More questions than answers

I’m spending time at a church in the middle of the east end of London, with a heart for social inclusion and reintegration.  The congregation has grown from about 15 to 80 over 5 years.  The church is also home to an education centre for kids who might, with enough encouragement, go to university, a GP referral gym, several community groups and forums, and a cafe which attracts local families, working people on lunch break, veiled mums waiting for the education project to open, people needing a drink after a gym session, etc etc.  They are taking on a full time youth worker from June.

At the moment, the vicar knows the names of the whole congregation (what a gift, to remember names so effectively) but if the church continues to grow that will inevitably change.  Will that irreversibly change the dynamic of the church, and will that change be positive or negative?  Or should the church remain at about this size, and continue to assess and change its focus, adapting to the needs of the community around it.

There is an assumption in church leadership that bigger is better, but is that right?  In a place without congregational members who are educated and honed in leadership, would it be more appropriate to espouse the ‘small is beautiful’ model?  Answers on a postcard, please….

6 Replies to “More questions than answers”

  1. There’s research on this. I can’t remember the numbers, but there are critical points at which congregations tend to stop growing, for just these sorts of reasons – any larger and the character of the community will inevitably change. I have a feeling that 70 or 80 is roughly one of those points…

  2. There is a real obsession about large being better in some places isn’t there?

    We came to Durham from two small churches in Salford with few children. At first we attended a church with a lot of children, but we noticed that the All Age Worship was much less participatory and inclusive than we had been running in our rather under-resourced set-up across the Pennines. It is actually harder to do quality All Age Worship with big numbers if you want to do lots of interactive stuff. (Things did change eventually with the appointment of a gifted new youth worker).

    Then last week I went to the most depressing meeting at MinDiv I have ever attended – where we were told that bigger colleges and courses are better and if some grow large at the expense of others getting smaller / weaker / not viable that’s OK.

    Oh dear! Pass me the gin and let’s hope for some sense of perspective soon!

  3. I think I remember hearing that the critical point varies depending on what sort of leadership model is being used… I seem to recall that it was around 80 if there is only one “leader” running everything, but if there are multiple “leaders” (for want of a better word) the number can get much higher.

    I think 70 to 80 is a lovely number – it’s easy to get to know people, hopefully there are a few people up for doing different things and so on… so is it easy to lose the impetus to grow, to keep reaching out, once a church gets to around this size?

  4. Better for what? In terms of developing self-sustaining ministries in specific areas, then big church is really good. In terms of retaining a family atmosphere in which everyone knows everyone else, then small church is better. I’m not sure that one should try to control the outcome here; as others have commented, there’s a ceiling for how many can be in a church where the vicar knows everyone personally, so if the church lacks leaders, then it won’t grow beyond that number. But if there are a number of people to whom authority can be delegated, why stop at 80-100?

  5. Never mind the width; feel the quality.

    If a church congragation grows organically, I think that it is generally a good thing. It must mean they are doing something right in the “Spreading the Word” department. However, even though it is probably heretical, I think that growth should not be the focus. Do things right and growth will follow if it is meant to be.

    I think Mother Teresa said something along these lines: “Jesus said love one another. He didn’t say love the whole world.”

    That is, don’t aim for growth or try to inhibit it. Just do your job.

    It’s well-known that organisations go through growing pains at certain size milestones. Growth, when it occurs, surely needs to be accommodated (some would say “managed”; I wouldn’t) to maintain or develop the character of the particular church – to keep it a nice place to be.

    If the growth is not organic – for example, when amalgamating two congregations – then you’re asking for trouble, even when it’s inevitable, but that’s a whole different thing and a personal beef of mine, and probably not relevant here.

    As for actual numbers, I like Pi.

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