One of my friends, David Fitch, routinely opines about megachurches, and I often (as one attached at the hip to Willow Creek) say that whatever can be done in a small church can be done in a megachurch. Small groups, check; friends, check; group formation, check; corporate worship, check; corporate instruction, check; community embodiment of gospel, check. Yet…
What is lacking in megachurches is the same thing lacking in smaller churches, but it is more exaggerated in the megachurch. Corporate fellowship. Megachurches make obvious the fellowship issue. Namely, if you want a church that fellowships as a group, the bigger the church the less that can happen.
But the issue, so I want to argue, is not the size of the church. I do think megachurches can only come about because of this problem: the problem is individualism. One of the core issues in church dysfunctions today is individualism, which is a modernity issue and not just a church issue, and the church puts on display what it looks like when individualism takes deep root. The critique of the church as a consumerist culture is a species of individualism. Don’t get me wrong, we are individuals and as individuals we are accountable to God and to ourselves and to others and to the world, but being individuals and being infected with individualism are not the same thing. (Though some have almost identified the two.) It’s a matter of degree; when the critical mass shifts to me then we move from being individuals to becoming part of an individualism culture. When the gospel is about me and what it does for me, when the church service is measured by what it does for me, and when marriage has run its course because it is no longer doing anything for me … when these are observed, we are stuck in modernity’s individualism.
The solution to individualism is not smaller churches; the solution to individualism is a decade or more of teaching and embodying the community nature of the Body of Christ, and a good place to begin is with the 3d chapter in Daniel Kirk’s new book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?Daniel gets it right with this: “My relationship with God is always, and must ever be, about how I am participating in the narrative of God’s people” (54) and not what that people is doing for me. The church should be offering a counter narrative to individualism instead of reflecting individualism back to the culture.
Beside God, the three most important words in the Bible are Israel, kingdom and church. These are People words, group words. The word “I” takes its meaning only in one of those contexts. The Bible’s narrative is from individuals (Genesis 1-11) to People (Genesis 12 — Revelation). The fundamental value of the Bible is love, and that means relationship with others; the fundamental value of modernity is happiness, and that is self-oriented.
What did sin do in Genesis 3, and that means what does the gospel heal? Cracked relationships with others — Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel — and these relationships are not given a solution until God forms through Abram/Abraham a new people, called Israel and kingdom and church.
Over and over the message of Jesus is addressed to forming a new family, a new people: Mark 3:31-35 is just one example. It’s everywhere. Kingdom is about people. This people is to act like God, who acts like Jesus or as Daniel says (quoting someone else):
God is a verb that acts like Jesus.
Which means grace, love, forgiveness, and giving ourselves for others. These are the marks of the community; it takes a community to act like Jesus.
Paul, too, tells that story of community formation: God is a verb that acts like Jesus. Paul sees the church as full of Gentiles and he sees the church as continuation of the life of Jesus. Which means these Gentiles learn to see Israel’s Story fulfilled in Jesus as their new Story. Justification by faith is a doctrine designed to assert the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Abraham’s family. They are no longer gentiles, Kirk contends; they are part of the Body of Christ.
Identity here is communal; there are no soloists. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the Body of Christ.