Discipleship Myth: Small Equals Deep; Large Equals Shallow

It is not by simple coincidence that many of the largest churches in America are also tagged as some of the most shallow when it comes to their teaching and doctrinal conviction. Clearly, as the size of a church congregation grows, there is always the danger that the complexity and nature of discipleship will also grow. It seems to be second nature. With numbers comes the temptation to turn from personal interaction to systems, and with systems comes increasing complexity.

Dan Reiland provides some excellent insight into spiritual formation within a megachurch. I think Reiland hits on the key point when he ties discipleship to the essential ingredient of evangelism:

In my opinion, we don’t have a choice. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is clear; to make disciples! But we can’t forget that includes evangelism. The Great Commission never instructed us to disciple the same people with the same programs in the same ways over and over again. Discipleship by definition and logic must begin with evangelism. You and I are passionate about the process of spiritual formation in the life of a “disciple” of Christ. A Christ-follower. Spiritual formation begins with conversion! Candidly, if we have the same people in the same Bible study for years on end and nothing changes (the church or the people), maybe that is shallow. The New Testament is filled with stories of miracles, life change, and reaching people. Yes, the churches from Ephesus to Corinth were filled with flaws, but reaching people was the purpose of the gospel.

This statement exposes the straw man argument of the lack of discipleship within a megachurch. Small churches may seem deeper and more effective at discipleship, but their lack of actual numerical growth points to a deeper issue: they may be exchanging spiritual growth (discipleship) for numerical growth (evangelism), and believing that somehow they are in fact deeper and more spiritual than the bigger church. Churches that are not growing (at least a little) numerically point to a congregation that may not be growing (at least a little) spiritually. It is difficult to believe that as men, women, boys and girls walk the path of spiritual transformation towards maturity in Christ, they are not becoming more engaged with their circles of influence for the cause of Christ.

The irony with this line of thinking is that the road to spiritual maturity for big churches is to get small–small groups. Reiland notes, “At 12Stone, we focus on two things, small group life and serving. That’s it. Is there more to spiritual formation than that? Of course! But we build all these things into those two large components of Christian community.”

At First Family, we place a strong singular emphasis on small groups. Like 12Stone, we focus on three things: celebrate (worship), grow (small groups), serve (ministry). Under those three umbrellas exists our entire church structure. We see these three components as scaffolding that help people first grasp and then grow to deeper levels of Christlike maturity.

How do you balance the challenge of spiritual formation within a larger church?


    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.