aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Size doesn't matter, except when it does

I read an article online today about four kinds of churches that are going to die. I agreed with it; more than that, I noted that I had pastored all four kinds of churches mentioned over my 41-year career. (For the record, the four kinds were the church that no longer connects to the Bible, the church that exists only for its own members' comfort, the church that likes to fight and intrigue, and the church that no longer looks like the community it is part of.) There are lots of other such articles out there, all trying to tell us what's wrong with the church, and how to make it right.

Many, if not most, of these articles assume that size is a prime indicator of congregational health. If you're not growing (or have not grown to a particular size), then you are obviously shrinking (or stagnant). In any case, if you want to succeed like the successful (i.e., moderately large to ginormous-sized) churches, you need to do blah blah, yada yada, yackety schmackety.

I largely agree with most of what these writers say, but -- and it's a big BUT -- size doesn't always indicate what you think it does, and it can't be used as an overall indicator of spiritual vitality or effectiveness in ministry. To put it bluntly, there is no spiritual or organizational reason why a congregation averaging 20 per week in worship attendance can't be just as successful as one averaging 200.

For one thing, even in that congregation averaging 200, there may only be 20 people who do the bulk of the personal ministry, the bulk of the giving, and the bulk of the praying. Old anecdotal evidence, frequently shared -- the 80/20 rule -- might indicate that a congregation or 200 probably has 40 people actually making it go, but lay that to the side. There is no reason why 20 people can't worship God, grow in grace, evangelize their neighbors, and do good works that reach from their neighborhood to the farthest corner of the world. Similarly, there is no reason why 200 people can't be just as strong as 2,000 people. To take an example from history, a monastery with 20 monks could chant just as many psalms and be just as faithful in alms as a monastery of 200; within the constraints of their vision of spiritual vitality, there need be no bar to consider them both "good" monasteries. So, why do we keep talking about size?

Well, there is no doubt that 200 people can do a lot more for Christ than 20 can, though 20 can do plenty. Larger size brings with it greater resources of all kinds and also greater opportunities that come from a wider network of relationships that bridge the congregation into the community outside. But a church of 200 attenders watching 20 people do ministry is no more effective than a church of 20 attenders where everyone does ministry.

The problem with small size is that the fixed costs of doing ministry the way we think ministry ought to be done needs a certain size in order to be viable. One fixed cost is maintaining your sacred space. Buildings are expensive to maintain. A church of any size tasked with keeping up a building too large for them to maintain will face significant struggles. An average attendance of 20 will find itself either consumed with keeping up its building, or will simply let it deteriorate. Either way, its ministry will be negatively impacted, maybe to the point of not being able to continue. But the same could be said for a congregation of 200 worshiping in a building built to accommodate 2,000. Now, it was a long time before churches built buildings of their own, so it's perfectly possible to go to a "house church" model, I suppose, and be effective in ministry. But still, if you want a public presence, if you want to control your sacred space to make exclusive use of it, you're going to need to buy or rent or lease property, and that takes a certain number of active givers and doers to maintain.

The other fixed cost of doing ministry is clergy leadership. A house church in the style of a Methodist class meeting doesn't need professional clergy on the payroll, though it needs to be connected to someone who can provide clergy oversight. This is very Wesleyan. And many small (and medium) sized churches are, effectively, no more complicated than a single class meeting, so a traveling elder who comes by once a quarter and conducts business, offers the sacraments, and preaches a revival -- the standard model of our frontier days -- is still a viable model. Except few congregations want that, and likewise few clergy. The station model, whereby one pastor (or pastor-cum-staff) serves one congregation is what everyone seems to want. But it's an expensive way to go. Ordained clergy are hard to pay for, and while un-ordained clergy do yeoman's work, they lack the education and standing that our best clergy have. And every church deserves to have the attention of our best, at least every once in a while.

So, small is not a barrier to spiritual vitality, but you've got to watch out for the fixed costs relating to property and clergy employment. Too many of our congregations find themselves obsessing over property issues and what the pastor is up to: they have no resources to spare for actually doing ministry.

But just growing large enough isn't the answer. There are also lots of congregations that are plenty big, but they use their resources to make their buildings more comfortable for themselves while they hire others to do ministry on their behalf. They come to the "worship center" to be entertained. They have lots of programs, but most of them are deemed "good" if they simply put seats in the seats; they have no other yardstick to measure success by. And when you challenge them, they point out how huge they are and say, in effect, Whadda you got to compare with what we got?

I believe that every church of every size CAN be a successful church. Helping them do that is the challenge. Toward that end, we need a means of evaluating congregations that avoid the buzzwords and inside baseball employed by so many church ministry gurus. We need to be able to help every church, of whatever size, to see what it can do for Christ. And we need to be able to help every church, of whatever size, see where it is failing.

Toward that end, I wrote a huge piece on congregational evaluation years ago and sent it to our Conference Council on Ministries Director. It was sent back, almost by return post, as if I had nothing of value to say. In essence, I suggested that we adopt a criterion-based evaluation system similar to how accrediting agencies review higher education degree programs and how BSA accredits summer camps.

I wrote a set of Congregational Standards covering all aspects of church ministry and administration. A set of Standards that any church of any size might be expected to live up to. Each standard was either a Yes, we have that/do that or a No, we don't. There was no ambiguity about what was expected of a congregation to have or to do. Any layperson could understand what was being asked of them; no special consultants were required to interpret the oracular wisdom. Certain standards would be marked Mandatory. To be accredited for another year, each congregation would be required to make a certain score -- say, 75% of all standards in compliance -- as well as not failing a single mandatory standard.

A committee headed by the District Lay Leader (not a clergyperson!) would be in charge of implementing the accreditation program. Each spring, a team of laypersons from the District would come to your church to worship with you and stay for a meeting of congregational leaders to review the standards. Those congregations who passed (presumably, most of them) would be given a mark of recognition and some praise. At the same time, certain areas where work was needed would be pointed out, and this would help the congregational leadership by giving them a fair and friendly outsiders' look at themselves.

Meanwhile, those who didn't make the required score -- or who failed at least one mandatory standard -- would be given the best input available, but also be expected to concentrate on either doing better on enough standards to qualify, or fixing the problem in the mandatory standard(s) they failed. The District Superintendent would be expected to enter into consultation with the pastor and key leadership. And a report at that fall's Charge Conference addressing the deficiencies would be required.

If a congregation failed to achieve accreditation two years in a row, corrective action would be mandated, up to and including a recommendation to shut down a program, change leadership (lay as well as clergy), or a recommendation to close the church. Those are drastic actions, and I trust in the vast majority of cases, congregations would find a way to do at least a sufficient number of right and proper things to stay in business. But where they can't or won't, we need to do them and ourselves a favor and look to re-allocate our resources. So long as the standards aren't rigged against any particular size or kind of church, and so long as the process is fair and friendly, I think it would be well received. It just might help some of our congregations do great things!

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