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A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #3: Smaller. Bigger ©

Texas Wesleyan University has been engaged in an award-winning advertisement campaign for student admissions. The campaign is built around a clever and insightful slogan, “Smaller. Smarter.” The slogan is clever in that it is easy to remember. It is deeply insightful because it captures an essence of the educational adventure that Texas Wesleyan offers. As a church-related (United Methodist) liberal arts university, Texas Wesleyan University is committed to smaller classes where students receive intimate mentoring and direction from high quality professors and thus emerge smarter. By implication, they emerge with a four-year university degree at a point of insight, intellectual growth and maturity that is more advanced than a large 4-year university. As we face the church of tomorrow, our slogan might instead be “Smaller. Bigger.” For well over two decades now, we have been watching a national trend in churches that cuts across denominational groupings. The trend is a growing number of very large congregations. Typically worshipping 700 or more on an average Sunday, they might best be labelled regional churches. Somewhere around 1,800 in average worship attendance, churches move into what might well be called the “mega” church category.  Regional and mega churches have been growing all across America, not only in non-denominational varieties but also in mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church. Here in the Central Texas Conference, our rise in worship attendance has largely been driven by our churches with over 500 in average worship attendance. Simultaneously, there is a national trend in the direction of smaller congregations. More and more congregations are going part-time in their pastoral appointments, with average worship somewhere between 30 and 75 in attendance. (Lovett Weems’ calculations indicate that it takes an average worship attendance of 126 to afford a full-time elder in The United Methodist Church today. Our calculations in Central Texas, while varying from church to church, tend to hover at around 100 in average worship attendance to financially support a full-time elder.) This growth in small churches represents an intimate deepening walk with Christ in settings that are often lay-led and lay-driven. Where the deepening walk with Christ is present, smaller churches have a health and vitality that is uniquely their own. Many such smaller congregations are often much more able to achieve a high level of supportive spiritual accountability.  People aren’t able to simply sit back and “enjoy the show.” Interestingly, the largest congregations in average worship attendance are actually very fragile.  The pivotal role of senior clergy leadership is crucial. By contrast, churches that have around 50 in average worship attendance tend to be extremely stable. There is a strength and vitality in the small church that is exciting. (This is a part of why we emphasize not only the Healthy Church Initiative, HCI, but also the Small Church Initiative, SCI.) We face a future in The United Methodist Church that is at once going to be smaller and bigger. It much more difficult to engage in standardization in ministry. Put differently, one size DOES NOT fit all! Both pastors and lay leaders need very different skill sets for these two different mission fields. Meanwhile, churches that average 150 – 300 in average worship attendance (medium sized) and churches that average 300-700 (large sized) tend to be either climbing or declining but are rarely stable. The shifting landscape on the American scene really is smaller and bigger at the same time. In urban environments, there are also an increasing number of very large churches that have multiple numbers of small satellites. They are combining smaller and bigger in exciting and creative ways which capture the best of both worlds! Alan Hirsch in his tremendous book, The Forgotten Ways notes the rising sense of highly committed small groups. (Think of the fellowship of the ring in the Tolkien trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Even more, think of Jesus and the original 12 disciples.  Add in the original Methodist class meeting.) We are going to see a continued growth in house church groups and in the health and strength of small town or rural congregations which offer vibrant spiritual connections to the Lord and each other.  They will be served by less than full time pastors. The very organizational shape of the church is changing in ways that are hard for our current structure to keep up with let alone effectively lead. Hirsch notes that the church will be made up of “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pg. 236). Jolynn and I experienced a fascinating example of this about a decade ago when our daughter was a student at the University of York in England. As good parents, we saved some vacation time and went over for Thanksgiving to visit her in her semester abroad study. We were there for the first Sunday in Advent that year. Together as a family, we chose to go to the great York Minster Cathedral for Sunday Advent evening worship. As we entered (over an hour early thinking we’d have no trouble finding a seat), we were shocked to discover that the great cathedral, which is typically very sparsely attended during a regular Sunday worship, was packed. There were well over 2,000 people present. We sat in folding chairs on the side aisle. While waiting for the service to start, we visited with the family behind us. They were in their mid-thirties with two preschool children. They lived in York and were very active practicing Christians in a local Baptist Church. They did not in any way identify with the Church of England. Puzzled, we asked them what brought them to the great Cathedral (the seat of one of three Archbishops in the Anglican Church) this night. They shared that they came to the cathedral, as did many Christians from a variety of churches, for high festival celebrations but spent their regular Sundays and discipleship formation activities in their much smaller church that was served by a part-time pastor holding another job. It is this model that many suggest we will see more and more of; large regional churches that serve as centers for faith and community coupled with small – in essence house churches – churches in a small setting with limited space. I believe we are witnessing a gradually unfolding work of the Holy Spirit. Historically, if you study the cathedral system that gradually arose in Europe, it was originally this model: small communities encircling larger centers of worship and praise. For United Methodists, this represents a dramatic institutional change that is imperceptibly taking place. It is difficult, given our common ecclesiastical assumptions, to adjust to. “Smaller. Bigger.” evokes a very different set of clergy needs and competencies.  It elicits different patterns of organizational structure and decision making.  I hope to address those issues in a follow up blog.