We American Christians are going to have a jolting shock when we arrive in paradise with Jesus. What a surprise when we finally learn that bigger doesn't always mean better, or more effective.
There it was again, the denomination’s "best" churches list. Only this time, they replaced the word "best" with the words, "most effective." The headline read, "Tracking the fastest growing churches gives us a glimpse into some of the most effective ministry work in America."
How do we measure this?
In the cast of the article, the speed at which the crowd got bigger each week was king. What's more "effective"? A church in a community of 10,000,000 people baptizing 400 people or the only church, a church-plant in fact, baptizing 390 people in a population of 400? (This isn't any specific situation, but one for us to consider.)
What about the church in say, Provo, Utah where .5% of the population is evangelical Christian, and nearly everyone else is Mormon? Resources are very limited, seminary interns in short supply, and nearly zero churches or church buildings. It's incredible when they plant another church or two. It's remarkable when they start another worship service in another language to reach new refugees. But how do we compare this church with a church in Texas or Georgia that grew from 20,000 to 25,000 attendees on a Sunday? I suspect we're not seeing these situations with the same eyes God sees these two churches. Both are worth praising the Lord for, but what are we doing comparing the different ways God's working with "best" and "most effective" lists? Something might be missing. Something might be wrong. And who are we to compare the various things God is doing in various places in a way that puts one on the top of a “hey look at us” list?
What do we do with the underground house-church in a hostile Muslim country where 80% of the 32 members have served time in jail for their faith? The church might have tripled in size except 67 new converts were martyred this year. (Again, this is not any specific church but an example for us to think about.)
Some time ago, I was sitting in a training meeting with a popular seminary-trained author-consultant. He kept saying, "We've looked at the best churches in the world, and this is what they're doing." When asked which churches, he was quick to say the top in size. And all of them located in the American Bible Belt. During the break, he and I were talking. I suggested that he consider calling those churches the biggest (or larger) rather than the best. Size might be a fact, but best is a qualitative statement that depends on what we decide to measure. He looked at me like I had just had a second nose emerge above my eyebrows. It was as if there were no other possible qualifiers.
When I read Hebrews 11, I wonder what the Pharisees would think of the list. It's the hall of faith. It's a "best" list, made by God. But it's full of foreigners, last born, women, and sinners. There's a prostitute in the list, for crying out loud! And some of these folks didn’t get but one or two verses in the entire Bible. Yet, that’s God’s list. It doesn’t look like God’s using the same criteria we might use if we made a “Most Faithful Christians of 2019” list. I wonder if we're thinking about the "best" and "most effective" churches in the way God thinks? I wonder.