Associated Baptist Press reported a story done by The Church Report in which the magazine ranked the top 50 most influential churches in the United States (7/18/07). Not surprisingly, Saddleback Community Church received mention. Rick Warren’s congregation in California benefits from a prominent pastor, but it is worth remembering that Warren literally built that church from scratch. Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois also gained attention, and their pastor Bill Hybels has done pretty much the same kind of job building that church as Warren has on the West coast. The Potter’s House and Lakewood Church were recognized at the top of this list too. You can see T.J. Jakes and Joel Osteen on television just about anytime.
The primary criterion for the ranking related to the church’s “passion and sense of mission mandated in the New Testament.” The churches that made the list also tended to be younger churches by comparison to the older, established congregations that find it more difficult to adapt and learn new ways to reach their communities. The “emergent church” movement found expression in this poll as well, as I recall Mars Hill Church with its pastor Rob Bell. Even I found time to read his book Velvet Elvis, which provides a voice for a younger generation in the church.
One thing I found particularly interesting is that most (if not all) of these influential churches are of the mega-size variety, which means they run several thousand in worship each week. Now please understand, I appreciate greatly these large churches and admire the way the reach the masses. They are able to offer a wide variety of programs and opportunities to connect with people in creative and meaningful ways. Typically, churches of this category have pastors who offer seminars and write books on how to “get it done” like they have seen it happen in their own churches. So, there is merit to at least observing these congregations and their methods of outreach and new member assimilation.
Upon reading this article, I began to wonder whether there were any “influential” churches running under 500 in worship, or for those single staff church pastors out there, under 100 in Sunday School (been there, done that). Come to think of it, I don’t hear a whole lot of recognition being handed out to those congregations running 100 or less in Sunday School who exist in rural areas with little or no numerical growth. I haven’t seen any downtown churches who are struggling with changing neighborhoods on an honorable mention list anywhere either. My point is that there are pastors and leaders of churches in much smaller congregations who are just as passionate about reaching people for Christ and have that sense of mission as described in the New Testament. It concerns me that for the most part, churches of the smaller variety aren’t viewed as having the same importance as those with bigger buildings, budgets, and enrollment.
Several years ago I recall reading an article about “the search for the significant church” and it came out of the MS Baptist paper. I was serving as a pastor of a church in MS at the time and remember how much I appreciated that article. For the most part, MS is a state with many smaller churches that run under 100 in worship. The basic thrust of the article dealt with the fact that you can’t determine the importance of a church based solely on its size. Each church serves a unique community, with different needs, populations, and demographics. Churches that are preaching the gospel, loving their neighbor, and telling people about Jesus are significant churches. I’m amazed that I still recall that article, written almost 10 years ago.
I’ve spoken to a number of people who aren’t comfortable in a large church, while there are those who enjoy the crowds and being able to slip in and slip out of worship without being asked to do anything. Smaller churches allow its members to relate more frequently with each other and share life together in ways that these mega-churches can’t. These congregations, however you define them by size, have their own ministries and mission in expanding the Kingdom of God. Most of these will never find themselves on a list of the top 100 most influential churches in America. But, they will find themselves involved in a much more important function, and that is ministering to people in their community in ways that no other church could.
University Heights didn’t break into the top 100 on this latest poll, and that’s okay. I don’t really aspire to that kind of earthly recognition anyway. We don’t want to dismiss the important of church growth, but at the same don’t want to be consumed by it in such a way that we’ll do almost anything to get a crowd. I don’t plan on shaving my head to get 300 in Sunday School, which in my case wouldn’t be that big of a sacrifice anyway. I do hope that we are being effective in encouraging the spiritual formation of our people and welcoming new believers and other newcomers into the family of faith. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of reaching out or the excitement of welcoming new members into the church. This is significant. The critical point has to be ministering to our immediate community because this is where the Lord has planted us.
It’s so amazing to witness how a local congregation functions. Other times it can be difficult, but regardless of what happens the work of the church goes on. Children need to be taught the Bible and encouraged to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Prayers need to be offered for the sick and discouraged. There are songs still to be song and sermons yet to be preached. We worship, fellowship, evangelize, disciple others, and minister in the name of Jesus just like churches with enrollments ten times as big as ours.
This isn’t a jealousy thing or an excuse not to do our best to bring folks into church. One thing I constantly remind myself is that God provides the growth. Our task is to remove barriers to spiritual and numerical growth and bloom where we are planted. I aim to see our church family focused on our immediate community while serving as a home for free and faithful Baptists. It’s an exciting process, and I suspect there are a lot of other churches with similar situations out there with the same kind of spiritual DNA. May our tribe increase. I would like to think that our church is influential, not necessarily due to our numerical size, but because of members who are serious about letting others see Jesus in them. When this occurs, good things are bound to happen.