There’s been plenty of ink spilled writing about mega-churches and whether their massive memberships benefit or harm the preaching of the gospel.
Jessica Martinez writes about the almost-forty-thousand-member strong NewSpring Church, and how its senior pastor, Perry Noble, justifies his ‘caring about numbers too much’.
But the fact is, NewSpring Church doesn’t have forty thousand members – it has ten ‘branch offices’ with a combined membership of forty-thousand, which makes it sound more like a multi-site church’.
Now, what were the apostles doing in the first century AD? They would go to a town or city, preach, plant a church – which usually met at someone’s home – and, when that group reached a certain size, it branched off and planted new, smaller churches. All of these, though, were under the purview of elders and, likely, an ‘elder council’ in the home city or town.
The problem I (and others) have with mega-church pastors who seem obsessed with membership numbers is that numbers don’t mean a whole lot. Remember Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares? The larger your membership, the likelier you’re going to have tares within your wheat.
Remember the problem the early church had with the vast number of members they had in Jerusalem? They ended up having to assign seven men to ‘wait table’ and deal with the day-to-day workings of the church in order to free up the apostles to preach, teach, and pray. This tells us that mega-church pastors who aren’t focusing on preaching, teaching, and prayer, and who are, instead, focusing on increasing the membership rolls, aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Finally, these membership-focused pastors are forgetting something: God gives your church growth, not you. Remember Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: he reminds them that, ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
And here’s something else to remember: if you have high membership numbers, and are adding people like crazy, you may not be teaching the whole, unvarnished truth of the Bible, especially in our current society. You see, folks today don’t want to hear about God as Judge, God’s justice, God’s righteousness, and His righteous anger at we sinners. They don’t want to hear that we’re sinful men and women who need forgiveness. They don’t want to hear the ‘hard words’, the likes of which drove the majority of Jesus’ disciples away (John 6:60-66, ESV). Back in the ‘day’, Jesus died because His preaching pissed people off; all the apostles died for the same reason (save for John, and he ended up exiled to Patmos); Paul was routinely kicked out of most of the big cities of the eastern Roman empire, was routinely beaten to a pulp, was stoned until they thought he was dead, was jailed … all for preaching the word.
Church is not a game of numbers – it never has been, and it ought never to be.