Are our churches too Small?
In the past few decades in the United States a clearly observable phenomenon has been occurring. An increasing percentage of people have begun worshipping at a small but growing number of very large churches. This is a trend almost universally deplored by those who are not part of it. "Market driven Christianity", we are told. "What else could you expect from Americans? I can't see it happening here."
It's too late. The trend is becoming increasingly apparent here. While a great deal is made of the Kiwi love affair with small congregations, increasing numbers are worshipping at larger ones.
I recently spent some time meditating on my own denomination's annual set of statistics. Being a Mainlander, I studied the South Island. About half the Baptist churches are small churches with fewer than 100 people attending their services. But only 17% of the total number of worshippers go to one of them. By contrast there are only seven churches with more than three hundred worshipping at them, but these seven account for 44% of attenders.
A New Kind of Large Church
What is happening overseas is something far more interesting than simply head-counting on a Sunday. There have always been very large Protestant churches. They have traditionally been central city churches where the major focus of ministry has been on what happens on Sunday. They are normally characterised by outstanding preaching and an inspiring worship service.
But now a new kind of very large church is emerging. Most of the energy of this new kind of church is directed into ministry that occurs during the week. This involves mission and evangelism in the community, and a wide variety of other ministries that are directed to both believers and unbelievers. Lyle Schaller has called this new kind of church "The Seven Day a Week Church".1
Looking at the list of South Island Baptist churches there are two that fit this very large church category. One is attended by around 900 people, and the other by about 1,400. They are both multiple congregation churches.
Interestingly, of those who attend a Baptist church in the South Island, 25% of total attenders go to one of these two churches. This is exactly the phenomenon that has been observed in the USA, except there the very large church would be considerably bigger.
Many good Christian people are utterly bewildered by the fact that some people choose to go to a large church. An increasing amount of literature is appearing analysing the reasons for this. Let me attempt my own interpretation.
Release of Resources
The first reason is the release of resources that the large church makes possible. Small churches involve a high percentage of their people in running the church infrastructure. There are people to elect to boards, books to keep, rosters to maintain and so on.
The very large church does not require a correspondingly huge increase in the numbers involved in these areas. There are probably not many more elders, still only one treasurer - who is probably paid rather than volunteering - and still only one lawn mower to push! This means a considerable amount of people, financial, and other resources are available to direct toward mission and ministry.
One of the criticisms of the traditional Sunday-oriented large church is that many people are simply pew sitters. But the seven-day-a-week church seeks to mobilise people into various forms of ministry.
The Development of High Quality Ministries
Another reason is quality. This affects the preaching and worship. It makes possible the kind of seeker service that many unbelievers find appealing. It is possible to develop high quality ministries directed outwards into the community, and the kind of large world mission programme that can make a difference in the world. A lot of people enjoy being part of something like that.
A third factor is choice. When I was a boy I went to the local doctor who had a surgery in the front room of his house. Our children attended a doctor in a suburban medical centre, which two decades later is about three times its original size.
I went shopping at the local corner grocery shop. My children went to the first generation of supermarkets. The next generation are going to vast shopping malls.
It is all about quality and choice. At the corner grocery shop I was offered one uncut white loaf of bread. Today we face a bewildering variety of options.
The small congregation reminds us of the corner grocery shop. One service is offered on a Sunday morning. There are basically two options - 'take it, or leave it'.
The very large church is able to develop a multiplicity of options. Not simply in relation to Sunday worship, but with small groups and a variety of ministry opportunities and entry points into the church.
A fourth factor is team ministry. Our theological colleges specialise in turning out one kind of pastor, what Eddie Gibbs calls the 'foreman-pastor'.2 This pastor preaches, visits, leads worship, counsels, chairs meetings and so on. In fact very few people have the multiplicity of gifts that such a role calls for in an increasingly complex society. The very large church enables the development of a team ministry based around individuals' spiritual gifts and passions.
Small Urban Churches
What about the role of the small church in the urban setting? Is there no place for it?
Obviously there is, just as there are still corner grocery stores. But it is very hard running a corner grocery store these days. The small store that is most viable is the boutique, which has made a conscious choice to cater to a particular market. The other effective store may be a newcomer, that is doing things right and growing.
In a similar way small congregations which have a clearly identified mission focus, or are newly planted churches, are likely to be the most effective.
Some years ago Frank Tillapaugh wrote on the theme 'Are there farmers in the city church?'3 He developed the thought that urban life is about change, diversity, conflict-management, bigness and mobility - whereas rural life is about status quo, sameness, harmony, smallness and being established. He suggested that rural rather than urban values dominate our thinking in the church.
Developing a Seven-Day-a-Week Church
Having trumpeted the values of the larger church, let me come clean and admit how phenomenally difficult it is to develop a seven-day-a-week church. As Schaller says, "Most long-time members find it more comfortable to attend a church plateaued in size, or one experiencing gradual numerical decline, than to participate in a fast-growing congregation."4
It is much easier for people in a church to grow old together. To push against this huge tide of inertia is extremely difficult, and in Australia and New Zealand we have no longstanding models of effective seven-day-a-week churches. There are challenges to find new kinds of leaders at every level and our training institutions are not geared toward producing these sort of people.
It all sounds like very hard work. It is! The mission challenge before us in the urban West is immense, but there is a new kind of church emerging. It is making it possible for numbers of unbelievers to come to faith. It is a much larger church than we have been used to. It will not win the approval of those convinced that Kiwis will only attend small churches. But those of us who have been experiencing its advantages believe the time has come to unashamedly urge the development of more seven-day-a-week churches.
Murray Robertson is pastor of Spreydon Baptist Church, a city church in Christchurch with a strong commitment to issues of community, global evangelism and justice.