When I was living in Dallas, I learned that the late Archbishop Dmitri of the OCA believed that parish churches should not get too big. Once they crossed a certain threshold in numbers of parishioners, it was time to create another church. A church that has too many people in it, he believed, couldn’t really be what a church ought to be.
Back in the 1950s, Will Herberg wrote an essay titled “What Keeps Modern Man From Religion?” (PDF here). I don’t know how valuable the following insight is, because clearly lots of people today go to megachurches. Still, take a look at this, and the comment I’ll add at the end:
In a mass society, people live in close propinquity, but there are no neighbors in the proper sense, no people bound by genuine community bonds. Therefore, while there are all kinds of sociability in a mass society, often factitious and contrived, it is a sociability false and spurious, a “non-involved sociability.” That is what mass society is like. Everything is big — Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government, Big Communications, Big Education, Big Entertainment, and … Big Religion. But in all this bigness, there is no room for the individual, the person, who is often reduced to nothing, and to less than nothing.
By atomizing, depersonalizing, and homogenizing the very substance of human life, mass society withers the roots of humanness, and thus, as Martin Buber has so well shown, it withers the roots of community and religion. It in fact leaves no room for religion and the church except as another Big Enterprise in mass society.
Earlier this week I interviewed N., a close friend of our family’s, about what he saw in Starhill, our rural community, during Ruthie’s struggle with cancer, and the aftermath. N. and his family moved to Starhill in 1990 from Baton Rouge. He told me that even though there’s a lot more physical space between neighbors there, he is a lot closer in the neighborly sense to the people there than he was to anybody living in a subdivision in BR. We talked for an hour and a half about the things he had seen and done in the over two decades living there, especially during my family’s time of trial. He said at the end that this community “is what church is supposed to be.” N. explained that in terms of people looking out for each other, and loving each other actively, and being present for each other in good times and in bad, this is what the church ought to be (N. is a Christian, by the way). He said that he has come to understand the Starhill community in an organic way, as something that grew from seeds of neighborliness planted long ago, and nurtured by others. You have to have good soil to plant in, he said, if you’re going to get anything like this to grow. You can have the impulse to neighborliness, but if your physical and social environment works against its nurture, the seed will bear little fruit.
In light of Herberg’s observations, as well as N.’s, to what extent do you think bigness is the enemy of parish churches? And if it is, what ought to be done about it?