Big Church Envy
Sometimes church size does matter.
By William Whitehead
My mom brought me another bulletin from a church she just visited. I wish she wouldn’t do this. “You should see this church!” she glows. “They have everything! They have a great music program with a choir and an orchestra. There were hundreds of people in the pews. The sanctuary was beautiful.”
“Isn’t that nice,” I reply politely, when what I really want to do is slink away and hide in the chimney until she’s gone.
I am the pastor of a small church in New Jersey and when it comes to those big wonderful churches, I have an inferiority complex. In the tough seller’s market of preaching and teaching Jesus, I feel like we just can’t compete. It’s like how a local hardware store owner must feel when a brand new Home Depot moves in across the street. We’re going to get crushed, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Yes, I’m jealous. I admit it. I want to be the pastor of the big church with the big building and the big programs. The megachurch up the street has a band, two keyboard players, soloists, and a huge choir. They have a professional sound system with studio engineers. They record everything and pump out CD’s, not to mention their cable television show. We, on the other hand, are lucky to have a couple of microphones and a tape deck. We have an organ with ivory keys that fly apart. We have a piano that sounds like it’s underwater. OK, so Jesus doesn’t care. But I do!
Big churches have programs for every group. They have the financial and the people resources to identify and minister to even the smallest market niche. Small churches don’t have a really good answer for complaints like “Pastor, I don’t come to church because you have nothing for my hypochondriac, nearsighted, teenaged Cocker Spaniel,” except “Yes, I understand what your special needs are. We’re working on it.” Maybe we could build a dog walk in the back. Think the trustees would go for that?
Big churches have new stuff. Small churches, well…new is not a word I am familiar with. What I wouldn’t give for a furnace that doesn’t send SOS messages by smoke signal. Our sanctuary boiler was dredged up from the Titanic and donated to the church as “slightly used.” Furniture is generally acquired the same way. People think to themselves, “I have this 30-year-old couch with broken springs and no more stuffing. Now what can I do with it? I know, I’ll give it to the church!”
Megachurches always have brand spanking new buildings. It must be wonderful to have hallways with no smudge marks on the walls, gleaming doorknobs and comfortable stadium seating. When I try to upgrade my church, however, I run into problems. I once tried to get a church to buy pew cushions. I was told, “I don’t go to church to sit in comfortable seats.” Maybe if I’d suggested installing 2 X 2 pieces of plywood instead, they would have grabbed for their wallets.
Oh, I know. I could always leave my little church family and seek out a position at a big church. But I’m not going to do that. God wants me to stay right here. So I need to figure out a way to conquer my envy and concentrate on the important things, like love and compassion and spiritual upliftment, even though they’re not nearly as exciting as recording studios and 60-inch plasma screens and Billy Graham giving visiting talks in auditoriums the size of Rhode Island.
Peace—that is what I am really looking for. Peace of mind, peace in my heart, peace in my soul. When you get right down to it, I really don’t care so much about the size of my church. I really don’t care about the lack of programs, or the physical condition of the building, or the small number of people that come to praise God on Sunday. My small church is a wonderful place and I am blessed to be there. I just want to escape from the nagging thought that something is wrong, that we are not good enough, and that somehow we have failed to do something, anything, that would make us “successful,” in the true consumer materialist sense of the term.
Fortunately, I do know that inner peace comes from the unshakable faith that God knows what is best for me, and that I’m doing my best for all of the things that He has placed into my care. If God wants me to be in a small church, that must be for the best. And if God wants my church to grow into a big one, that would be for the best too.
Unfortunately, it just isn’t as easy as it sounds. I may be a pastor, but I’m also a human being, prone to all those human woes of worry, envy, and frustration. Yet I know that if I don’t continue to seek after the godly things in life, they will forever elude me. And so I hope that some day, amidst the peeling paint, the tinny piano and the smoking furnace, I will find contentment. Or at least a piano tuner who’ll work for free.
Oh look, another bulletin in the mail from you-know-who. Great, the church’s worship leader has a platinum CD, is a headliner at the Creation Festival, and juggles amplifiers.
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William Whitehead is pastor at First Baptist Church of Rahway, NJ. When he is not trying to fix the century old furnace he writes humorous essays about church life.
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