The Biggest Church and the Smallest Church in Town

Posted on April 10, 2020


I sometimes drive on Crescent Ridge Road, perhaps going to buy a shrub or some vegetable seedlings for my vegetable garden at Brown’s Nursery and enjoy the wonderful views to the east from the high points along the road. You can see, I bet, for ten or fifteen miles, the woods, and small hills, and scattered homes. The views became especially open after the tornado of April 27, 2011 which tore up a lot of our city and passed on through this area more or less between Tuscaloosa neighborhoods and those of Holt.

One of the very small buildings one passes, on the east side of Crescent Ridge Road, is a tiny, Hispanic church. I don’t think you can fit more than ten or fifteen people inside, and the parking space up front which I think the church shares with a pair or three small homes alongside never has more than two or three cars in it.

It has a modest billboard advertising “Ministerio Evangelistico” out front, but no other of the usual apparatus and signs telling passersby when services are held, other than 11 a.m. Sunday service.

I have never driven by at 11 a.m. Sunday to see who might be there, but the sign is kept up and I suspect the church has a few faithful followers.

It is an example I am guessing of the smallest number of Christians who get together in a somewhat formal fashion to worship each Sunday. I don’t know the dynamics of tiny congregations well, but I have worshipped in big churches, “megachurches” in today’s lingo, and tiny churches, and I tend to favor small churches since we soon get to know each other, and all that implies.

On the other hand, by far the biggest church in town is just across the river heading west on McFarland Boulevard. Cross the bridge and turn right and follow the road to where it intersects with Rice Mine Road. At the light, just go straight through and you are on the ample parking spaces of the Church of the Highlands, Tuscaloosa campus. Its headquarters is in Birmingham, and the combined campuses across the state make it the largest megachurch in Alabama and as of 2018 it was the second largest congregation in the U. S. About 52,000 attend services each week, and the last time I counted the Tuscaloosa campus had about five or six services every Sunday with thousands in attendance.

So, I thought, what are differences between the tiny Hispanic church and the huge Church of the Highlands. Both are Christian and both are Protestant and non-denominational. One is an example of the almost primitive forms of worship in private homes by the early Church in the first centuries after Christ, while the second is an excellent example of the evangelical drive that promotes the Christian faith by ever expanding the message of Christ, to new believers and to those already in traditional churches but who find a new energy and commitment in the vast enterprise of a mega church.

I have participated in both types of services, here in the U. S. and in Latin America where I worked off and on most of my life. Plus, I am a Hispanic myself, according to the way the census classifies us, because my mother was from Chile. I grew up bilingual and over the last few years made mission trips to places like Honduras and the Dominican Republic and preached and taught in Spanish in small congregations.

I think small congregations have the advantage of intimacy and friendship. Megachurches bring together a lot of resources made possible by big budgets funded by the faithful. But one often gets lost in the crowd.

My wife Louise and I attended a megachurch for several years and we only saw the principal pastor on a screen and had to make an effort to meet the local pastor. He was a nice enough fellow, tremendously enthusiastic and brimming with energy, but not every accessible.

In the small church, with a congregation of about fifty as opposed to fifty thousand, we see the pastor every Sunday, up close and live, and speak to him before and after the services when we want to. He is accessible. He preaches Scripture with verve and spirit (the Holy one), had a very successful television ministry years ago, and, to my mind, is as good a preacher as those promoting Christianity to the thousands.

So, what’s the difference? And, equally important, which is better? And, even more important, do we have room for such immense variety in the body of Christ?

Let’s start out, I think most pastors have the heart of Jesus. They want to be like him, to teach, to heal, to spread the truth of Christianity, and how to incorporate it into your life. You can do this more easily in a small church with a congregation that is structured more like a family than an institution.

Big institutions are different from small families. They are both necessary in a nation such as ours. You wouldn’t want our military to be run like a family protecting our life and liberty in the whole world. Bigger and better is the rule for the military. Discipline, courage, bravery, vastly superior technologies, and the like make for a good military.

Families put the emphasis on knowing and loving each other, sustaining each other through good and bad, teaching the youngsters what’s expected of them as they grow up. Come to think of it, a lot of the same values can be applied to making our military what it needs to be in a dangerous world, except that killing not saving lives is a rather strikingly different way to measure success.

Let’s put aside the military/family binary aside for a moment. What I think I’m arguing for is that one learns better one on one rather than in large groups.

I learned to fly years ago and fulfilled a lifelong dream. More of that perhaps in a future column. My son is also a pilot these days flying charter jets like Lears and Hawkers all around the country, down into the Caribbean and Central America. Both of us have had experience with flight simulators, his in lot more sophisticated, real motion machines, mine on my laptop, and they teach us a lot. But there is NO substitute for the real thing.

And perhaps that is the difference between a megachurch and a very small church. The ultimate goal is to teach one how to be a Christian, and teaching, I can attest to as a 40+year veteran in teaching, is a profession tough to nail down with hard and fast principles and ways to do it. There are just too many ways to do it right, but ultimately one judges the teaching by the outcome.

Let’s return to flying for a second. You will never become a competent and safe pilot by sitting in front of a flight simulator. You have to experience flying, motion, pressure (mental and physical), ability to think quickly, and correctly, and dozens of other attributes.

You learn to be a good Christian from not simply being entertained by the new technologies and sounds and visuals and culture of our modern world, but by finally plunging into the Bible and read it, day in and day out. And, then, as the Apostle James tells us in the first chapter of his book, in verse 22, “do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

I think you can do that both in the systems created by megachurches to evangelize and recruit by the tens of thousands, and in the smaller churches, like the one where my wife and I look to for our “family,” Victorious Life Church in Fosters.

In the end, or measuring results, I have most often learned from experience, and I think both the small and the large churches attempt to do that, having their parishioners live some experiences to teach them some lessons. I learned a few lessons about missionaries by going up and down rocky hillsides in the Dominican Republic one week, knocking on the doors of the very humble homes of the people in the community I served. I didn’t go to China or Africa for half my life to serve, as I’ve read of immensely devoted missionaries. I was there for a week, and my then sixteen-year-old son followed me around as we knocked on doors and I asked, “conocen a mi amigo Jesús” “Do you know my friend Jesus.”

It was a good door opener and we were received with curiosity and then enthusiasm, although I had to drop the approach a bit later when one answered, “Pues sí señor, Jesús vive al lado,” “oh, sure Jesus lives next door.”

Ah, of course, I thought, Jesus is a common name in Spanish. I dropped that approach but remembered forever how warm and loving those people were, and how much they appreciated a gringo walking up the hills to talk to them about Jesus. So, you learn by doing and you can be blessed in the mega and micro churches of this world. God has a plan for all of us, and a great sense of humor as my son Carlton and I hunted for Jesús along Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic.