I think there has been an unhealthy influx of competitiveness into church life today. It seems that many Christians (and many pastors and priests) are obsessed with better statistics and better performance.
One area in which it appears is church size. There’s an assumption that a bigger church is a better church – whether the big church is an evangelical megachurch with a ‘campus’, multiple worship bands, big screens and a Starbucks in the foyer, or a gothic cathedral with glorious stained glass, a full-time choir producing world class cathedral music, and multitudes of visitors coming in during the week.
These organizations have their strengths, of course, but one weakness they have in common is that it’s easier for people to slip in and out anonymously. And of course, some people like to do that. The problem is, that’s not New Testament Christianity, and people whose entry point takes the form of anonymity will tend to assume something about Christianity that is not, in fact, true to the vision of Jesus and his apostles.
Read the things that Jesus and Paul say about relationships within the Body of Christ – especially Paul’s many ‘one another’ sayings (‘bear with one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘admonish one another’ etc.). They all assume that the members of a Christian church will know each other well, and in order for that to happen, a local church can’t be big. The early Christians never thought they needed to grow huge churches to be successful (although they were glad when lots of people came to faith in Christ). Rather, they assumed that the fundamental unit of church life would be a small group (useful when you don’t have any buildings!).
The other thing we see is a desire to have a crowded calendar and lots of programs, especially programs that are helpful and useful to the world around. ‘Being missional’ is what it’s called, and so churches get busy serving the poor and needy, advocating for justice, working to save the environment, and a host of other worthy activities. I mean that in all sincerity; I believe in most of those causes, and our church is involved in them.
It’s a little disconcerting, though, that the New Testament makes it clear that the central activity of Christian mission is evangelism and disciple-making. The world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah; it’s important that people know about it, and that they hear his summons to faith and discipleship. The church is commissioned (note the word ‘mission’ there) to carry out this task. Our central calling is to share the gospel, make new disciples for Jesus, and help form them into the likeness of Christ. Everything else is meant to be built around this.
These days it’s assumed that Sunday worship is the main business of the Church. We spend millions of dollars on facilities for it, on equipment for it, on liturgical texts and robes and the various accoutrements of a worship gathering. It’s interesting, then, that the Book of Acts rarely gives any attention to worship at all (although it assumes that Christians will do it). The preoccupation of the author of Acts is entirely with the spread of the Gospel and the making of new disciples – in other words, with evangelism. To him, this is the central task of the Church.
Small and flexible, outward looking and evangelistic – that’s the New Testament vision of a local Christian community. Every week, every day, of the many possible goals we can focus on, we get to choose the ones we think are most important. It’s probably wise to make sure we choose the right ones, and to make sure those choices are rooted in the New Testament vision of what a local church is all about.