Is Bigger Always Better?

Posted on April 13, 2018


Maybe, maybe not.

I write as a 5’8” male, decidedly short in our world of tall people. Napoleon Bonaparte, however, strode over much of Europe in the early nineteenth century and he was a shrimp.

I recently read an article in an online Christian magazine on small versus big churches. What can small churches offer that big ones can’t? The long answer has to do with modern technologies, streaming, big screens, and the like, but the short answer was I think more valid. You can find in small churches the intimacy and human contact that is usually lacking in the big megachurches where you see the big pastor on the big screen with thousands of others, but you really can’t get close to him, or most of the pastoral staff for that matter. It’s the nature of the animal.

In a little iddy biddy church the pastor may be an electrician or a plumber moonlighting as a pastor, or one trained in a seminary in a little larger church. But there he or she is, approachable and with a human visage or voice as you speak, face to face. In fact, in the world of online courses in colleges and universities, an old fashioned, lecture-style course in an equally old-fashioned classroom is called a “face to face” class, much disparaged by some as being hopelessly old fashioned compared to the panoply of services offered in an online, digitally-driven course.

There is a lesson or two here. While an online course or sermon can reach thousands, and even millions, with a salvation message, it is the face to face encounter that usually makes the difference.

Here’s a “for example.” I go into the Tuscaloosa County Jail with twenty or thirty other Christian “ministers” every Tuesday night to teach and preach to the prisoners about Jesus Christ. All the cells have access to a communal television in the commons room or spaces where they eat. Some of us who go in are ministers in small churches in and around Tuscaloosa and the other half (like me) are parishioners, members of some church or another with a calling to do this jail ministry.

The prisoners get to listen to a sermon on the television each Sunday from a megachurch in the area, broadcasting from Birmingham, and they may also see and hear a local church or two broadcasting. But what makes the continuing difference in their lives is having the ladies and guys (we go into separate cells, one just for women, one for men, very old fashioned) show up on Tuesday nights, or in some instances other nights of the week when classes are held by some of the ministers for those wishing to hear more of the word of God in a regular class with continuity supplied by the minister.

We are physically there for the inmates. They know that the love and devotion is real, even if the preaching and teaching may not blow them over one night or another. This is both a small thing, and a big thing. Anyone with a calling to help others in Christian love can do it. Send me an email and I’ll be glad to put you in touch with the jail staff and get you started. On the other hand, for men and women down and battered by life and circumstances, to have someone come in and tell them that Jesus loves them despite their acts and wants to forgive and get them started on a new life, that’s a big deal.

Sometimes ministers can be challenged in unusual ways not found in normal churches or television churches.

A few weeks ago, I couldn’t turn off the television and so there I was, Billy Graham writ small, doing his thing in cell block B-6, and the darn (this is a family column, I would have used a different word when still in the Navy) television—up high on a platform so the inmates can’t tinker with it—is just grooving along, and you are trying to preach to eyes and ears wandering to the tube up high behind me.

I needed David and his slingshot to bring that sucker down, but I figured nothing that is good is easy, and preached on, even while one dude took a shower and my congregants wandered in and out from their cells to the seats and tables where the faithful were listening to the message, or to the television, or to both.

Published as In ministry, being there can make a difference<,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.