Here in the U.S., we seem to pride ourselves on being able to “super-size” everything — even our churches. For the past thirty years or so, people who are inclined to be a part of a local congregation have tended to congregate in the larger ones. The larger churches in any denomination (and their non-denominational mega-church cousins), as a rule, get larger. Smaller congregations struggle to remain stable, but increasingly find themselves on the shrinking side of the standard church growth equation. Generally speaking, whenever “church growth literature” speaks of growing congregations, the focus is on numbers — budgets, average attendance at weekly worship services, events, ministries and programs.
Everyone, it seems, wants their congregation to “grow”. And of course, there is a biblical precedent. When we read the book of Acts (the story of the first few years of the church following Jesus’ resurrection), it seems as if every time Peter, Paul or one of the other apostles opened their mouths, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people respond to their message and joined the movement. I think it’s important, though to note what the newly converted were NOT joining:
They were not joining an organization that kept membership lists and published pictorial directories. They were joining a community of people who not only recognized each other’s faces, but also knew each other’s names and something about each others lives.
They were not joining an organization that had pledge drives, budgets and paid staff. They were joining a community that took responsibility for each other’s needs and held each other accountable.
They were not joining an organization that provided “something for children and youth”. They were joining a community in which it was understood the first people who needed to be taught and formed in the ways of the movement were the adults (parents would then, in turn, teach their children).
Even though the early church grew, the emphasis wasn’t on stadium-filling religious extravaganzas. The emphasis was simply on telling the story — whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes the story-telling happened in the public square, other times in the local synagogue, sometimes on a street corner, sometimes by the river bank, sometimes in the halls of the civil authority, and plenty of times around a dinner table. And while the tradition has been blessed with individuals oozing with oratorical prowess, most of the time, the story of Jesus has been told by very ordinary people who stumbled and bumbled along, trying to avoid being tongue-tied and doing their best to hide their nervousness.
I am not appealing for any attempt at constructing a fantasy facsimile of “the New Testament Church” in the 21st century. For most of us in the U.S. to belong to a local church usually means there are buildings, budgets, staff, events, programs and ministries. I am simply wondering how we might recover an understanding that such things reflect the values, gifts and mission of a particular congregation in a particular place instead of simply being things we “have, need and do” because we’ve always had, needed and done them.
Instead of worrying about how we could super-size our respective ministries, what would it be like to right-size them?