Jason Byassee: Loving the large church (and worrying about it)

Large churches don’t have to be anonymous and impersonal. They can be communities that are more hospitable than small ones.

“What book are you recommending now to the average workaday pastor?” asked my friend, who is hardly an average pastor. A church with a four-digit membership roll is enormous in an America where most congregations are still small.

My answer surprised me: Eugene Peterson’s new memoir, “The Pastor.” Not because it’s not great -- it is a powerful piece of theological storytelling about a life that has influenced all of North American Christianity (don’t believe me? Heard of “The Message”?). And my friend’s response surprised me more: “It sounds like Wendell Berry. I love Berry.”

Why should a pastor of a church of 1,500, and an employee at a leadership institute that invests in large congregations, both love Berry and Peterson? Both are theologians and poets who love the local, the regional, the particular, and loathe the large, the abstract, the anonymous. A theologian-pastor friend once opined to me that he couldn’t imagine a faithful church of more than 200 members. How can you really know more people than that? This Berryian, Petersonian claim is an odd one in an America in which professing to have 1,000 Facebook “friends” is nothing special.

But why should my friend and I both be committed to the importance of large congregations and love writers who loathe them?

“The Pastor” details Peterson’s love for a regular gathering of pastors when he served a small (what other kind?!) congregation in Maryland. “The Company” met while learning the basics of psychology together, and kept meeting when the CPE-style class ended. They wondered together how a pastor is different than any other caregiver, and how the rhythm of their worship leadership could ripple out into the rest of their lives. And this group of mostly Christian pastors, ranging from mainline liberal to unapologetically evangelical, listened attentively to their one rabbi member about how the Sabbath works its way out in Jewish life via the Torah.

At one point a member decides to leave The Company to take a much bigger church. He spoke of “multiplying his effectiveness.” Peterson is distressed. He writes the man a confrontational letter in which he runs over him with a train, backs up, and runs over him again: the man’s decision has to do not with Christ-like service, but with “American values,” like “adrenaline and ego and size.” Peterson quotes Kierkegaard’s adage, “The more people, the less truth.” He speaks of large churches as offering a “false transcendence” contrary to a Christian maturity marked by “intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening.” In effect, he excommunicates large church pastors from The Company (though he doesn’t stop to kick the Catholic priest out, despite the man’s 1,000-family parish!).

So why should I and my friend love such a voice as it accuses us who love large churches of blasphemy?

Because Peterson is largely right. Large churches can offer a flight from God and the neighbor who meet us face-to-face, and toward mere entertainment. Small churches can remind the large that salvation is always personal, and often difficult. I’ve made such arguments in my own book on the grandeur of small churches.

But here’s the thing: large churches don’t have to go that way. They can be communities that are more hospitable than small ones. If they divide up into small groups for prayer and worship and study and service, as the early Methodists did and faithful megachurches do today, they can offer first-name discipleship themselves. And large churches offer that, obviously enough, to more people than small churches can. And those “more people” aren’t a faceless mass. They are souls for whom Jesus died and rose, whom he longs to gather under his wings like a mother hen her chicks. Large churches remind the small that there are lots of people out there with no church -- being satisfied with the small can mean keeping Jesus to ourselves.

We need to hear critics like Peterson carping in our ears as we love the large. They can be right. And we’ll hold that word opposably with a word that sees God’s saving goodness even in large congregations.