Watching the SEC championship game a few weekends ago, I viewed a commercial in which the announcer assured me that bigger is better. He even implied that the statement is beyond debate: it is, he proclaimed, a self-evident fact!
From mega-stores to mega-churches, we have come to believe that size equals success. In my small hometown, progress is measured by how many franchises and big box stores open in town. Even individual success is determined by the size of our houses. Oddly, as the size of the American family has decreased considerably, the size of our homes continues to increase.
Even the Church embraces this new standard of success. Recently the pastors in a nearby city met to unite and to confront the growing unrighteousness in our community—a truly noble endeavor. The first thing the pastors did upon meeting was to introduce themselves by announcing the size of their churches. The not-so-subtle implication was that the larger the church, the more successful, and the more faithful the pastor. I wondered what they would have thought of Jesus. He only had 12 disciples, and when times got tough, even that small number dwindled.
I always thought that this Bigger-is-Better mentality was a peculiarly modern American idea, but two hundred years ago Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers warned against this very notion: “Gargantuanism and the care of souls cannot exist. This is of an obvious necessity in our small villages; it is of vital necessity in our large cities.”
Chalmers nails it. And two centuries later, we still need to hear his message.
Gargantuanism and the care of souls cannot exist because largeness for the sake of largeness undermines that which our souls so desperately need: true community. Ever since the Fall, we have been alienated and isolated from God and from one another, and we have suffered as a result. Christ came to reconcile us to God and to one another. The Christian life is learning how to love God and one another better. Gargantuanism is antithetical to that effort.
Largeness undermines true community because people get lost in the crowd. People feel isolated and alone in large cities. Mega-stores make us feel small and unimportant. Even the size of our large dream homes undermines our family relationships because family members have less opportunity to interact in the same space. Family members are isolated from one another in their own homes! Sadly the same experience is often found in churches as well. A friend of mine attended a very large church for six months before an elder approached him and welcomed him as a first-time visitor. He was all alone in a huge crowd.
“Community” is quickly becoming a new Christian buzzword. Browsing church websites, I read all about “fostering Christian community”. But mostly it’s nothing more than jargon. One pastor who extolled the importance of nurturing community told me that his members have as much community as their busy lives allow. But that response misses the point.
Community is not built in the spare moments of our busy lives. True community must be deliberately cultivated. It takes work and it takes time—lots of time. And we can only devote lots of time to a small group of people. That’s the reality.
As the world gets bigger and more impersonal and as people continue to struggle with postmodern feelings of alienation, isolation, and intense loneliness, Christians have a wonderful opportunity to minister by drawing smaller circles. We can each devote our energy and time to a small group of people: caring for their needs, encouraging them to persevere, serving them in love. Becoming smaller often leads to a bigger life—bigger as we experience the blessings of cultivating relationships and building true community.
That’s one of the things that I love about the CiRCE conference. The conference is deliberately limited in size. And I have personally benefited from this decision. Attending the conference is much more than hearing great speakers—you can purchase conference mp3s if that’s your only desire. No, for me, the conference is all about relationships and community. I return to the conference year after year because I love the people I have met there and we spend time together laughing and encouraging one another to persevere in this overwhelming task of trying to save the world. Honestly, it feels more like a family reunion than an academic conference. The CiRCE conference has made my life bigger by being intentionally small.
Ironically, in a culture that loves BIG, we Christians often suffer from a vision of the Christian life that is so very small. As Thomas Chalmers noted, “Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.” The vision for the Christian life is enormous. I probably don’t have a big enough imagination to even come close to envisioning a truly Christian existence. But I know this: the only way for my vision to become bigger is for it to become smaller.