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.