June 29th, 2019


Qui tacet consentiret

I attended a cookout yesterday on a hill overlooking the fairgrounds. After the meal, we sat around and waited for the fireworks. Our hosts were Deanne's sister and brother-in-law. The crowd consisted of some of their family, plus many of their local friends.

This being Bloomington, the drift of casual conversation was generally leftward. That doesn't bother me. I don't have to argue every point of every controversy. I can be polite and platitudinous as required. But someone mentioned early on his belief that election day should be either on a Sunday (as they often hold it in Europe) or at least a mandatory day off for all workers. Only 47% of eligible voters actually voted in the last election, he said. He assumed that changing the way we hold the election would bring more people to the polls. He also assumed, I think, that those missing electors would, in the exercise of their civic duty, provide us with better government -- according to his notions of what "better government" would be.

Keep in mind that we hold the polls open for 12 hours. Very few persons absolutely can't get there, who want to. Keep in mind also that "absentee voting" has morphed into "early voting," and that in some localities, nearly half the ballots are cast before election day, at the convenience of the individual voters. Without going into quite all that, I said that the 53% of voters who didn't vote were rendering an opinion, even if one couldn't quite interpret it clearly. They were either saying that they liked the status quo, or that they were indifferent to it. And I said I imagined that if you gave everybody a day off on election day, you might see all those absent voters just go to the beach instead of head to the polls. My interlocutor said that they were unlikely to go to the beach in November, which is a point to him, but I stand by my thought.

Why do voters not vote? Nobody really knows. How do we encourage them to vote? Well, we can either so inspire them that they are excited to be voting, or we can stoke anger or fear so high that they feel they must defend themselves with their votes. Now, it's hard -- really hard -- to inspire people that way. Most politicians are pretty mediocre, and most government business is dull. It would be easier, I suppose, to make people angry or afraid (either by demagoguery or by truly awful performance of one's duties) -- but do we really want to try to make people more angry or more afraid?

Maybe 47%, anemic as it seems to many of us, is pretty good. And maybe, if everyone voted, some people would find that not nearly as many people shared their definition of better government. In any case, I remain skeptical that there are legions of good citizens out there just panting to cast a vote for my interlocutor's political preferences, if only they weren't prevented by our rigged system.

Some thoughts on church planting

If you were starting a new congregational mission, what would you be hoping to achieve? Looking at it practically, when you reach your preferred size, how many people (on average) do you see attending per Sunday? This will determine just about everything else about your plans.

Let’s say you think 150 in average attendance is a really nice size. And you want to reach families with children, so they’re included in that. How much building and parking do you need?

Truism No. 1: You cannot average more than 75% of your maximum seating space. People will gladly be crowded on the big days (Easter, Christmas), but your regular attenders want a bit of elbow room. So if you want to average 150, you have to have a sanctuary that seats 200.

Truism No. 2: Most people drive to church. And your available parking cannot average more than 75% full (off-street and on-street combined). People are willing to be inconvenienced on the big days, but not Sunday after Sunday. Which means that to average 150 people you have to have space for about 73 cars – call it 75 just to make the math easier. (Some people drive themselves, some drive in couples, some bring children, and it all averages out to just over 2 ppl/car.) Which means you need about 100 parking spaces available on Sunday morning.

And what if you want to grow beyond 150 average attendance? Well, you can either build a bigger sanctuary (with more parking), or you can add another service. But that service has to be a full-service liturgy, with as much access to programming as the original, and you have to allow for enough parking to overlap the services or for the lot to empty before the next bunch comes in.

150 is a nice size church. Most of my congregations over my career were below that. I think planting churches that are using 150 as a target is an achievable goal. But the denominational planners don’t think so. In the few new-church plants I’ve been close to, the goal announced (internally) before the first worship service has even been held is that we want this congregation to quickly grow to an average of at least 350 in worship. That means you need seating for 467 in the sanctuary, and about 235 parking spaces.

That saddles the new congregation with a lot of debt and a lot of work. Why not just put them in a starter building that will average 150 and then grow them to the next stage? Because congregations are better at maintaining a particular size, with all the processes and relationships peculiar to that size, than doing the uncomfortable things that require growth to the next size. So you really need to have a target in mind and grow toward it. If you want to average 350 in worship, you have to act like a church of 350 even when you’re brand-new and averaging 75.

It’s a big job to grow a church of 350 from scratch. There’s a lot of risk to it, too. So why not start 2 or 3 150-average congregations? We have lots more people who could accomplish that. And here, you’ll get into a lot of malarkey about “people want to belong to certain-sized institutions” and so on. The real reason the denomination prefers big churches to small-medium churches is pure finance.

If you’re going to pay for a full elder with all the benefits to be the pastor (not to mention the fixed costs of operating your building), you need more people giving. If you want to provide places to promote clergy to, you need some bigger churches to promote them to. And if you want that congregation to generate enough giving to finance the Conference’s budget, you want a large enough congregation that can pay significant apportionments. It’s that simple.

We could start 2 or 3 congregations that would average 150 in worship for about the same money and aggravation – and with a larger talent pool of pastors to start with – for every new start that will eventually average 350 or more. But we don’t. And the reason we don’t has to do with jobs and institutions more than reaching the lost. Clergy don’t want to go back to pastoring two-point charges, every church wants its own pastor, and the powers that be keep hiring more staff and launching more programs. The small-medium church is inefficient for those purposes, though it has proven its soul-winning and discipling capacities over and over again.

There, I said it.