Jan Edmiston says she hit a nerve in a discussion about membership numbers. I had the opposite experience from her: I grew up in a church with barely 100 people on the rolls, and now serve a church with 370 or so. Some comments have urged shutting down small churches, others have lamented how their small church is seen by others as one that should close.
My view, I guess, is mixed, and depends on some assessment of the vitality of the ministry taking place at the church, the location, some practical questions (such as financial assessments, considerations of prospects for stability, not necessarily huge exponential growth but concern for its opposite): some of these churches do need to enter hospice, some we need to redouble our efforts on as a denomination.
The other side of this coin is that we Presbyterians need to be doing a far better job at New Church Development and Redevelopment. In the Presbytery I serve, we do poorly. A huge obstacle here is money, but another major obstacle is vision and commitment. And as the ties that bind us together as a denomination are fraying a bit, I don’t have anything but prayers that this will improve.
Her recent follow-up post is interesting, because it gets into issues of established churches vs new churches, about where the emphasis should be:
The numbers discussion hit a nerve it seems, and I received more private comments via email than posted comments. Some were deemed too personal and/or painful to share with the masses, especially from . . .
people about to lose their congregations because they are “too small”
people who adamantly believe that small churches should be closed & fast
people who intentionally chose to join the “It” church in town because it’s cool to belong to the big cool church.
Most intriguing were Wendy’s second comments (‘Most of our churches are “established” and “institutional”. We don’t do the Christ follower real well).’
And if we start new congregations which are clearly not yet established with few adherents who care about being institutional, we need to start those churches in a new way:
1) make contacts,then 2) build Christ-centered relationships, then 3) grow disciples, then 4) start worshipping together.
Instead we’ve made the mistake of starting new congregations this way:
1) create worship service, then 2) organize Bible study, then 3) set up small groups, then 4) start mission projects.
We are starting a new worship service after many years of prayer and planning – God-willing – during Lent 2007 and it’s occurred to us that this is not the place to begin. Yikes – is it too late to back up a little?
Before the new worship service begins, we hope to spark something in this very busy part of the world by offering some casual “curious about Jesus but don’t do church” gatherings. We are leaping into this thing inspired by something Rob Bell wrote in Velvet Elvis: he knew it was time to start a new church when he didn’t care if the church was “successful” or not.
(Some emphasis added; some in the original).
My confession: something inside of me is interested in starting a church. I’m not sure yet if that is where God is calling me. Perhaps, maybe a few years down the road. So something gets flagged when I read things like this, something for me to remember. In the meantime, this is good meat for us to consider: should we just willy nilly create that “contemporary” service to draw new folk, or should we find a way to build networks of relationships first? And how, pray tell, would we do that?
(ed note: post slightly modified 11/14/08)