WHAT IF WE GOT BIGGER?

Our small congregation was worshipping. We were a bit smaller than normal but it wasn’t a problem—we knew where everyone was and they were all healthy and safe. Our worship proceeded at its normal pace: some scheduled stuff and lots of unscheduled interruptions and questions. Our worship resembles a worship service wrapped in a Bible study packaged in a theological seminary, trimmed with laughter and sprinkled with lots of questions and insights.

We share, we sing, we read and discuss Scripture, we pray, we have a sort of a sermon—we worship and it is a worship that we all find satisfying and uplifting. And since we have been shut down for three months, we are just getting back into the process, everyone enjoying the opportunity to get back to something we deeply enjoy.

As we were winding up, one of the participants raised another question. She wondered what would happen if we got bigger. Would we be able to do the same sort of worship? Her speculation was that we might be able to be the same up to a certain point but after that, there would just be too many people to do what we do. We joked a bit about that but for her, it was a real concern, not a major concern and certainly not one that will drive her to refuse entry to new people but a concern nonetheless.

I don’t expect our doors will be broken down by hoards of people wanting to be a part of our worship in the near future but since then I have been thinking some about the church in general and in specific. We have something unique and special in this congregation, something that works in part because of our small numbers. It is also possible because we are a group of people who share faith, a concern for understanding our faith, an appreciation for each other and a variety of other things.

For us, the church becomes a place where people can worship in the context of a free-flowing, unstructured structure that allows everyone freedom to participate. It works for us. But if we change the mix of people, it might not work as well, although our experience with visitors over the years is that they tend to find what we offer interesting. It will also change if we get a lot more people—the time factor will come into play. When half our group of 8-10 have a question or comment, we have time for that. But if we had 50 people and half of them had equally interesting questions or insights, there simply wouldn’t be time for what we do now.

I personally am not going to lie awake at night wondering what we are going to do about this. The church—both our little church and the church as a whole—isn’t static, or at least is shouldn’t be static. The Holy Spirit enables the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place. Or rather, it is better to say the Holy Spirit seeks to enable the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place.

But time and place and people change and the church needs to change as well. What we do now works well for us. Our church is stronger and more grounded because of our unique approach to worship (and Bible study as well). It has given us an opportunity to explore our faith and develop new understandings and ideas. All of us are stronger in our faith because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst.

But neither the church nor the Spirit is static. The question we need to deal with isn’t “What if we change?” but “Where is the Spirit leading us?”. Change is inevitable. Our response as believers is not to try and convince ourselves and the Spirit that what happened yesterday is the only way the Spirit can lead but rather to use the Spirit’s presence to find the courage to embrace the change the Spirit is bringing to us so that we can continue to serve God and do his will.

Fortunately, I think that all of us in our small worshipping group have the willingness to recognize that things change—and hopefully, because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst, we will have the faith and courage to accept His change.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

HEALTHY CHURCH HEALTHY PASTOR: SO WHAT?

As part of my efforts to keep up with what is going on in the wider Christian culture, I read several blogs each day. There are probably more blogs available to read than there is time to read so any choices about which blogs to read need to be made carefully. (Thank you for talking time to read this one.)

The ones I have chosen to read so far are chosen on the basis of some simple guidelines that work for me. The things I read, either on the Internet or in print need to:
• Inform me
• Educate me
• Have some point of contact with me
• Sometimes agree with my thinking
• Often disagree with and challenge my thinking

The last point becomes one of the most important in terms of my willingness to continue reading–I have never been a fan of only reading what I already know I agree with. Reading what I agree with might be ego boasting in the short term but it becomes boring after a time. Reading what I might disagree with means that I have to think in the process of reading, evaluate the content and discover how it affects what I think.

Today, I just finished that reading process and discovered that a couple of the blogs were both dealing with an issue that I often struggle with. One suggested that every small church can be (and probably should be) a large church. The other suggested that every small church pastor needs to be working to develop the small church into a bigger church. Both blogs are well written and have good theory and theology.

But both make an assumption that I find it difficult to make. Both these writers, like many other Christian writers these days, seem to assume that numerical growth in the church is either a key goal or the key goal of everything we do. I have struggled with that assumption for years–both publically and privately.

Part of my struggle comes from the fact that I think the New Testament model of church seems to support that idea that the role of the church–pastors, leaders and laity–is growth in faith. As individual believers develop their understanding of faith and engage in good spiritual growth practises, they will inevitably enable the congregation as a whole to develop a deeper and stronger faith that will have a powerful effect not only on the congregation but also on the world.

As pastors and church leaders work on their own spiritual health, they will more effectively shepherd and guide the growing church. The goal is healthy, growing believers in a healthy growing congregation. That growth might include numerical growth–but it may not include numerical growth. As I wrote in a blog posting here for October 20, 2015, it is God who brings people to himself and the church–we provide the healthy nursery through our spiritual development but God chooses when and if to introduce new believers.

When the goal of the church and its activity is numerical growth only, we miss the point. Our purpose is the development of spiritually healthy believers, spiritually healthy congregations, spiritually healthy leaders and spiritually healthy pastors. This emphasis on spiritual health will make foundational differences in the church.

Instead of arguing and fighting, we learn to listen, love and work together. That by itself is sufficient reason for focusing on spiritual health, given the number of congregations that are slowly self-destructing even as they move heaven and earth to make one new convert. But the benefits of focusing on spiritual health go even further–as we grow in faith as individuals and as congregations, we discover more and more blessings. We develop the ability to love God, each other, ourselves and others and understand how to show that love in very practical and powerful ways.

I think the words of Matthew 6:33 are very appropriate here. There, Jesus tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” NIV

If we focus on becoming spiritually healthy, we will receive blessings beyond what we can imagine, blessings that will touch our lives, the life of the congregation and the rest of the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING EVALUATIONS 2

This long string of blogs dealing with the evaluation process traces back to my understanding of Acts 2.42-47. There is one line in that passage that we need to pay careful attention to so that what we do is done for the right reasons. That one line makes a lot of what churches and church leaders do today misguided as best and wrong at its worst.

You don’t have to be deeply involved in the church today to see that there is a lot of pressure on churches to be growing numerically. There are books, seminars, workshops and training sessions on how to grow a church. When these don’t work, leaders fall back on the traditional motivator–guilt. Baptisms are given prominent coverage in denominational publications. In fact, for many people today, growing numerically is the standard for a good church.

The problem is that numerical growth isn’t the church’s business. We have tended to make it our business and in some cases, we have been successful. Using methods and approaches borrowed from business, advertising and the social sciences coupled with tricks and tips handed on by generations of church leaders, we can make a church grow numerically. If we don’t worry about how long a person stays involved in the faith or how much they really understand the faith, we can rack up some impressive figures using these techniques.

But numerical growth is not the same as people coming to faith. Numerical growth techniques may bring some people to Christ but is just as likely to bring people to a person, an institution, an idea, a theory–anything but Christ. The church, like any other human organization, can find ways to attract new people at least for a time.

But neither the church nor individual believers can bring people to faith for the simple reason that it is God who brings people to himself, not us. Look at the second half of Acts 2.47, where we are told, ” And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (NIV) The church in Jerusalem was worshipping, fellowshipping, educating, and serving. They were being faithful to their new found faith, discovering what was required, what needed to be changed, what new ways they were being asked to follow.

They made some mistakes which they learned from and corrected–they were concerned with offering to God their best. But it was God who gave them new believers. Certainly, they were involved in the process–as they carried out their responsibilities in the four functional area, they were not only serving God but also were creating a safe and secure home for themselves and new believers whom God was bringing to the faith, partly through their efforts. But the bringing of people to faith in Christ is God’s responsibility, not ours.

I sometimes use the image of the church as a nursery to help explain this reality. God is in charge of bringing people to himself and when people finally surrender to him, he wants them to have a safe place to go to as their begin their new life. When the church is working at being strong in the four functional areas, discovering its weaknesses and dealing with them then it is becoming a safe nursery for God to use for the protection and development of his new followers.

The flip side of that is that a church which isn’t a safe and secure nursery cannot expect God to place new believers in their midst–what loving parent places babies in an situation that they know is unsafe and likely to harm the baby?

Our job as churches is to make sure that we have as strong a church as possible, a church where the four functions are in balance and we regularly check ourselves, doing the necessary repairs and maintenance. This is our job, one that regular evaluations help us do more effectively.

We can find ways to bring in new people–but only God can bring people to himself and such is his love for these new believers that he wants a safe and secure nursery for them. If we work at providing the safe and secure nursery then God has the opportunity to bless us with new believers, when and where he sees fit.

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.