To begin, I need to offer three confessions. First, none of this article is based on hard data, but rather, on speculation. As I’ve lived and pastored through this pandemic, I’ve found myself curious about how churches are operating now and how they might function moving forward. Then secondly, I must own up to my personal preference for small churches over large. Of course, I’m biased as the pastor of a small church. But I also fundamentally believe that small church is a better way to function as the body of Christ than large. And thirdly, I’ll be painting with very broad brush strokes here, as not all “large” churches are created equally and have the same priorities.
That said, here’s what I've been intrigued with lately. I wonder if larger churches will start to reshape their ecclesiology (their way of doing church or their thoughts on how church should be done) as a result of this viral pandemic. I mean, they have to, right?! In a globally connected world where goods, services, and ideas, including a virus, can be spread throughout the world in a heartbeat, I would think large churches would need to rethink their methods of cramming as many people as possible into as large a room as possible to have as great an impact as possible. It’s a noble ambition—the attempt to reach as many people for Christ as possible—but it just doesn’t seem like a feasible or wise model for ministry in both the short- and long-term.
I would think these large churches would need to re-strategize for how they might reach people and do ministry differently in a world that can be so quickly infected and affected.
But then that thought led me down the rabbit hole to the next one—this time a critique of the large church model. I began wondering about the idea of a “virus” or things going “viral” as a metaphor for the way the church-growth and megachurch movements think about the gospel and church. I think you could accurately say that megachurches (and the churches that aspire to be them) want the gospel and their churches to go “viral.” They want their ministry and influence to blow up quickly, to take off like a flash. They want it to spread like wildfire, reaching as many people as humanly possible—multiple services, large sanctuaries, and a massive online presence.
And again, I don’t think this impulse begins from a bad place, but this desire can become sickening really easily and quickly. Reaching the world for Christ is certainly a noble pursuit, but the aspiration for ministry to go “viral” can easily become self-gratifying, shallow, and sometimes even toxic. The goal can easily become growth for the sake of growth, rather than the fulfilling and expanding of God’s Kingdom. People tune in from the fringes, but often fail to plug in deeply to the way of Jesus and the life of the church.
Not to mention the fact that this “viral” ministry model seems contrary to the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus, the metaphors he uses to speak of the gospel and the kingdom are mostly agricultural. You till the soil and plant the seeds. You water and pray for sunshine. It takes a while and requires much patience. You don’t see instant success—or sometimes any success at all. But that’s the way the gospel grows: slowly and steadily.
That’s the way Jesus went about his ministry, patiently and persistently. A few followers here, a few miracles there, a sermon or two sprinkled in on occasion. He wasn’t in a rush. His ministry was far deeper than it was wide, with Jesus even encouraging people to keep quiet about his work for fear it would spread too quickly. When crowds would clamor to him, it only took a quick reminder of the difficulty and demand of the gospel for the multitude to rapidly reduce. There was nothing “viral” about Jesus’ ministry.
And that’s the way the early church grew as well. Sure, there were times where 3,000 or 5,000 were added to their number in a day, but the church still spread through small, local, hidden house churches. They organized themselves to be able to care for real needs, sharing all things in common and joining together daily for worship and the breaking of bread. That sure doesn’t sound like a ‘viral,’ megachurch mentality to me.
The gospel or the church going “viral” most likely means it’s not taking root deeply, here today and possibly gone tomorrow. And churches going “viral” probably means that those people will catch the next viral bug that comes along—the next big, trendy church—and off they’ll go, infected by the next strain of ‘viral’ church.
But the beautiful irony is that a virus could be the very thing to help churches see the problem with their viral ecclesiology. We are being forced to slow things down, spread people out, and not continue the incessant sprint of ‘viral’ ministry toward church growth. And I intentionally used the word we, there, because even small churches aren’t immune from the lure of viral ministry. But my sincere prayer for all churches during this time, and especially large ones, is that we would recommit to the ministry of Jesus—a slow, intentional, deeply-relational way of being with people that grows incrementally by emphasizing the depth of the few instead of the breadth of the many. Let’s stop worrying about going ‘viral’—the rapid growth of butts, bucks, and buildings—and be more invested in the slow, steady, often unnoticed and unheralded work of loving our church, our neighbors, and our community—the flourishing of our world.