I’ve been in various settings of youth ministry over the past decade. First as a student and later as a volunteer, intern, paid staff, and now, pastor. One term that gets thrown around a lot is the phrase “big” church. Over the years, it’s always seemed like a strange term and if I’m honest, not really one that I understand. The further I’ve come along in ministry, the phrase has moved from strange to bothersome. What does “big” church even mean? Is it a church where all of its members are extraordinarily taller or more obese than others? Though that presumption may sound ridiculous, I feel as if it makes just as much sense as what “big” church actually does describe. Let’s think for a moment…
“Big” Church is of course used to describe the adult population of a given church community. For example, the typical Sunday morning worship service in which most in the congregation are adults, regardless of age, may be called “big” church. I’m not sure where the term originated, but I’m sure it was in some separate, age-appropriate ministry years ago (most likely, a youth ministry). Though the term may seem harmless, simply being used to distinguish service times or groups within the church, I believe it presents several noteworthy problems in our church communities.
Vocabulary establishes culture…and culture is the most important aspect within a church (see Sam Chand’s Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code for more on this topic). Whether you realize it or not, there is a culture constantly being written within your church community. And it usually isn’t what’s written on the website or on the “vision” walls. Culture is inked with an invisible pen: the day-to-day interaction and relationships of the body, the church. Vocabulary is one of the biggest factors in this phenomenon. Think about the connotations of certain words you use on a daily basis and ask yourself how they affect you.
Without creating too long of a list, here’s some of the mindset I believe using “big” church creates:
In order to have “big” church, you have to assume that there’s also a “little” church. The people that say the term “big” church, are not the lead pastors or staff pastors (let’s hope not…), but usually kids, teenagers, or even volunteers within age-appropriate departments. The difference between “big” church and “little” church (youth group, kids church, etc.) goes several ways. Saying the term could create a mindset amongst younger kids or teenagers that they don’t matter (even if that usually isn’t the intention). It’s almost as if to say: “You’re too short to ride this roller-coaster.” When exactly does a person graduate to “big” church? Just by going to the Sunday morning service? It inevitably creates a sense of not feeling like one belongs any time there is interaction with older people. Furthermore, the term may cripple a child’s or student’s creativity or willingness to be involved in the greater church body. Why? Because that’s “big” church and you’re not ready for that yet.
The other side of the term is the most common, and unfortunately, the most poisonous. Again, though this insight may not be the intention, it creates an underlying culture. Saying “big” church produces an “us versus them” mentality. This is found primarily in youth ministry contexts where the feeling is that the youth are BETTER than the adults. Encouragements from leaders seem strange like, “Let’s go to ‘big’ church and show those people how ‘we’ worship!” Before long, students stop attending other services because of silly things like worship style & music preference. And it’s our fault! Depending on your context, the building may not help the issue. For example, my student ministry meets downstairs in an industrial-style basement. I have to fight to make sure that “upstairs” is not viewed as “big” church, or for that matter, a separate church altogether. Exaggerated as it may seem, ministries CANNOT adopt an Occupy Church mentality in which adult congregants & adult ministry is considered corporate headquarters.
How did we get from a simple phrase to full-out church division & strife? Because that’s the slippery slope of how mindset is established. No matter how overstated you may think all of this is, consider the culture-shaping impact using a simple phrase like “big church” makes. This mentality is unhealthy, dangerous, divisive, unbiblical, and to use an appropriate word: heretical.
I’m not saying that age-appropriate ministries are wrong (my job depends on it!). What I’m saying is that we have to be intentional about the cultural mindsets we create, even down to the words we choose to paint it with. There has to be a united front to connect, integrate, and strategize ministries all the way across the board. THE CHURCH IS THE CHURCH! There is no big or little, better or worse, upstairs or downstairs. It’s a body. One body with many parts. 1 Corinthians 12, homie!
Discourage your people from saying “big” church. It doesn’t have to be a strong rebuke, but gentle correction. Don’t be afraid to poke fun at the term…because it is ridiculous. My leaders and I laugh about it all of the time when I coyly state my ignorance that we had so many “tall” people in our church. But the fact that I lead a youth ministry that many may deem “successful,” but only 20-25% of my students attend our Sunday morning worship and almost none of those are involved…that is no laughing matter. It’s time to start thinking like the church, friends. And it starts with me & you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one…
Bradley K. Chandler is a graduate of Southeastern University and is the Student Ministries Pastor at Trinity Worship Center in Burlington, NC. Be sure to subscribe to his blog here — good stuff for sure.