Six years ago, Peter Guinta and his wife decided to leave their megachurch in Orange County because they wanted a place where they could “be known and know others.” Peter felt like a spectator in the 6,000-member church and wanted to “feel part of something, not just be a face or number.”
The Guintas decided to try out a small church plant in downtown Long Beach called The Garden. The start-up congregation was 100 times smaller than their previous church, but they were attracted to The Garden’s emphasis on transparency and meaningful relationships among congregants. He saw it as the right combination of first and twenty-first century Christianity.
“What worked in the 1980s doesn’t fly with our generation,” he told me. “Our generation is looking for real relationships, they are looking for a place when they can say, ‘I’m part of this, I’m not just a number.’ … What we are realizing is that maybe the Bible had it right when the model was small.”
But The Garden hasn’t stayed small.
More than 500 people now regularly attend its Sunday services and the church’s building fund is growing every month. A dynamic pastor leads The Garden, close to 70 percent of the Sunday attendees participate in a small group, the church is attracting young families, and it has a growing financial base. All indicators point to continued growth.
“Sounds like you are on the path to becoming a megachurch?” I asked Guinta.
He leaned back on his chair, laughed, shook his head and said, “God help us!”
Backlash may be too strong a word, but a growing number of evangelicals are not convinced that bigger is better. How the churches that appeal to this group handle growth will have a lasting impact on how churches are structured.
Resistance to the megachurch model is based on the assumption that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the church and the depth of the relationships among members. Many evangelicals in their 20s and 30s believe that the bigger the church, the more difficult it is to have genuine and authentic relationships with other church members and church leadership.
Eliot started attending The Garden around the same time as Peter, when the congregation was no more than 50 people. “I just think that my heart really longs for the church to experience what I experience in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous),” he told me. “In AA, if you’re going to too many speaker meetings, where there are really large bodies of people, let’s say 100 people, and there’s one speaker and that’s all you’re doing, you eventually will get drunk. So I think big churches are great; I just think there’s a real need for engagement, community and responsibility to people. You get lost in those big, big places.”
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