I’ve already made one doctrinal point. Larger churches are more effective at ministry to those outside the church–and this is the very essence of Christianity. Read Matthew 25’s account of Judgment Day. Read James’ definition of pure and undefiled religion. The scriptures are very clear that we are to be salt and light by doing good works–and I think this is much more than doing 5 acts of worship correctly each Sunday. We are to have an impact for good on the world that surrounds us.
This is more than sufficient reason to work hard to merge small churches into larger, more capable churches that can be truer to the image of Christ. I suppose the alternative is to work to grow the churches where they are. But we really aren’t very good at this. And it’s not surprising. We live in a culture where small, struggling congregations are very unattractive. It’s much easier to grow as a larger church with a good teen program, an effective children’s ministry, and a top notch worship service. Perhaps this shouldn’t be, but it’s a fact.
Another alternative is to operate as a cell church. That’s outside my expertise, but there are cultures and situations where churches do well when very small. But I know of no culture that prefers churches of only 100 members–other than the internal culture of the church–which is irrelevant to the mission of the church. We cannot ever sacrifice the mission of the church for the comfort of the church.
Another doctrinal reason is it’s just wrong to have 12 Churches in one town all teaching a slightly different brand of Christianity. This doesn’t just lead to division–it is division. We rationalize this state of affairs by pretending we are autonomous. But we are far beyond autonomous–we are isolated! Other than occasionally visiting a sister congregation, we do next to nothing together. We don’t do ministry together–much. We don’t do evangelism together either (have you ever seen a joint effort of two churches to knock doors together?) In fact, we compete with each other when we should be competing with Satan. This is a very unhealthy situation that we’ve come to see as perfectly acceptable, even as part of the pattern. It’s not.
In fact, the First Century church met in homes in most places. The typical home of even a wealthy Greek in those days could hold about 30 people. A church of 3,000 had to meet in about 100 homes. When Paul, for example, wrote the “church” in Ephesus, he was actually writing to scores if not hundreds of what-we’d-call churches, but he referred to them all as just one “church.” And these churches had just one set of elders.
You see, the early church didn’t have a West Side Church of Christ and a Fifth Street Church of Christ in the same town. Rather, the church in Ephesus was one congregation meeting in several locations. Why? Plainly, because they loved each other, wanted to honor Christ by being unified in fact, and weren’t interested in dividing over quibbles of doctrinal minutiae.
We don’t have a perfectly clear picture of how the early church operated, and I’m not saying we’re damned if we don’t do church the way they did church in the First Century. But it’s instructive to see how those closest to the apostles addressed issues that we must face today. Given a choice, they refused to be sliced into multiple, competing, bickering congregations. They chose to be as united as circumstances permitted.