Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley recently caused controversy with comments about smaller churches during a Sunday sermon. Stanley, whose church has six campuses and more than 30,000 regular attendees said during his sermon: ‘When I hear adults say, “Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,” I say: “You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids” … If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it.’ Stanley later retracted his comments, tweeting: ‘The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend's message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologise.’
But is there something to Stanley’s comments? Is big better for kids? Co-editor Sam Donoghue doesn’t think so…
Andy Stanley’s comments tap into one of the great dilemmas parents face when hoping to raise their children as Christians; should we move to another church that we perceive as having better provision for children to boost their chances of having a faith that lasts or do we stay where we’ve always gone and risk regretting it if our children give up on church later in life? In my experience less people move than you’d think and a more likely outcome is parents leading Sunday schools to try and boost the standard and keep their children engaged. However, in terms of children Andy Stanley rather misses the point as there is scarce evidence that megachurches are more effective at retaining children than other types of church. However, there is some evidence that a child’s faith will grow more fully in a smaller church where they are well connected to an all-age community.
Children cannot be taught or entertained into faith, but grow best when they see faith being modelled by a community that loves. They naturally take on the beliefs and values of communities they belong in and use adults as ‘mirrors’ to understand what it means to live a life of faith and follow Jesus. The research ‘Sticky Faith’ have done indicates that young people who retain their faith need five significant, Christian adults in their lives that are not their parents. That’s really hard to achieve in a large congregation where people get lost and easier in a smaller group where everyone is known to everyone else.
What makes big churches attractive to families can be the big children’s groups which externally look like a great thing to bring your children to but they often are where Christians first learn to be consumers at church, rather than contributors to it. In these groups, based around, fun, entertainment, education and heavy leadership from the front, children are learning that Church is about things being all designed for them, rather than about the give and take of living in a community where sometimes being able to conform is prized more highly than true spiritual development. It doesn’t have to always be like this, but many of the larger Sunday groups I work with are using small groups of mixed ages and other tricks to mimic what smaller churches have already!
Now, I’m not doing a reverse-Andy Stanley here. I don’t think people with children in large churches should leave and join the smallest church they can find. What I’m saying is that if you want to choose a church where your children’s faith will grow, then choose somewhere where they are known by name to most of the adults, loved unconditionally and fully a member of the full church congregation. It happens that churches of 30 or less are well set up to do that. Big churches can do it, just make sure they’re working hard at it.