Too Big to Discipline? How a Mega-Church Practices Matthew 18
“We’re committed to being small because we believe in shepherding.”
I was meeting with some leaders of a small church as they searched for their next pastor, and I asked about their vision for ministry. Their blunt connection between size and shepherding not only struck me as an odd thing to say, I also struggled not being offended. After all, my church isn’t small, and the comment implied that large churches don’t believe in shepherding.
At one level, I get it.
There are too many examples of mega-churches who’ve given up on elders caring for the congregation at a personal level. The number of people and the scale of the ministry seem to make it impossible to know the struggles of members. In these churches, elders function more like a board of directors. The church feels corporate. Knowing the spiritual state of people is delegated to voluntary small groups.
When it comes to church discipline, there’s a familiar refrain: “The mega-church is just too big to discipline.”
But does it have to be this way?
I sure hope not. In fact, our church is trying to navigate our way through these challenges as we lead the 2,402 members who call College Park Church home.
In fact, we believe we’re too big not to discipline.
How does shepherding and discipline work in a large church? It involves conviction, care and celebration.
Practicing church discipline in any church—but especially large churches—must come from a conviction about spiritual growth, the role of elders, and the authority of the Word.
Spiritual growth is a community project. While people are converted individually, their spiritual growth is connected to a community of believers that both helps and reflects their maturity. A believer is part of the body, a group of people whose spiritual vitality is interconnected. Our conviction about the Christian-life-as-community requires us to be concerned for each other’s spiritual success or failure. As I’ve heard Mark Dever say before, “Your spiritual life is other people’s business.”
When it comes to elders, we believe shepherding the flock of God is their primary responsibility (1 Pet. 5:2). Elders will give an account for the souls of people (Heb. 13:17). While we value the role of governance, we don’t allow the shepherding function (knowing, feeding, leading and protecting) to be pushed aside or delegated to others. Elders must be shepherds.
When it comes to practicing church discipline, this also requires a biblical conviction. We believe that Matthew 18 is a God-given mandate. Since our church’s founding in the 1980s there was a strong commitment live out this text. As the church grew from 40 to 4,000, the question was never if we would practice discipline; it was only how.
Our convictions made church discipline a non-negotiable, and that’s where every church must start, even mega-churches.
Convictions, however, only get you so far. If there isn’t a wise and creative process, it’s easy to allow the hurdles of a large church to become barriers. Therefore, there are a number of wise steps we take.
First, we have a formal membership process and a visible church covenant. Every person must walk through our membership class, and they must be interviewed by an elder. We want to be certain they understand who we are as a church, what we believe, our vision for spiritual growth, and our commitment to practice restorative church discipline. To insure all of this is clear, every person signs a document prior to membership affirming his or her understanding of these convictions.
We also work hard to create a culture of mutual concern for one another. We talk about church discipline; we teach on it. Our small group leader training includes instruction on various levels of spiritual care. Their handbook includes a section on how Matthew 18 is applied at our church. Our small group leaders are connected to our elders through a coaching structure that provides a pathway for engaging an elder when needed.
Third, we have an active Discipline Committee. They serve as the practical stewards of our church-wide discipline process. If a two-on-one conversation has not been successful, this group of godly leaders is engaged. They meet with the parties involved and prayerfully design a path forward. They monitor the status of people who are under their care, and they make recommendations to the elders regarding next steps when needed.
Finally, our Elders receive the recommendations from the committee and vote to bring the matter to our members during a congregational meeting. Our first public step is to bring the issue as a matter of prayer (“tell it to the church”). In this somber moment, we remind our members about the necessity of church discipline, share the name of the church member, and identify in general terms the nature of the concern. We invite the church to help bring about repentance in the member as we give the brother or sister time to listen.
If this proves unsuccessful, the elders pursue the final public step: a recommendation for removal (“let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector”). We invite the church to vote, seeking their affirmation of this final step.
This multi-step process is ongoing with people constantly moving in and out of the purview of the discipline committee. We rejoice that far more people are helped and restored in the process than removed. But the official action of removal is a part of the body life of our church.
You might think it odd to include celebration in this discussion. But it’s important to remember that the goal of discipline is always restoration. Therefore, when restoration happens, we rejoice.
Some of our most memorable congregational meetings have been the restoration of previously disciplined members. As the Lord has brought repentance and as our elders have affirmed the time-tested genuineness of the person’s transformation, we invite the church to welcome the brother or sister back into the church family. There’s no vote more enthusiastic and redemptive. And I’ll often have people comment, “This is what it means to be the church.”
Is practicing church discipline in a mega-church hard? Absolutely! Navigating the complexity and creating a functional process is a lot of effort.
But it’s possible. And it’s worth it.
A church doesn’t have to be small to shepherd its people. It just has to be convinced that when it comes to church discipline, size is no excuse. There is no church too big to discipline.