I can vaguely remember when we were in a big church during one of our periods of searching for a church home in Macon. Our family was one of hundreds. Our Sunday school class was huge. The church had great facilities - a separate children's building with a check-in like in a hospital. Every service was televised. The church really had a lot to offer, but we never really connected. This was in the 80's, before the world woke up to the mega and before I became a pastor. Back then, that size church was a rarity. Now there are three that size between 5 miles of my smaller church.
Irony. Most of my secular career was spent with huge multinational corporations selling to other huge multinational corporations - including Walmart. I personally called on Eckerd HQ, K-Mart regional, Publix, Brunos, Big Star, and yes, Walmart. My efforts helped them succeed, often at the expense of smaller chains and independents.
Shoe - meet other foot.
Last night, our youth volunteers were rocked by a 13yr old girl's comment that she might not be with us tonight. When asked why, she said her friend had invited her to one of the local mega churches, and that her family might be going there. This is a girl and a family that we have poured love into again and again. Our volunteers have sacrificed for her large portions of time and money to help her find her way. We've reached out to her and her siblings - to her family. They live around the corner from us. We give them rides home when it's raining. We hug them even though once the little one said "I think all the lice are gone."
She's a teenager. Friends are at the top of her values. She'll always have more outside New Hope than inside. And the mega will always offer more of the glamour of today's youth ministry than we will. But the thing about the people we have working with her and all the ones like her is that we love these kids fiercely and want with every fiber of our being to see Jesus formed in them and in their family.
In the old days, people wouldn't invite other people to church if they were already attending one. It was considered in bad taste. If you were already "churched" then that was great, because it was the "unchurched" that everyone wanted to see find salvation and be included in the church. But today, all of that is by the wayside as big churches try to stay big and get bigger. We are within 5 miles of three megachurches. Like Walmart, they grow by putting the competition out of business. And those three actively market to other church's members.
That's not the way God grows His church. So I do think there's a spiritual battle going on here as well.
I think New Hope is a hard place to be if you don't want to be convicted of your sins and shortcomings with God. We care about souls. Not "nickles and noses" (money and numbers) like big churches do, but the state of people's relationship with God. In Sunday school, Pam is about as passionate as anyone I've ever known and challenging too. On Wed night there's a buzz saw of challenges to your commitment if you are her age. And I hope what I do on Sunday adds some to that mix.
You can't fade into the background, you can't float in and out, and you can't pretend at New Hope. But you CAN where you are one of hundreds or thousands. The devil doesn't like that. So he'd love to see her in a place where if she doesn't come for a week - two weeks, no one will notice. Like we do.
So what does the smaller church do?
Well first, we pray. Pray that God is at work in the life of this girl, even if we can't see Him. Pray that He is at work in her family - the one we have prayed for so often, invited so many times, reached out to. Pray that God will guide us to do what He wants us to do in a way that will offer Jesus' way to every youth and adult.
Then we step back and evaluate what we are doing. It may be that no change is needed. But it may also be that the other 100 or so kids in our city that don't go anywhere are the real target and just maybe we need to be about the business of reaching them. We have assets and liabilities based on our size. So do the megas.
Ours are passion, flexibility, community, and missional purpose. We let kids and youth lead in worship. We invite them to participate to the extent they feel led. We can turn on a dime and get 12ct worth of ministry out of it. We are fierce in our love for one another and passionately purposeful about what we do. We don't just fire up the Xboxes and plasma screens and let the kids play and call that youth group. We're about spiritual transformation. I absolutely believe that's God's plan.
So we'll do what we can do best and let the Good Shepherd place His sheep.
Then we pray and go back to work.
But yeah, I can completely understand why people picket Walmart - today. When our youth people - who put themselves on the line for the youth - hurt - you better believe I do too.