Big Church, Little Church

For work, Carl and his team often shoot footage at various locations—downtown Detroit, an ornate library, an old-fashioned movie theater. They scout out the place, meet the owners, get permission, and occasionally pay a fee.

Most of the time, who they work for isn’t that big of a deal.

Except when it comes to churches.

Carl’s coworker got refused by a church in Plymouth recently, a church with a classic steeple that they wanted for backdrop for a brief clip. A church that had been very friendly… until they found out where he was from. Then it got weirdly ugly. His contact went back into the church and returned with the pastor, now flanked by two backup men.

Why don’t YOU have a steeple? The pastor asked in what I guess you would describe as a taunt? Not sure. He chewed him out a bit, and then said something to the effect of, I won’t give you the PRIVILEGE of shooting our steeple.

Carl told me this story over dinner that night, and because I am that kind of person I said, “I wonder what we DID to them? It must have been something awful. People aren’t that mean for no reason.”

Or are they? Carl shrugged. You’d be surprised.

No reason, yet lots of reasons.

Big churches and little churches.

To be honest, I don’t know much about church politics. When I was little, my family went to a church of 30. Now I go to a church of more than 10,000 members and who knows how many attenders. It’s different, but it’s the same. There are things I like and things I don’t like. There are people I like and people who just aren’t my style. There are sermons that cut right to the heart of the issue for me, and sermons that annoy me. Some programs are fantastic, and some are there just because people seem to like programs. There are problems. People come to Christ. Somebody’s always unhappy about the music. It’s life.

And it shouldn’t be this hard to remember we’re on the same side.

But it is.

People get defensive, and defensive people generally do stupid things. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. Big churches get defensive and talk about how God has blessed them with growth and influence in the community. Little churches get defensive and talk about how they haven’t compromised the truth for the sake of popularity. And pretty soon it gets to the point where an adult, a pastor of all people, feels a smug sort of pleasure in refusing to work with somebody from one of THOSE churches.

Now, I may be totally off in my theory, but if Miss Marple’s system of thought is correct than the small social system is generally a fair way of shedding light on the big social system, and THIS social system reminds me for all the world of what went down in the drama department when I was in college.

I went to a Christian college that was somewhere in the muddy transition between straight-up Bible college and liberal arts college. When I stared going to school there, you could major in missionary aviation and just scrape out a minor in theater. When I graduated, you could major in theater and the aviation program was kaput.

Now I was young and shy and spent most of my free time skulking around the library… where the drama department’s costume designer noticed me dodging behind bookshelves one day and told me I should try out for the spring musical. So I did. And I loved it.

I made friends, and I loved acting, and I ADORED my drama teacher. I was having a great time.

Then in my senior year, the department hired in a new teacher, a young prof straight from graduate school with lots of ambition. And I liked her. She was different, but I liked her.

Yeah, that changed.

People who didn’t like me always said it was because she didn’t give me the lead in the next play. Well, of course I was disappointed not to be cast, but there were lots of parts I wanted and didn’t get in college, and I’m prepared to swear that while it didn’t make me feel especially adoring toward her, it really wasn’t the reason I came to loathe her.

I started officially loathing her the day she took credit for making the theater program something of value. And by the end of the year all of the young freshmen who came in with her loved her and started talking the same way: how backward the school’s drama program was before, how we didn’t even have a theater MAJOR until she showed up, how everything had been so sloppy and unprofessional.

And now, suddenly, it was awesome.

Were the plays better? Well, sure. The department was getting larger, so it was attracting more students. And she started casting graduates, so she was able to get more experienced actors for the lead roles. And since there were more students and more teachers, she could schedule more plays into the “season” and build up a bigger audience. So yes, it was a great thing for the department and the school in the long run.

But the thing she forgot is that you don’t have to disparage one model just because you decide to pursue a different one. Nobody I acted with had any plans to move to Hollywood and try to make it big. The new regime all seemed a bit pretentious to me. I couldn’t help wondering why, if you wanted to make it in Hollywood, you would go to a small Christian college in the first place. (Ok, that is my snarkiness coming through, but you know what I mean). Well, and also it all seemed a bit rude to talk about the “unprofessionalism” of the former director… when her office was right next door.

Surely it’s possible to be excited about growth and positive change without saying disparaging things about the people who came before you.

The motherly drama teacher who cared as much about your acting as your emotional development. The little churches who’ve been taking care of their people for a hundred years before your church turned mega.

I’ve been sitting her for ten minutes, eating my macaroni and cheese and trying to figure out what it takes for the small churches. It takes humility for the big ones—that’s easy enough to grasp—humility to realize that small things have just as much value as large ones. That just because God blesses you with growth and money and lots of spiritual “decisions” doesn’t make you a better church. It takes humility to remember that whatever awesomeness factor your church might have it’s all supposed to go to God anyway, the same God who cares just as much about the church of 20 as he does the church of 20,000. It’s not your awesomeness factor, so hands off.

But you know, the more I think about it, the more I think it takes humility for the small churches too. Humility to realize it’s not about defending your size or worship styles or dress codes. It’s not about being awesome.

It’s about caring for the things that have been entrusted to you, no matter how many or how few.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say success is about having a world of mega churches. It seems to me, success should be about having a Christian community that loves each other and works together for the good of others.

You know, the kind of crazy, idealistic world where videographers are allowed to film church steeples without being snarked at.

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2 thoughts on “Big Church, Little Church

  1. Awesome post. Totally right on. Like 1 Corinthians 12:21 says about people, but I think we can extend it to the groups of people who make up churches, “And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”

  2. Great post. It truly breaks my heart to think that a pastor of any church would refuse to let a group from another church make a little video with their classic steeple (or anything else) in the background. Jesus calls us to peace and unity in the Spirit…not envy and bad will. The only thing that comes to mind is that there are plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing out there…even in churches. When you see someone who doesn’t act like a Christian…perhaps he’s not. On the other hand, we all fail sometimes and make bad choices…so I guess we can just be inspired to pray for one another. I think you’re right that humility is key, no matter what part of the “body” we are!

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