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Are You Selfish for Taking Your Children to a Small Church?

Andy Stanley is currently being criticized by many in the evangelical world for saying in a recent sermon that parents who take their children to a small church are selfish. Specifically, Mr. Stanley said:

“When I hear adults say, ‘I don’t like a big church. I like about 200. I wanna be able to know everybody.’ I say you are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids. If you don’t go to a church large enough, where you can have enough middle-schoolers and high-schoolers so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big ol’ church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people, and grow up and love the local church. Instead, what you do…you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church, and then they go off to college, and you pray there’ll be a church in their college town that they connect with, and guess what: all those churches are big, the kind of church you don’t like. Don’t attend a church that teaches your children to hate church.”

After instant and widespread outrage, Stanley apologized on Twitter for the offensiveness of his comments. What Stanley did not say, though, is that he now disagrees and repudiates the substance of what he said. One obviously should not apologize just because they say something that might be offensive. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:11 that the preaching of the cross is offensive, but yet we are still commissioned to preach. One should apologize, though, if they say something that is offensive which is also wrong. If I were to critique someone for being lazy, they will almost assuredly be offended, but I should only apologize if I am convinced and convicted of the fact that I was utterly wrong in the substance of my critique. 

Since this is the case, we should not merely express outrage at Andy Stanley for the offensiveness of his comments and for the audacity to tell the majority of Christians today and throughout the history of the church that they are selfish for being a member of a small local church, but rather we should examine the substance of the point that he was making. We should examine the presuppositions behind his argument. What are those presuppositions?

1) Wanting to know everybody in the church is a selfish desire

While Stanley’s main point involved young people in a church, this presupposition is what began his diatribe. Again he said, “When I hear adults say, ‘I don’t like a big church. I like about 200. I wanna be able to know everybody.’ I say you are so stinkin’ selfish.”

Stanley’s assumption is that if a Christian wants to be able to know everyone in his church, that desire is selfish. But why? Certainly it can be a selfish desire. Perhaps someone likes their church just the way it is and so they don’t want any new people to come in and mess it up. They don’t want strangers and visitors sitting in “their” pew. But this does not mean that the desire itself to know everyone in the church is selfish. Christians in a local church are exhorted to love one another, care for one another, encourage one another, build up one another, and spur up one another to love and good works. These responsibilities can be quite difficult if you don’t know anyone in the local church. Has Mr. Stanley considered that many who go to smaller churches do so because they feel they can best carry out their responsibilities to one another as part of a covenant community when they know their fellow members? 

I could even apply this point specifically to pastors. Hebrews 13:17 says that pastors will give an account for how they kept watch over the souls of the people. Is a pastor selfish for wanting the church to be small enough so that he actually knows the names, situations, cares, and concerns of his people in order to shepherd them as one who will give an account? 

This is not to imply that shepherding cannot be adequately done in the context of a mega-church, but it is to say that there are several factors involved in the choices of both pastors and church members which makes such generalized statements dangerous. 

2) Young people flourish best when they can be divided up

This is the main presupposition that informed Stanley’s statement. He said, “If you don’t go to a church large enough, where you can have enough middle-schoolers and high-schoolers so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it.”

What is particularly revealing is what Stanley did not say. He did not mention the need to make sure the gospel is accurately proclaimed, or if the church is doctrinally sound, or if the leadership structure is biblical. Instead, the main priority that one should have in looking for a church, according to this statement, is that the youth of the church can be segregated into smaller groups. To not place a primacy on this fact, according to Stanley, makes a parent selfish. 

The assertion that young people flourish better the more that they are divided up is left unsupported both historically and biblically. Have there been studies that have shown that youth in megachurches thrive spiritually as they move into adulthood whereas youth in smaller churches flounder in the years to come? 

While I have found no such study, even if one did exist, or even if one merely had anecdotal evidence, this would not be a convincing argument unless it is supported biblically.  

When one actually examines the scriptures, you see an emphasis on parents raising their children in the Lord as they teach them the faith, as well as intergenerational discipling relationships as shown in Titus 2. This is not to say that youth groups are intrinsically bad or sinful. Here at Flint Reformed Baptist Church, we have young people that meet together on Wednesday Nights to be taught the word of God, but this is not the totality or even the main way that we seek to teach our youth. The point is that if a church chooses to focus on training parents to disciple their own children and on intergenerational discipling relationships, it is foolish to critique those parents for being selfish when such a charge is lacking any biblical support. 

3) Small churches teach children to hate church

Stanley concludes with a point with the presupposition that small churches will lead to a child hating church; a hate that they will carry with them into adulthood. He says, “Find yourself a big ol’ church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people, and grow up and love the local church. Instead, what you do…you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church, and then they go off to college, and you pray there’ll be a church in their college town that they connect with, and guess what: all those churches are big, the kind of church you don’t like. Don’t attend a church that teaches your children to hate church.”

I have three children and I certainly do not want them to grow up hating the local church. But why is it assumed that this is the case with smaller churches with megachurches being the solution to the problem? Yet again, it would appear that “connecting with a bunch of people” is what Mr. Stanley thinks megachurches can offer which smaller churches cannot. 

While I will concede the point that a thirteen year old boy would probably prefer a church with many other children his age, why would a parent capitulate on this point with something as serious as the local church when they wouldn’t on other issues? For example, if a two year girl only wants to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch for every meal of the day, most parents would realize the need to diversify the child’s diet. If the child were to cry, the parent should not worry that by providing more substantive food which the young child might not always like, he is teaching his child to hate meal-time. Rather, the parent can use this as an opportunity to teach about the purpose of meal time. They can teach how meals are meant to physically nourish us and the types of food that do that best. They can teach that while eating only sugary cereals might seem pleasing initially, they ultimately will not lead to a lasting satisfaction.

It’s the same with the church. It’s great to be able to have a place where you can hang out with friends your age, but this is not the main criteria that we should have when looking for a church. The local church is meant to spiritually nourish us. It is a community built upon the gospel where we are able to grow in our knowledge, faith, and understanding of God as we encourage one another in Christian love. The church is the only place in the world where this happens which is why Christ created it. The regenerated Christian sees their great need for the church and does not spurn or hate the assembly of the saints just because he has to have middle schoolers in his youth group. 

The church that I have the privilege of pastoring, Flint Reformed Baptist Church, is small in relation to many churches. While I pray that God would continue to expand our influence and bring people into our midst, I also know that there is no guarantee from the scriptures that biblical fidelity results in greater attendance. I know that there are big churches and small churches who are biblically faithful and there are big churches and small churches where it would appear that the gospel is not being preached.

At the end of the day, as I consider this controversial statement from Pastor Andy Stanley, it does not bother me because it is offensive, it bothers me because it is wrong. I thank God for churches both big and small in size who faithfully proclaim the gospel and live as a true Christian community.