Thursday 27 March 2008

Churches that grow too big?

Great and interesting series of Easter posts by Mike Croghan critiquing classic US denominational models of Church, including a great post about Church size and growth. When you go over 75-100, he suggests, it becomes very difficult to maintain real relationships:
I can't think of anything that a single church community can do which a network of communities working together can't do (though admittedly, such networks would probably move more slowly in many cases). On the other hand, I can think of a bunch of thorny issues that begin to arise when communities get so big that anonymity is possible - which probably happens when they approach 50 or 70 adults; fewer if the leadership responsibility is concentrated in one or two individuals. Once anonymity is possible, the church ceases to be a community of followers of Jesus.
He draws attention to two particular issues:
  • It's not a community where relationship is optional. It's OK to be an introvert. It's OK to hang back and take relationship at your own pace. But once it's possible to simply fall through the cracks - to neither know or be known and for no-one to realize that - it's not a community. It's more like a neighborhood - or a housing development. There are , no doubt, communities within the neighborhood - groups of people who share real relationship with each other - but the only thing shared by the entire group is not relationship, but mere proximity. Just like in the average housing development in the US today.
  • It's not community where following Jesus is optional. It's OK to be just starting on the way. It's OK to not be sure you want to be on that way at all. But it should be clear to everyone that following Jesus is what the community is about. It's not a group with a dual track: one group of people who try to be disciples, and a second group who choose the second, perfectly acceptable alternate track: simply show up once a week and pay for services provided by the first group. Oh, I know that every church says it's about discipleship. But practical reality speaks way louder than words, and the fact is that in communities large enough for folks to "slip through the cracks", it's blatantly obvious to all involved that the "just show up and consume" option is a perfectly valid one, 'cause folks can see plenty of people all around them choosing that.
Thinking of our network of almost 300 congregations in Bucks, I can see real truth in Mike’s words, encouraging and challenging. Encouraging because it’s a tremendous opportunity to serve in a Church which doesn’t (by dint of history) have any denominational coherence, and never has had. Practically speaking, there are one or two large (even four figure) congregations, but they have a really sophisticated game plan for maintaining community on a smaller scale within them. Far, far more often, parishes come in small packets: Mike’s 75-100 figure is eerily accurate for many. Call that good news, if you will, where people really relate to each other within those congregations — and that does happen surprisingly often. Smaller rural Churches can be really strong relationally; places where everybody is somebody. Sometimes.

I’d add a third problem to Mike’s two. People can be too geed up about quantity. The first question people ask vicars at parties, and vicars ask themselves, is often “how big is your congregation?” Fear and fantasy infects their minds, and they begin to think they are failures if they don’t grow into a 200+ congregation. So they flog themselves to try and grow. This compromises their authenticity, which in itself prevents them growing. Thus the vicious circle runs, and the more they bash their head against a wall, the more it hurts, and the more stuck they become.Jesus once said something interesting about grapes, figs and briars. A Tangerine is not a Small Orange, and however hard it fantasizes about being a Big Orange, God won’t let it happen.

What concerns me isn't the size of congregations as much as Mike’s second point about dual tracks. Where congregations of any size become “dual track” with a bunch of keenies doing the Jesus bit and everybody else in it for what they can get out of it, or sheer force of habit, Houston, we have a problem. We’re probably less hung up (explicitly) on numbers than Americans, but more hung up on relationality. Hmm. What do you think?
PS h/t Studiohermetique for “Schizophrenic Supplicants, above.

1 comment:

Mike Croghan said...

I always love the images you find. :-)

You know, I think it's just natural for all of us to have this nagging worry in the back of our heads about numbers. It's not just ego and it's not just culture - it's also this nagging doubt - "If we're not growing (much), are we really changing people's lives? Are we really living out the Great Commission?" The flip side of that, of course, is: "If we were growing like gangbusters, but not actually developing real relationships with people and not actually teaching each other to follow Jesus through those relationships - would we really be changing people's lives or living out the GC?"

Thanks, +Alan!

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