By Dustin WhiteJanuary 4, 2017
My house was a zoo growing up.
No really… like, a literal zoo.
My dad, for reasons I still don’t know, developed a passion for collecting animals—a passion for animals that I can thankfully say rubbed off on me. However, my dad’s propensity toward animals favored the cold-blooded, rare, potentially lethal (and, consequently, those in the “grey” areas of legality) persuasion. Snakes, lizards, and all sorts of so-called “creepy crawlies” occupied every square inch of our house. This was the norm for me growing up, so I never gave a second thought that our living room doubled as an environment for a crocodile.
That’s right. A crocodile.
Most have been horrified—and rightly so—of the tragedy at Disney of the young child tragically killed by the crocodile’s cousin alligator. Yet, as a child, neither fear nor timidity ever gripped me with this amazing creature. Instead, I was simply captivated—and still am to this day about these amazing animals.
One such tidbit that is particularly hard to grasp is that crocodiles have what herpetologists call negligible senescence. In other words, crocodiles have no life expectancy. In an environment with no predators or disease, they will simply continue to grow older, never being threatened by the ill-effects of age.
Yet, crocodiles still die.
You see, these ancient reptiles never stop growing as they age. They keep getting larger and larger. And as they grow, their metabolic needs grow with them. To stay alive, they need more and more food to sustain the growth that each year of seemingly infinite age gives them. Eventually however, the surrounding environment cannot sustain their size, and they starve to death. For such a prolific predator and survivor, it is a torturous demise that they inevitably face.
As curious as it sounds, the American Church faces similar challenges as these amazing reptilians. With an intent to infinitely grow, congregations become more and more bloated with members. The proverbial metabolic needs of these massive congregations are more often than not difficult to sustain. Instead of consuming way-ward deer, gazelle, or zebra that wander too close to the water’s edge, the nutrients that inwardly-focused churches need are members and attendees to occupy all auspices of the congregation’s programming. The problem is, the surrounding environment cannot sustain this sort of growth.
In the realm of America’s missiology, people exist for the church, instead of the church existing for people. Pop-theology sounds the beating of the war drum signaling the need for churches to grow bigger and bigger with age—with no end in sight. Growth is seen as the validation for the authenticity of ministry. Success trumps faithfulness. As a result, a cycle of cultural extraction takes place.
The bigger the crocodile, the bigger the appetite. And so, people are extracted out of their natural places of community and life, and swallowed whole by the needs of the church. This unfortunately is a detriment to the surrounding environment. Neighbors are absent from the rhythm and needs of their immediate community, because they are always at a church function. The bar-league softball teams are devoid of Christians because they are all on the church team. Artists and musicians settle for making— let’s be realistic—sub-par expressions of creativity in the Christian sub-culture. The tragic irony is, this is not only harmful for the immediate surrounding environment, but also for the “crocodile” itself. The constant need for growth inevitably triggers its own eventual starvation.
The prophet Zechariah offers a timely warning for churches today who feel the pressure to behave like crocodiles. “Do not despise the day of small things.”
Size is not a guarantee of power. It does not promise impact. Nor does lack thereof inhibit the transformation of entire communities as faithful followers of Christ. Perhaps, the church can reimagine our metrics beyond the American idiom of “bigger is better” and make the commitment that we will no longer value people on the basis that they can satisfy our hunger for growth. Instead, with no respect to size, may we orient the entire life-cycle of our congregations around the premise that we exist to bring flourishing to those within our communities.