Mustard Seed Faith: Size Doesn’t Matter

In their book Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches, authors Scott Thumma and Dave Travis discuss the phenomena of Protestant churches whose congregations number more than 2,000 people who attend weekly. Some host more than 5,000 weekly. These communities are usually in the suburbs, have large buildings that are not designed with traditional church architecture, and were begun within the past 20 years.

Clearly, people’s spiritual needs are being met, the Gospel is being advanced, and Christian service grows. We Catholics can learn a few things from what is working in the megachurches. However, they could prompt a challenge to an essential element of our biblical faith: Size does not matter. Jesus warned us that having faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). Elsewhere, he exhorts Peter to feed his sheep, not count them (John 21:17). Is the success of the megachurch movement the numbers of worshippers or its ability to serve the Gospel?

Size and numbers can be seductive, even in church. Historically, large archdioceses were hailed by the Vatican with the appointment of cardinal-bishops with the reasoning that their leaders represent many disciples. Pope Francis has changed this, appointing cardinals to local churches that are poor, small, and on the peripheries of the world. Suddenly, no one archdiocese or diocese is more prestigious than the other, at least in terms of the rank of its leader. Within dioceses themselves, larger parishes or Catholic schools can sometimes be viewed as stronger churches or communities than those with fewer worshippers or students.

Thumma and Travis write: “The American religious context has been described by many as a competitive, consumer-driven free-market reality. Many would claim that accepting this reality and participating in it runs counter to the Gospel” (p. 120). Indeed, leaders of our churches and schools need to be smart stewards of their resources, especially their endowments and capital treasures. However, our approach to such stewardship is grounded in the values of the Gospel, at every turn, ensuring that management decisions advance the mission as well as the profit margin.

Since mission remains essential, regardless of the size of the church or community, perhaps a new trend needs to be studied beyond the phenomenon of megachurch: megamission churches, communities who don’t just meet their worshippers’ needs; rather, they advance the Gospel with energy and enthusiasm, verve and vitality. Megamission churches and schools might be hard to measure, but so is faith, especially when it is the size of a mustard seed.