Like so many, I’ve been drawn into listening to Christianity Today’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. Clearly there were many factors at play in the downfall of what was an extraordinarily gifted ministry. But for me, the episode “Red Sky at Morning” is particularly diagnostic of what went wrong. It highlights a watershed for the ministry where the pursuit of size—church size and influence size—became dominant for pastor Mark Driscoll.
In the Bible, size is both everything and nothing, but the love of size leads to many evils.
The obsession with size is clearly a thing—especially, I suspect, for boys. One of my sons is an elite footballer and heavily muscled. As a teenager, he visited a church where none of the other boys wanted to speak to him because they thought he was above them simply because he was big. I’ve seen virtually the identical thing happening in ministry conferences for years. Again and again, I’ve experienced meet and greets where the first question from a male minister is “What church do you minister at?”, and the inevitable second is “How big is it?” Don’t tell me the answer doesn’t lead to a ministry pecking order.
All this suggests to me that it’s critical we get our theology of size right. I want to argue that, in the Bible, size is both everything and nothing, but that the love of size leads to many evils.
Size is Everything …
It is theologically obvious that God cares about numbers. He desires as many people to be saved as possible (1 Tim 2:4) and paints a glorious future of redeemed multitudes from all nations living in glory (Rev 7). This is the ultimate end of everything we do in ministry. It is also logically obvious that this kingdom growth will lead to church growth. More saved people leads to more of the redeemed gathering locally. This will require either more churches or bigger churches (or both). My hunch is that which of these you prefer has more to do with your personality than your theology but, regardless, it seems to me the Bible offers us complete freedom to decide which best fits our situation. What we mustn’t do is lazily assume that the Bible suggests that growing bigger and bigger churches is the clear aim. If anything, the Bible hints that size per se is a poor metric of kingdom growth.
Size is Nothing …
There is no clear or necessary correlation between individual church size and kingdom growth. In Jesus’ words to the churches in Revelation, size and reputation counted for little and if anything were inversely correlated to the health of the various churches. Tellingly, these letters give us no numbers and little sense of size other than the weak churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia receiving the greatest praise (Rev 2:9, 3:8) and the renowned church in Sardis being spiritually dead (Rev 3:1). Indeed, apart from Acts 3:41 (which essentially numbered the entire global church!), the Bible seems entirely disinterested in the meeting sizes of the local gatherings.
Now this is not to say there is no practical or missional differences between different size churches. Big churches can have the resources to create and share brilliant ministry gifts (think CityAlight music); small churches can have the agility to change and respond quickly to their missional settings. Big gatherings enable the exercise of extraordinary preaching gifts (think conferences); small gatherings enable the rich use of the “greater” gifts by many more members. There may be excellent contextual reasons for choosing what size gathering to aim for. Nevertheless, size per se is neither here nor there in Kingdom terms and problems arise when we do invest church size with inherent value.
The Real Problem …
Returning to my main point, the lesson of the Mars Hill meltdown (and my experience in thirty years of ministry) is that we male ministers are profoundly tempted to value the size of our ministry as a measure of our worth as ministers or as an instrument for the exercise of our influence. Put differently, trouble comes when we love size for us, not the Kingdom.
Like size, money is neither here nor there morally.
Now, of course it is possible to inappropriately measure ourselves by other metrics (like popularity) and inappropriately seek influence or power in other media (like podcasts or Gospel Coalition articles). However, I suspect there is something distinctly and dangerously tempting about ministry size that plays with our hearts in a similar way to that more obvious ministry saboteur: money.
Like size, money is neither here nor there morally. Like size, money is necessarily and instrumentally useful for the kingdom building ministry. And, like size, loving money as a measure of your worth, or as a means of control, is idolatrous. So, Paul famously writes to Timothy that
… the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim 6:10)
I suggest that the love of size, too, is a root of all kinds of ministry evils like pride, self-importance, distanciation, inflated ego, celebrity culture, entitlement, corporate pay structuring, reputation grooming and greed for power, to name just a few. And, as we have seen too often in the news lately, love of size and influence has led to the shipwrecking of many celebrity pastors who have walked away from the faith (or at least faithful living) and pierced themselves with many griefs. Tragically too, the idolising of size results in the piercing of very many others with grief also.
Love of size is like love of money in another respect too. Just like we need money to live, we can’t avoid ministering in churches that will have a size, and so the temptation to long for bigger, will never be absent. This means we ministers must always be examining our hearts. Here, I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s claim that:
Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.
It is right to want more people to have saving encounters with Jesus for his glory and their sake. But for me the lesson of “Red Sky at Morning” is to be constantly asking myself: what am I wanting for me, in wanting more people in my church?