A GROWING CHURCH

One of the blogs I read regularly has been inviting me to sign up for a course that will help me take my church beyond the dreaded 200 barrier.  For those of you who don’t spend as much time as I do reading about things relevant and irrelevant to ministry, the 200 barrier refers to the reality that most congregations never grow beyond 200 in attendance.  Actually, perhaps the majority of churches in the world have far fewer in attendance than that.  But to really be a congregation of consequence in North America, a church has to break that barrier–and this course will help with that.

I am not signing up for the course.   Partly, that is because I am  not much interested in having someone else tell me what to study–I think that I have been doing ministry long enough that I can design and do my own research.  But the main reason I am not signing up for the course is that I am positive that it will be no help to me in my ministry.  In one of the pastorates that I serve, I would really like to reach 20 in regular attendance–and in the other, 30 would be a great number to achieve.  I have no problem at all with the 200 barrier–that is so far from where we are that I don’t need to spend any time on it at all.

However, the strong emphasis on growing church numbers means that my congregations and therefore my ministry are seen as somehow being less than acceptable and maybe even ineffective.  I have even heard people suggesting that congregations like the ones I serve should be closed down and the members amalgamated with larger congregations that can do some real ministry.  Fortunately, as a Baptist, the only people who can make those decisions are the members of the local congregation.

The question I keep having to confront grows out of this emphasis in numbers.  Does a worshipping community that averages 10 in worship constitute a real church?  Is it worth the effort to sustain and maintain a group of 25 people meeting in several buildings?  Is it a real ministry when one visitor represents a 10% increase in our attendance?

You might expect that as someone who has spend a whole career in those size congregations that I would automatically say yes to all those questions.  But the truth is, I would actually say that it depends.  But the dependant variables involved in the answer have nothing to do with the numbers–numbers are a revered Western measuring tool that in the end, tell us very little about the quality and character of whatever the numbers are measuring.

What makes a congregation a viable church is the nature and strength of its commitment.  If the congregation is focused on serving God where and as he leads, it is a viable church.  If the congregation is doing all it can to effectively do what God has called it to do, it is a viable church.  If the ministry is helping people grow in their understanding of and ability to practise their faith, it is a viable ministry.

If, however, the congregation is focused on surviving long enough to host the funeral of the last member, it has ceased to be viable and healthy.  If worries about money and repairs and finding preachers take up all the time and energy of the congregation, it is not really a viable church.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be shut down.  While that may be the appropriate solution for some congregations, in my mind, this is always the last and least desirable option.  A struggling, unfocused, misguided congregation can change.  With time and good pastoral care, even a dying congregation can become healthy.  It may not grow in numbers but if it can refocus itself and redirect its time and energy to serving God, it becomes a real and viable church that can and does have a positive impact for the Kingdom of God.

My calling is not to break the 20 barrier or the 200 barrier.  My calling is to help congregations realize who they are and what they are called to do and help them become what they are meant to be and do what they are called to do.  And when we do this, we are becoming the church God has called us to be regardless of our numbers.

May the peace of God be with you.

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HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

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.

SMALL CHURCH GROWTH PATTERNS

One congregation of which I was a pastor had about 40 people in worship when I began working there. Finances were a problem and I began as a 3/4 time pastor. During my ministry there, we baptized more than 25 people, accepted many transfers of membership and welcomed lots of people who became more or less permanent parts of our church life. When I left the church, the average attendance was about 40 people, finances were a problem and I left the church as a 1/2 pastor.

When measured by some common standards, the church experienced no growth during my time there. Using what a friend of mine calls the “nickels and noses” standard, which is almost the only measuring stick commonly used for congregations, we were not a good example of church growth. There are other methods of measuring church growth and we will look at these in later blogs but since the “nickels and noses” approach is so widely used, I would like to reflect on why that is a poor ruler for measuring small churches.

We begin with some basic realities. Small churches have very different growth patterns. My experience is with small congregations in rural areas far from urban areas. Congregations in this area show three basic growth patterns:

1. A few are growing numerically and financially. But that growth needs to be seen in context. Such growth generally happens only at irregular intervals and is directly related to a variety of other factors like pastoral style and tenure, development of culturally appropriate ministries or an influx of people in the community. Such growth tends to happen for a period of time and then move into another of the three patterns.

2. A few are declining rapidly. While those attending can remember glory days when the congregation was bigger and had lots of ministry, they are now a small group meeting in a old building that probably has mold and serious repair needs being served by some form of part time pastor who may be a retired pastor or a lay person. Such congregations have negative nickels and noses and don’t have a long future.

3. The third pattern is most common. The church is essentially static, maintaining about the same attendance and membership for years. Some are showing a slight decline over the long term but these congregations are remarkable stable resilient. They have about 40 attending worship this year and may have had 42 in attendance 35 years ago–and if the pattern holds, they will have about 39 in another 35 years, unless they happen to have one of the infrequent growth spurts or some crisis that causes attendance to drop.

The key thing here is that the number may remain relatively stable but the actual people have changed to the point where the majority of the congregation were not there 35 years ago. Take the church I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Over my 17 years or so as pastor, we didn’t exhibit an overall increase in attendance–but did experience a significant turnover of members.

Because we were a small congregation and I am a pastor, I know where most of the people who no longer attend ended up. We lost a few to a crisis concerning my style of leadership–perhaps 4 or 5. Some ended up moving away for school or work. A few found their spirits more in turn with other congregations in the area. Some left the community for nursing homes and so on. Others died. Except for the few lost during the crisis, most of the separations were not made out of anger but out of necessity.

So, did we grow or not? We began and ended with the same number–but if the numbers are the same and the people are different, isn’t that a form of growth? And if the majority of the departures are due to necessity and natural causes, isn’t that stability of numbers a sign of health?
This is especially true in many rural contexts where the community itself is slowly declining–if the church stays at the same number or declines more slowly than the community, perhaps that is a healthy sign as well.

All of this is to suggest that we need different way of measuring the health and vitality of the small church. Nickels and noses simply don’t capture the realities of the small church. Over the next few days, we will look as some other ways of evaluating the small church.

May the peace of God be with you.