Can Redeemer Presbyterian Church Be Redeemed?

The bloggers over at Mere Orthodoxy linked to an article by Tim Keller on the size and culture of congregations which still has me scratching my head. Originally published in 2006 in The Movement, and then again by one of the Vineyard Church’s publications, now it reappears in Redeemer’s City to City on-line magazine.

The head scratching part may also reveal my Bible-thumping past. But when a minister of the Word talks about the church wouldn’t you expect more references to Scripture than sociological hunches? Take, for instance, Keller’s nonchalant observation that size is a given and cannot be changed:

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

Now I am loathe to grant an inch to biblicism, but why wouldn’t the teaching of Scripture at least provide a greater check on congregational culture than the fixedness of size? For instance, if a pastor is called to perform the tasks that Paul gives to Timothy – you know, the pastoral epistles? – then if a congregation becomes too big or too small for a man to carry out those divinely appointed tasks, then perhaps the pastor and session need to reconfigure the congregation so the pastor can do what God has called him to do.

But when Keller describes the senior pastor of a large (400-800)-to-very-large congregation (above 800), the biblicist impulse is hard to suppress. He writes:

The larger the church, the more important the minister’s leadership abilities are. Preaching and pastoring are sufficient skills for pastors in smaller churches, but as a church grows other leadership skills become critical. In a large church not only administrative skills but also vision casting and strategy design are crucial gifts in the pastoral team.

The larger the church, the more the ministry staff members must move from being generalists to being specialists. Everyone from the senior pastor on down must focus on certain ministry areas and concentrate on two or three main tasks. The larger the church, the more the senior pastor must specialize in preaching, vision keeping and vision casting, and identifying problems before they become disasters.

This may be a digression, but does the bit about large churches nurturing specialists say anything about ministers of the Word — what Machen called, specialists in the Bible — sticking to Scripture rather than dabbling in sociology, even ecclesiastical sociology?

At the same time, where in the Word does it say anything about pastors as vision keepers? Or leadership for that matter? Pastoral authority held by an undershepherd is one thing, leadership is twentieth-century management-speak. So what exactly is biblical or true about these ruminations on size dynamics within a congregation? Again, I’m all for the light of nature and godly (even unregenerate) wisdom. But without some kind of biblical reflection on pastoral ministry, these ideas are even less compelling than pious advice.

The part of Keller’s article that has me scratching the other side of my scalp is his bold admission of the problems that attend very large congregations.

Of course the very large church has disadvantages as well:

Commuting longer distances can undermine mission. Very large churches can become famous and attract Christians from longer and longer distances, who cannot bring non-Christians from their neighborhoods. Soon the congregation doesn’t look like the neighborhood and can’t reach its own geographic community. However, this is somewhat offset by the mission advantages and can be further offset by (a) church planting and (b) staying relentlessly oriented toward evangelism and outreach.

Commuting longer distances undermines community/fellowship and discipleship. Christians coming from longer distances are less likely to be discipled and plugged in to real Christian community. The person you meet in a Sunday service is less and less likely to be someone who lives near you, so natural connections and friendships do not develop. This can be somewhat offset by an effective small-group system that unites people by interest or region.

Diminished communication and involvement. “A common pattern is for a large church to outgrow its internal communication system and plateau . . . as many people feel a loss of the sense of belonging, and eventually [it declines] numerically.” People are no longer sure whom to talk to about things: in a smaller church, the staff and elders know everything, but in a very large church, a given staff member may know nothing at all about what is going on outside his or her ministry. The long list of staff and ministries is overwhelming. No one feels they can get information quickly; no one feels they know how to begin to get involved. This can be offset by continually upgrading your communication system. This becomes extraordinarily important
in a very large congregation.

Displacement. People who joined when the church was smaller may feel a great sense of loss and may have trouble adjusting to the new size culture. Many of them will mourn the loss of feeling personally connected to events, decision making, and the head pastor. Some of these “old-timers” will sadly leave, and their leaving will sadden those who remain in the church. This can be offset by giving old-timers extra deference and consideration, understanding the changes they’ve been through, and not making them feel guilty for wanting a different or smaller church. Fortunately, this problem eventually lessens! People who joined a church when it had 1,500 members will find that not much has changed when it reaches 4,000.

Complexity, change, and formality. Largeness brings (a) complexity instead of simplicity, (b) change instead of predictability, and (c) the need for formal rather than informal communication and decision making. However, many long-time Christians and families value simplicity, predictability, and informality, and even see them as more valuable from a spiritual standpoint. The larger the church, the more the former three factors grow, and many people simply won’t stand for them.

Succession. The bigger a church, the more the church is identified with the senior pastor. Why? (a) He becomes the only identifiable leader among a large number of staff and leaders of whom the average member cannot keep track. (b) Churches don’t grow large without a leader who is unusually good in articulating vision. This articulation then becomes the key to the whole church. That kind of giftedness is distinctive and is much less replaceable even than good preaching. This leads to the Achilles’ heel of the church—continuity and succession. How does the pastor retire without people feeling the church has died? One plan is to divide the church with each new site having its own senior pastor. Lyle Schaller believes, however, that the successors need to be people who have been on staff for a good while, not outsiders.

This is a perplexing passage since, first, it seems to reflect the dynamics at Redeemer NYC (especially the part about the problems of succession — who will fill Keller’s shoes, Marc Driscoll?). In other words, Keller would know these problems first hand. Second, of all the other church cultures he describes, from the house congregation to the very large one, he does not devote a separate space to the problems inherent in these other sized churches. Keller does, to be sure, comment on ways that the other churches need to change if they are to become very large, in which case, being smaller is implicitly a disadvantage. (But if you’re in a place like Hillsdale, Michigan, with a population of 8,000, how could you ever become very large without putting all the other congregations out of business?)

Furthermore, Keller does mention the advantages of very large congregations. One of these is the following:

“Research and development” for the broader church. Again, the larger church is usually a good place for new curriculum, ministry structures, and the like to be formulated and tested. These can all be done more effectively by a large church than by denominations, smaller churches, or parachurch ministries.

But I thought that was the point of belonging to a denomination. After all, Great Commission Publication, the joint-effort of the OPC and the PCA, does precisely what Keller here suggests of the very large church. And what is more, they do so under the oversight of the General Assembly, which is, if you read your Bible aright, the God-appointed way to try new curricula. The assemblies of the church are, in fact, “ministry structures” in their own right.

So with all of the defects of the very large church, why is its size a given? And if Redeemer is experiencing the difficulties Keller describes, why do so many congregations want to be Redeemer-like. Maybe small is not just beautiful but – dare I say – biblical.