Big: Good or Bad?

The issue of big churches keeps coming up. From time to time we are reminded that big congregations are not always a good thing. Although it can feel good to be part of a big crowd, the danger is that we become ‘reclusive’. We have all that we need in our own circles, we have our own organisations, many of us work for employers from the church, we have our own friends and support network in the church. In itself this is not wrong, but often this results in us limiting our contact with others in the neighbourhood who are not part of the church. Then we hardly have contact with people outside the church and put our light under a basket. As a result, people in society do not know us and start seeing us as those weird Christians with archaic opinions that do not belong in this modern society.

The apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:12 :

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

And Paul writes in Philippians 4:5 :

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.

And our Lord teaches us in Matthew 5:13-16:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

How can we do that, if we are not living in the midst of this society? How can the ‘gentiles’ see our good deeds and glorify God, or know our reasonableness, if we never meet them? God does not want the church to stick together, but to go out in the world and preach the gospel. And in addition to the preaching of the gospel, to win our neighbors for Christ by our godly walk of life (see Lord’s Day 32).


We learn from the Bible that God Himself makes sure that the Church is being spread all over the world, often in small groups. From time to time, He uses persecution for that (See Acts 8:1). We can see from countries like China that persecution makes the churches go underground. They become invisible for the government. But going underground does not mean that they disappear from society. Their organisation becomes invisible. But like bog fires that go underground, they can flare up anywhere and will continue to spread even though at the surface nothing is visible. The church does not need a big organisation, because every church and every Christian is ruled by Christ’s Spirit, while Christ Himself is the Head of the Church. The Church remains united, even if dispersed in small groups all over the earth. That is the miracle of the Church.

At the same time, smaller churches cause Christians to have more contact with society. Those scattered in Acts 8 went out and preached the Word, see Acts 8:4, and the Church spread.

The attack on religious freedoms should force us to reassess our way of life as churches. It is important that we become more and more visible to the world as individual church members instead of as big institutions, keeping in mind what Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:12 and Paul in Philippians 4:5, and our Lord Jesus says in Matthew 5:13-16. We can feel comfortable in our big organisations and large numbers as churches, most of the times only really interacting with fellow church members. But then we should not be surprised if God sends persecution to scatter the church and take away our protective organisations, forcing the members to become part of society. Or else the church can become complacent and adapt to society. We have seen that happening in many countries in Europe, where Christianity has almost completely disappeared from public life.

COVID Pandemic

This is not the first time I write about this topic. During the COVID Pandemic I addressed this matter as well, but then from the perspective of those years: large groups were not allowed because of the danger of the spread of COVID. I pass on parts of what I wrote in that time, in an article published in the Una Sancta of 20 February 2021.

An issue that came up during the COVID crisis is that big is not always good. Often, we see large organisations as more efficient and more economic. However, the crisis taught us that big can also be a hindrance. As soon as the crisis started, governments limited or even prohibited large gatherings. Soon the maximum allowed went down to 150 or 100, or for a while even lower. Large gatherings were seen as unhealthy and possible super spreaders.

What do we as Christians learn from this? Is there a lesson to learn from this? It is important to listen to what the Bible teaches us. Is God using the COVID lessons to bring us back to the Bible? Or is it an attack of Satan to move us away from the Bible?


The Bible often warns us for the dangers of ‘big’. The Bible does not explicitly say that big is bad, but it does show that big comes with dangers. Big groups often are vulnerable to complacency and pride. One example is the tower of Babel (Genesis 11). After the flood, mankind started growing again. Instead of filling the earth by spreading out, the people stayed together, depending on their own strength. They built a big city and a tower whose top was to reach the heavens. They became arrogant. God punished them and confused their language. They were divided and spread over the earth. God humiliated them.

Throughout the Bible the people of Israel, whenever it went well with them and they became powerful, became complacent and started trusting in own power and strength. King Solomon in the later part of his life is an example of this. As a result, God brought disagreements, division and decay and the people were split in two. That continued under many of the kings who followed, with as final result the exile of both Israel and Judah. Only a remnant of Judah returned.

Throughout history, time and again, when the Church grows big, she becomes vulnerable. Church members become complacent and proud, and the church more and more becomes a human institution. Disagreements, divisions, and decay set in again until God in His grace sends a reformation. The result is that a large part continues in disobedience and a remnant returns in faithfulness to the LORD. The Church had to be made small again to bring her back to humility. That did not happen once, but repeatedly. If we look at our own church historical background, the Dutch Reformed tradition, we see the same. After the Reformation the church in the Netherlands was big and powerful, but quickly the decay started. That lead to the Secession and Doleantie. And then history repeated itself, when these churches grew bigger again, which led to the liberation (‘vrijmaking’). And, sadly, thereafter we see history repeating itself. History teaches us the danger of becoming big.


Another example of ‘Big’ in the Bible is the church of Jerusalem after Pentecost. Under God’s blessing, the preaching of the Word resulted in mass conversions. Thousands were added, in Jerusalem. The church grew big in Jerusalem. We do not read that this led to decay.

God protected His church from that evil. God did so by scattering them over the surrounding areas. God did not want them to stay together in Jerusalem but to go out and preach His gospel to all nations. God sent persecution and the believers were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Here we see that out of protection God sent persecution, so that His church would not be perverted but, on the contrary, would be focusing on her task to spread the gospel. In His wisdom God determined that the best way for that was to scatter them around. They became small, but they spread over a large area. As with the tower of Babel, except here it was not a punishment for their pride, but a protection of the faithful church.

During the COVID pandemic in our own country, the government did not actively persecute the church. Nevertheless, as a result of government measures, the church was not able anymore to get together in large gatherings. Especially the larger congregations had great difficulty getting the whole congregation together again in the church building. That was not just for a few weeks, but for a large part of the year. That is something we should not ignore. What is God teaching us with this? It is time to seriously consider whether we should make major changes. Or else, continuing the way in the Dutch tradition of big churches, we may be in danger of going the way of so many of the formerly reformed churches in the Netherlands.

Family Size

The Bible does not necessarily say that ‘Big is Bad’. Becoming big can be a blessing from God over faithfulness. God promised that to Israel. The Bible does teach us, and the church history confirms this, that becoming big brings huge challenges and often the church is not able to deal with those. Church members become complacent and proud and start boasting in their own, or their church’s goodness, feeling themselves better than others, preferring their own congregation above others.

We notice that in big churches like-minded people gather together and start their own groups, which can lead again to divisions in the church. In small churches the members are often much more focused on being church together, being a communion of saints, which functions as a family.

Often the apostle Paul writes in his letters to the churches about ‘the church that is in their house’ (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 2) and in the book of Acts we read about breaking the bread from house to house (Acts 2:46) and ‘in every house’ (Acts 5:42). It is important to remember that the church is not the church building, but the people of God. Where the people of God come together, there the church is and there Christ is in their midst.

Often the numbers that are mentioned as ideal size for churches are hundred to hundred and fifty. I am not an expert on ideal numbers and it may be different per situation and congregation, but if these numbers keep coming up, like in the COVID time, we should consider if there is something we can learn from it.

It is time that our mindset is going to change. We should not stick together and come together in large gatherings, or build for ourselves large organisations, but we should get out into the world, spread out in smaller congregations which each can be a light in the darkness and a city on a mountain. If we spread out more over other areas, that would be even better.

If we prefer to continue the way we are going now, then sooner or later the time will come that the ‘circumstances’ (humanly speaking) will force us into the direction of smaller churches. The question for us is then: will it be the Babel way or the Jerusalem way?