When Church Outgrows You

Posted: April 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

It was during the light banter that goes on during the meal of a service club: people were comparing notes about the issues relevant to them and their faith communities. Our catholic friend said that his parish needed to get a parish administrator so that the overburdened priest had time to do what he was called to do in the first place. Another said that his church was dealing with “entertainment culture,” the way that persons in our society expect to be entertained, even at church. I talked about the way that the measures of vitality in church life are changing; the membership model of roles and numbers don’t work anymore. And then the last table mate spoke and his story was different.

He shared how he and his wife had become part of an intimate new church start and how they knew everyone. He played basketball with the pastor once a week. And then, because of good location and doing church well, they began to grow. It was in spurts. And before you know it they were at 300, 600, 1200 …

“And we just woke up one day and said to each other that this was not what we signed on for.” They had found a real faith community that mattered to them and then it outgrew them. Somehow they didn’t make the transition from small church to large and find the places of intimacy within the whole, such as in small groups.

They left that large and growing church and found a little country church a half mile from their house. Their family made up half the children’s program. Everyone is on a first name basis. It feels right again.

In our culture today a goodly number of people want to go to spiritual communities where they can be anonymous, slide in and leave without much interaction with others. They want to be a part of the crowd and it’s just right for them. But for people who want to really feel as though they belong to a congregation, go deeper than the social level to the personal, size matters and congregations can become too big.

Some religious researchers have identified optimal size gatherings for a congregation – one that provides enough resource to do active mission and ministry and yet remain very personal and relational. It’s about 300 or so. After that they sub-divide and start new sites and gatherings never meant to exceed around 300.

The other answer is to multiply the opportunities for small group participation within large bodies. When done well the congregation enjoys the opportunities provided by larger scale while simultaneously experiencing intimacy through small groups. People who want to be anonymous can be and those who want to connect more deeply may do so.  Disciples of Jesus may be formed either way.

I have a friend who attended a mega church in St. Louis and shared his experience. He entered and exited without interaction with anyone, though he could have accessed a myriad of groups and ministries if he cared to do so. The senior pastor informed the crowd during his announcements that no, he would not remember their names, so please don’t expect it. “How else?” I asked my disappointed friend. If he wants more intimacy in religious community he’s in the wrong place.

And then there is individual personality structure. Where and how will you feel comfortable belonging? We all want to belong, but at what level and in what way?

Yes, church can outgrow you. It can get too large and we don’t know how to adapt. Or we don’t care to adapt. But one thing is for certain, if we’re growing bigger communities of faith we are going to have to find ways to connect, most usually by thinking smaller. I think Jesus’ inner circle was twelve, right?

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