I visited a local megachurch recently. My friend described it as, “You know, one of those big-box churches with one-word names, super-loud music, huge video screens, and long sermons.” Currently, 1300 U.S. congregations qualify as megachurches, averaging more than 2000 in weekly attendance. The one I visited has more parking-lot volunteers than my church has members.
I’ll say one thing for megachurches: they can afford quality. The sermon was both entertaining and insightful, the super-loud music flawless (I declined the earplugs that were considerately offered at the welcome booth), and those parking volunteers got us in and out in record time.
Yet the majority of Americans, like me, still attend churches with less than 200 members. We show up on Sundays to hear less entertaining sermons and less professional music—though we have no trouble finding a parking place. Why? Smaller towns don’t have the option of megachurches, of course, and big crowds make some people nervous. I found one more reason when I came across this paradoxical observation in G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.
Precisely! Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on EPA gas mileage ratings. Yet after a while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups (and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else.
Henri Nouwen defines “community” as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, which forms a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.
The Christian church was the first institution in history to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. The Apostle Paul waxed eloquent on this “mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God.” By forming a community out of diverse members, Paul said, we have the opportunity to capture the attention of the world and even the supernatural world beyond. (Ephesians 3:9-10)
In some ways the church has sadly failed in this assignment. (Yes, Billy Graham, 11 o’clock Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.) But even monochrome churches show diversity in age, education, and economic class. Church is the one place I visit that brings together generations: infants still held at their mothers’ breasts, children who squirm and giggle at all the wrong times, responsible adults who know how to act appropriately at all times, and senior citizens who may drift asleep if the preacher drones on too long.
I know one megachurch that tries to seat people based on their commonality: senior citizens down front where they can hear better, single adults over there where they can meet each other, families with young children in the back where they can exit quickly if the kids make noise. That strikes me as all wrong. I deliberately seek a congregation comprising people not like me, and I find such people less avoidable in smaller churches.
hesterton’s insight about small communities appears in a chapter on “The Institution of the Family,” which gives a whole new slant on family values. “The common defence of the family,” he writes, “is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.”
The smallest units in society, families offer an ideal laboratory in which to test out Chesterton’s principle that “the smaller the community, the larger the world.” Reflecting on my own family’s reunions, I must agree that the institution of the family forces me into close contact with characters I would otherwise avoid. I have no choice about such encounters; we share a gene pool.
Several of my family members have served stints in prison. Some carry on feuds that go back generations. A few spin elaborate tales to cover up unwed pregnancies. Geographically, my family extends from Philadelphia to San Jose to Australia. It includes a drug addict and a professional football player with an estranged gay son, a Ph.D. in Philosophy as well as several who never graduated from high school. Methodists, Church of Christ, Unitarian/Universalists, Independent Baptists, atheists─they all come together at our reunions.
I have learned more about grace, forgiveness, diversity─and, yes, social deviance─from my family than from all the theology books I have read. Chesterton’s point, exactly. Troublesome issues like divorce and homosexuality take on a different cast when you confront them not in a state legislature but at a family reunion.
Those Christians who trumpet “family values” need to make clear that we are not proposing a lobotomized society of Stepford wives and their offspring. We recognize that families consist of imperfect human beings. We simply contend that the family, the smallest social unit, represents a good place to confront those imperfections.
Some commentators have attacked the entire institution, blaming society’s problems on the dysfunctions of the family. Such jeremiads miss the point: family is not a perfect institution by any means but simply a place that accepts its members on a single criterion, shared DNA. From such a tiny group we can learn the principles of true community needed in larger groups.
We have many examples of what happens when enlightened people get together and devise large institutions to improve on the family. These social engineers want everyone to be alike, sharing common values and beliefs. Consider extreme versions of the “politically correct” movement on university campuses. Consider the thought police in Communist North Korea. Making people more like they “ought to be” is the great experiment of modern times.
Any parent could tell you that making just one child more like he or she “ought to be” is a dicey proposition at best. If the smallest unit in society has trouble reforming individuals, should we trust the largest institution, the government? Better to work things out in small communities, where we may have less choice about our companions─but so does everyone else.