Lest my blog about God’s building program (http://craigkeener.com/the-new-building-program/) leave the wrong impression, I want to make clear that I am not opposed to megachurches. I was an associate minister in one in Philadelphia, a church I love.
In Acts 2:46, Jerusalem’s Jesus movement, by this point numbering in the thousands (2:41), met together. Here the apostles could pass on their teaching to large numbers of people at once (2:42). This arrangement was not possible for churches in other Mediterranean cities in which churches were later planted. Temple grounds were public spaces that could accommodate crowds listening to sages, but the other temple grounds in the Roman empire were for pagan deities. Only Jerusalem’s temple was a suitable mass-meeting place for Christians. The next largest locations would often be villas, but these were often quite a long walk from where many other Christians lived.
Megachurch, however, is not the normal state of the church through history. One might compare dog breeding. Breeding has produced many kinds of dogs. If those dogs were on their own in the wild, however, their cross-breeding could eventually produce more generic dogs, much like their pre-bred forebears (albeit perhaps with some improvements from the stronger and more survivable varieties). When persecution comes, homes (or even caves or forests) become more natural and often safer meeting places. When transportation becomes difficult (as in the case of fuel shortages), neighborhood churches become much more serviceable.
That we see something of both models in Acts suggests that what matters is not a prefabricated format but what works for the kingdom. Still, Acts itself shows us that even in Jerusalem, where the church could meet in the public temple, the church also met in homes (Acts 2:46). They broke bread together (2:42), something more suitable in a household setting; probably the twelve apostles also made rounds in many of these homes.
That all the churches in the New Testament ultimately met in homes, wherever else they may have gathered when that was also possible, is important because it reminds us about the church’s DNA. We are family, and therefore a family setting is helpful. Still more important, we are one body with interdependent gifts (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:4-26), and we need a setting sufficiently intimate for us to contribute our gifts to one another. By itself, watching a sermon or even a worship team is not church (even though we do need people to preach and lead worship). We function as church when we are in relationship with one another. If we designed our architecture to that end, we would be facing one another rather than facing a stage.
Again, this is not to deny the value of what megachurches can provide in religious free and economically complex societies. Pooling resources in ways that smaller gatherings cannot, megachurches can provide programs for various age groups and other target groups. These could also be provided by alliances of smaller local churches (at least in urban areas), though coordination can be more complicated, and denominational differences would have to be addressed. But without small groups, megachurches do not automatically provide relationships. For those of us who are introverts, that might be an appeal, but we still need others. Whatever the church setting, we need to be in relationships with other believers, need to be able to contribute gifts that God has given us, need to be able to receive spiritual gifts from others (which cannot all be dependent on the pastor-teacher or another single gift).
Paul’s letters to entire churches and groups of churches in cities and regions, and particularly his teaching on the church as Christ’s body, means that we need to be the church together, whatever format that looks like. Even if you get some good teaching on YouTube or other “distance learning,” you still need time together with other believers, talking about and worshiping the Lord.
Those who emphasize meeting together often cite Hebrews 10:25: “not forsaking our own assembling together” (NASB), “not giving up meeting together” (NIV). But keep in mind that the verse continues, “encouraging one another” (NASB; NIV). The writer emphasizes that this is all the more the case in difficult times and as history moves toward its future climax. Church is not only a matter of assembling, but also of interaction with at least some fellow believers, whom we can strengthen and who can strengthen us.
Whether due to fuel shortages, climate changes, legislation that taxes church property, or outright persecution, we cannot count on megachurches being the church’s permanent format. The house churches Paul started in gentile cities around the Roman world undoubtedly seemed less impressive than the Jerusalem megachurch, which had grown particularly massive by the late 50s or early 60s of the first century, some thirty years after Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 21:20 might be hyperbole, but literally the Greek text speaks of tens of thousands). But God knew the future. Jerusalem would soon lay in shambles, and the future lay more with the dispersed churches positioned to reach their localities around the empire.
If many have the current blessing of large churches today, we need to think wisely in terms of the long-range future. What matters most in the long run is not the number of people who attend, but how many people we genuinely reach for Christ, and how deeply we present them mature in Christ (Col 1:28). What matters is not how much seed is sown, but where that seed will flourish and in turn produce more seed (Mark 4:15-20). It is not even how many people pray an initial prayer acknowledging Christ; only those who persevere will be the laborers’ reward (cf. 1 Cor 3:14-15; 2 John 8).
Whatever the ministries God has assigned us, let us responsibly care for the sheep, and equip God’s people to minister to one another (Eph 4:11-13).