Some of us are old enough to remember when Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" was a big deal on Saturdays for teenagers. There was this playlist of top songs. They'd change from week to week. Sometimes a song was "hot" and climbing "up the charts." And sometimes the song was stalled or dropping. People just weren't buying it the way they were the week before.
Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area in the 1960's used to listen to the disk jockeys on WLS-AM and WCFL-AM play down (or up) the top 30 popular songs every afternoon. You went from #30 to #29 to #28. Until, right before the end of the show, the hotest song in the country was played.
Today my copy of Outreach magazine came in the mail. It's a pretty good resource for Christian leaders looking for creative ideas about reaching out...serving people in need...putting the Christian message to work in tangible ways...welcoming guests.
I'm sure the folks who put Outreach together are good folks. No doubt about that. I'm sure they mean well. But this special issue is covered in red and the headline on the front cover says: The Outreach 100 Largest-Fastest Growing Churches in America."
The churches are listed. Fastest growing. Largest. Overall. By denomination.
I was tempted to toss the magazine in the trash because nothing good can come from a list like this. Especially if your church -as our's last year- is on an attendance plateau. No one is beating down my door to ask how we are setting attendance records. God is doing some cool things at Trinity. Amazing things. Ordinary people are falling in love with God and putting their lives on the line in good ways. But we're not going to be among the top 100 in Outreach. We wouldn't be in the top 200 or 300. We're pretty big but we're not that big and we're not that hot.
Years ago, when the "church growth movement" was getting up a head of steam, our denomination used to hand out awards every year to "hot churches." It was sort of like recognizing the folks, in the insurance industry, who have made the "million dollar club."
A friend of mine watched these awards being handed out, and he said, "This is demonic." I thought he was a grumpy preacher who had been turned sour by life.
You know what? I think my friend was right.
I can't, for the life of me, figure out how the Kingdom of God is served by a Christian magazine putting on a special issue on The Outreach 100 Largest-Fastest Growing Churches in America. The ones who make it may be wise enough to thank God from whom all blessings flow, and celebrate what God is doing in their midst with appropriate humility. Or they find pride an unwelcome intruder...a parasite they can't get rid of. Perhaps they start feeling the pressure to keep it going...keep it growing...push the pedal to the floor and keep it there.
Those churches that are out there, doing their best for God, blessing their communities in the large and small ways that healthy churches do, but aren't on the list of the 100 Largest or 100 Fastest Growing may succumb to some kind of despair. Find themselves looking down on, devaluing, the blessed, good stuff the risen Christ has been doing in them and through them. They may feel like failures because their tech team and resources can't compare to the half-million dollars a nearby mega-church has invested in lights and sound systems and projection screens.
It's a good thing to be reminded that God is doing good things in big ways. Yep. It's a good thing to hear stories of churches where the Spirit of God stirred people to break through all sorts of racial or geographical or attendance barriers.
I think our preoccupation with size is demonic. Healthy churches have this way of growing. Jesus talks, in John 15, about the vine that is pruned so it can bear fruit. Grow. But listing the 100 largest or fastest growing churches is evidence of the poverty of our spirituality in North America.
We're like some kind of religious disk jockey, counting down the top hits. It's a devilish activity.
Jesus wants us to focus on faithfulness: the Devil wants us to fixate on size.