I was having a conversation with a friend when he shared that he could never see himself at a megachurch.
When I asked why, he shared (and I’m paraphrasing), “They’re just too big. I don’t think community is possible at a church of thousands of people”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that before.
But is this a fair and accurate assessment of community life (or lack-thereof) in the megachurch?
So What’s the Magic Number?
If community can’t be achieved at a church of 2,000 or more (definition of a megachurch), what’s the numeric threshold where it can be done?
1,500? 500? 50?
Howard Snyder, in his article, “The Church and Dunbar’s Number” gives a suggestion of 150 (Dunbar’s Number) as a potential ideal.
His reasons are the following:
Congregations who fit the 150 frame appear to be healthy.
Church history demonstrates patterns of multiplication in small, not large units.
Research in interpersonal relationships and group size verify the 150 mark.
Consistency with the nature of ecology (that things don’t grow infinitely).
But as compelling as this is, isn’t there a problem here?
Dunbar’s Number assumes that all churches reach 150. So while it accuses the mega-church for being too big, it also accuses the small church for not being big enough.
This is precisely Scot McKnight’s critique in his response article, “Church Size: The Optimal Number?” when he writes, “When Snyder contends the optimal number is about 150 he tosses the average church in the USA (attendance around 70-75) under the bus.” He criticizes the 150 number for being too big(!).
So what’s the magic number? There probably isn’t one.
How community occurs in the church may be a bit more arbitrary than we care to admit.
How Did the Early Church Do It?
Two interesting things happen at the beginning of the church in Acts 2:
A megachurch-sized number of people (3,000+) come to saving faith (Acts 2:41).
They gather daily to break bread, fellowship, pray, and read Scriptures (Acts 2:42-47).
When we read between the lines, it seems like a gathered people organized themselves into smaller communal organisms. Their response to big-ness was intentional small-ness.
We know 1st century local churches met in homes. Peter Oakes in “Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level” suggests a household would’ve been around 35 people.
I believe the takeaway is that we should aim to reduplicate the early church’s organizing principle, not numeric precision. Their principle was to get large bodies of Christians into smaller groups. And that’s what should be imitated, not to get to a number of 35 or 12.
The real question is: Is it possible to organize a megachurch into smaller groups?
McKnight would think so when he writes, “…megachurches may be 2,000 or 10,000 and even above 20,000 but it is entirely possible to break down megachurches — as a number do — into small groups or smaller groups.”
In other words, it’s possible to reduplicate the organizing principle of the early church, even for a megachurch.
Why Does the Megachurch Feel LESS Intimate?
Much like how a wedding can appear magical, while a marriage can seem laborious, there’s something about required effort in steps which can make something look less attractive than it really is, no matter how noble the cause.
In the same way, no one likes to be told they have to try in order to get into a spiritual community.
I don’t think it’s because we’re lazy. I think we just want things to feel organic. We believe things like community should happen naturally.
But the reality of the megachurch is that you have to go to a booth (or a website) and fill out a form to join a group. You receive follow-up through an email and the process unfolds. This can feel organizational and institutional, rather than spiritual and relational.
But does this necessity negate the possibility of genuine community itself? Isn’t like that saying a couple’s love and romance is hindered because they had to pick up marriage license forms at the county clerk?
Furthermore, aren’t the aforementioned realities (signups, follow-up) also true of smaller churches? I was talking to a friend whose church recently grew to 400 and he was describing how necessary on-ramps and scheduled community group times are for connection.
Processes can be an extra step towards a reality, but it doesn’t mean it’s a barrier to it.
A CLEARER VISION OF Christian Community
If we could confuse community for a feeling of natural-ness, couldn’t there be other things we confuse community for?
We can, for example, confuse having good friends at church for Christian community.
While friends can certainly function as spiritual community, I’m not sure much of the friendships in church today are what Paul had in mind when he described the “one anothers” in his letters. As I heard it once said, “friends are those we choose, community is what God chooses for us.”
Another example is confusing “knowing everyone’s name at my church” as a sign of genuine Christian community.
But fellowship (“koinonia”) is deeper than mere knowledge, its shared participation. It’s intersected lives pursuing Jesus and his ways. This can happen in smaller and larger contexts. It can also not happen in both contexts.
God’s vision for the early church was the intertwining of a people who could not imagine doing life together. Jews and Gentiles. Men and women. Rich and poor. But God declared oneness over them in Jesus.
And this is something I am learning to appreciate about the megachurch - its unique potential in bringing together a diverse group of people who are challenged to abandon their dream of community in exchange for one another.
There are challenges to community life in a megachurch.
If someone really wanted to remain anonymous, it’s not hard to be. One could hide.
But for the person who wants to get connected, it’s possible.
I’ve been surprised at the lengthy tenure of so many people at the megachurch I attend. There are hundreds of community groups. Some groups go on annual retreats. Church staffers are also in groups and that’s the expectation.
Yes, there is an undeniable, ongoing tension of the big church and community life.
But I accept that tension today, as I did yesterday, and the day before that because I know it’s an already and ongoing possible reality.