are keys no matter what the size. But it’s still just a theory and I’ll let you know if and when I find that.

DJP said...

Of course you're right: in itself, there's no magic number that creates instant spiritual wonderfulness. Christ-centered, living expository preaching and godly leadership (there is no verse requiring that it be plural, though that's generally the case) are critical. So is godly followership.

But Rachael, Jay, Carol Jean, and Matt make critical points. One appeal of a mega-church is that you don't HAVE TO do all those nassty one-anothers! You don't have to keep a close watch on and provoke one another (Hebrews 10), you don't have to bear with and be patient with one another (Ephesians 4). Heck, for the most part, you don't even know one another.

Sitting next to someone dressed as you don't like? No problem. Next week, just choose another acre of the church.

Someone in your class a little slower on the uptake because he's in his seventies, and not the best of health? Or because he's not college-educated, like you? Or because he's just been saved two months? Or because he's just come out of a Charismatic church? No problem. You can go to the 23-year-old-white-college-educated-middle-class-been-a-Christian-over-ten-years class meeting in room 279A.

Not exactly the ideal we read of in Acts 2 or 4, or Revelation 5, 7, 14.

JackW said...

I can see that, but the problem is, I don't see any of that 'one another thing' happening in the small churches either. Instead of moving to a different "acre of the church," (Nice line BTW) they go to the next church.

Pastor Michael said...


Zach Nielsen over at Take Your Vitamin Z has been posting excerpts from Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. Here’s a gem from Chapter 6 that well supports your thesis:

Experience teaches that there is also an inverse ratio at work: the larger the group, the more inevitable is the superficiality of our relationships. Instead of churches growing beyond the point of being able to sustain meaningful life-on-life family relationships, an alternative (and maybe essential) strategy would be to begin new congregations through church planting. G. K. Chesterton said, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. . . . The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.” Community has been insightfully defined as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives! Responding to this, Philip Yancey says, “We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.” We might also add that it takes a miracle that only God himself can perform. But it is in such a community that disciples are made. To be a community of light from which the light of Christ will emanate we need to be intentional in our relationships—to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgivable, embrace the repulsive, include the awkward, accept the weird. It is in contexts such as these that sinners are transformed into disciples who obey everything King Jesus has commanded."

Sorry for the length, but I thought it was well said. Oh, and full disclosure: I pastor a very small flock of less than 100, so I’m certainly biased.


DJP said...

So you, like me, grimace when people say they have "a small church, about 300."

The ideal size is 217.

Matt said...

Of course you're right: in itself, there's no magic number that creates instant spiritual wonderfulness.

The ideal size is 217

Glad you finally spoke the truth, DJP. Your first comment had me concerned.

How did you come up with 217? You and Jack van Impe find some math formula in the book of Daniel and connect it to something really current in Israel?

threegirldad said...

"So you, like me, grimace when people say they have 'a small church, about 300.'"

Well, after several years of ~10,000, 300 did seem small -- minuscule, even. Now it seems perfectly normal. :-)

Pastor Michael said...


Well, Matt did say small(ish), but I know what you mean.

But I don't grimace out of envy. There is blessing in being able to know everyone, and the possibility everyone actually knowing you.

Frankly, I don't know how my brothers with responsibility for watching over the souls of 100's or 1,000's do it.

Thanks for encouraging those of us who can't handle but so much.