Saturday, October 17, 2015

The right size for church

My goal is to keep this very simple. Of the writing of books and blogs on how to do church there is no end. It can be tiring to keep up. So I want to focus on one simple reframing I believe can help Christians who participate in any size of faith community.

I recently learned that 61.1% of ELCA congregations average less than 100 in worship per Sunday and 35.6% average less than 50 per Sunday. 

I wonder how you as a reader react to those numbers? I imagine if you've spent much of your life in a large or at least pastor-sized church, those sound like small communities. But if you have always been a part of a house church, then even 50 sounds huge.

Our own denomination has a model constitution for congregations that assumes a church size that is somewhat larger than either of these. The "model" is for a congregation that probably owns a church building and can hire one full-time pastor.

It's not a rule. Lots of churches stretch on either side of this one-building, one pastor model, but that's the assumed model. If a church decides to close, it's typically because they don't think they can maintain a regular Sunday morning worship experience in their own facility with their own pastor.

If that is the model you have in mind, then even if your church gathers 50 on a Sunday, part of you still wishes for, yearns for, a Sunday morning with many more present.

In fact, if a model congregation is pastor-sized (so let's say 150 in worship) then any churches smaller than that may feel like they are failing.

But what if we thought about this differently? What if we took seriously the idea that different sizes of groups of people can do different things well? Two or three people are agile and strong in a way fifty are not. A family can cultivate devotional practices a church will never be able to replicate. Fifty people can accomplish a mission that eight people would find daunting. And so on.

In other words, the point is to listen to God's mission based on the size of the group you actually are. 

If we thought in this way, our own denomination would act and live much more frequently in ways that honor and encourage small churches. Since 61% of our churches are less than 100 in worship, we'd probably start articulating, in every venue imaginable, from church-wide, to synod, to church magazines, to books we publish, to conversations we have at council meetings (do you even need a church council in a super small church?), the particular gifts, assets, strengths, and joys of church at this size.

If we thought in right-sizing terms, the phrase "missional community" would be much more widely known among us, because this is the descriptive term for groups of the faithful gathered at this size.

We'd also be more aware that most congregations with more than 100 in worship are actually made up of sub-groups of 2-3 (personal space), then 6-12 (small group), then 20-70 (social space), and public space (75+). So even larger churches are really just clusters or networks of smaller social groups.

If we thought in these terms, we'd stop attempting to have church look like public space when most of our churches are actually at the social space size--that is, missional communities.

These groups would understand, and feel comfortable with the notion, that they are like an extended family with a Christ-centered common purpose and witness to a particular neighborhood or network.

The hardest thing about this reframing is simple--it's hard to winnow, and focus. Just like in our personal lives, where its difficult to center on the one most needful thing in our lives, it's hard work for missional communities to say, "We are going to do this one thing well, together, as a community in Christ, in this particular place, or among these particular people."

But imagine how liberating it can be. Imagine not feeling like your group of seventy people has to be a full-service public church space that offers everything to everyone, as if you could even do that well. 

Imagine how freeing it might be to be yourself, if you allowed yourself as a member of a faith community to think in this focused way. I'm going to listen to the one thing God is calling me to do and be in this world, and I'm going to witness and serve in the one community I'm called to, with the group of people God has placed me among.

Many churches at these smaller sizes are focused not on this kind of mission, but on survival. They aren't thinking in missional terms. They're focused on keeping the doors open. But mostly they are focused on survival because they are still desperately trying to be something they aren't. They're trying to be bigger, but they're not. They're trying to staff and maintain buildings as if they were public in size.

These small communities need the wider denomination and synod's help. They need to be given permission to let go of this striving. For that to happen, we need to change a lot of our policies and structures. It can be done. We should do it quickly. Small communities should be able to call pastors from among themselves, non-stipendiary or whatever they work out, with no seminary requirements or special external policies other than what the missional community themselves identify. 

These small communities need us to let them be inspired by the mission they have actually been called to rather than external expectations to live up to what they haven't been and likely never will be--bigger.

Additionally, if small missional communities just focused on doing and being one thing, they'd have more time to network with other missional communities. As it is, churches attempting to be bigger than they are are absorbed in simply striving to be everything themselves, and they have little time for networking with other communities.

For this reason, we probably need more synods rather than less, more bishops rather than less, people with the call to build bridges and connections between various missional communities.

Social space size churches, who simply do life together as family, focused on one God-given mission in one particular space, would have time to gather with other similar groups. They could even organize public space size events that would accomplish and be what only public church can accomplish.

The best part about this reframing is that it requires very little in the way of new structures. There are not additional costs. Mostly, it is permission-giving, setting free, enlivening the imagination, reframing the imagination of small social groups so that instead of thinking they are in decline, instead letting them hear the clear call of God to be in mission as the people of God that they are.


  1. Yeah. We might even consider sharing our Lutheran facilities with 6 or 7 other small ministries -- and create an even better representation of the body of Christ in our buildings. ;)

  2. Anonymous2:46 PM

    This is great, and I wholeheartedly agree with "right-sizing" and giving freedom structurally to be the size God has called a congregation to be. The denomination should do all it can to unbind communities to do this. Such good stuff.

    What I am not sure about is whether a congregation is pursuing a pastor-sized model because that is what the constitution calls for. I think there is a deeply rooted desire to be that kind of church because that is what we are used to, what feels safe, and what allows us to pretend that the "Golden Years" of the Church still apply today. I wonder if this is more of an identity issue of both individual and congregation.

    If that is the case, then much more is needed then a change in structure. There is a re-Gospeling and a return to Christ and His mission as central to congregational identity that as needed.

  3. actually, if I understand it correctly, 150 in worship is at the cusp between pastor and program size. my first church was squarely pastor sized with between 75-125 in worship regularly, and about a 175 membership. even being "pastor-sized" they could not afford a pastor by themselves.

  4. in a Lutheran world this leads straight into issues of presidency/communion. People want the sacrament. If you aren't pastor-sized, at least where I live, deacons are thin thin thin on the ground and while the Bishop will approve per service and location, ya gotta nab a deacon or retired clergy and that is extreamly difficult even on a monthly basis. yes, we have our open communion partners, but they face similar right sizing opportunities.

  5. Now if you could just make religion not boring....
    Seriously, these churches just keep getting smaller as Ole and Lena go to their reward and their grandchildren have absolutely no reason or need to have anything to do with church.