I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry. I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance. These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.) I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.
Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small. That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).
But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years. I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size. Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes. One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either. His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.
But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue. If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church? We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?
Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers. And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression. We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?
If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?
This isn’t an anti-big church rant. I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate. But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified. Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.
And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation. It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about. But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.
Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church. Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.
And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship. If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.
May the peace of God be with you.