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.