This year as I prepare to engage with churches who are seeking to be more effective (a contentious concept in itself) in terms of being church I have been thinking about how people measure 'good' church and what parameters people use. I'd like to consider the top two of these here today and they are interchangeable in their occupancy of the 'worst' consideration spot. So here goes:
Let's begin with numbers, something that is, and has been, the gold standard for many; and perhaps for always. For as long as I have been in church clergy have struggled to raise their ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) and diocesan staff, when visiting, asked the question, 'And what's your congregation size?' have underpinned the importance of numbers.
Of course, when pressed the response is that, 'Numbers don't matter as much as mission,' but that's only true until we come to the next of the parameters, which if (of course) money!
Money is never important (unless you don't have any that is) but if you can't pay you will soon hear someone utter the harsh words, ' . . then you can't have' somewhere in a conversation. All of this is most understandable because, at the end of the day, bills have to be paid and bank accounts have to be balanced and the need to 'cut one's coat according to one's cloth' is essential.
Now I'm sure I will offend or upset someone, somewhere, over what I am about to say (or perhaps already have by selecting numbers and money as areas of import) but I need to let the things running around my head escape lest the cause my bonce to explode!
I have been in a number of churches where the congregation size was both comfortable and consistent and this meant that church just pottered on without needing to panic, especially because it was also financially comfortable, or seek to bring people in. This is the first mistake that many church members (including the clergy) seem to make for they assume we only need to grow the church when numbers, or ability to pay, become an issue (and of course the latter is a product of the former). Successful church is one that exists for itself is the message here.
Another church model, spurred on perhaps by church growth champions, seeks to add to their number but doesn't have a clue why? They don't mention the Gospel and don't 'push' Jesus but work hard at getting people in and swelling their average congregation sizes. Some of those I met last year were doing stuff in the community but struggled to keep the words 'church, Jesus, Christian' and many other 'off putting' words off the billing. They didn't talk about Jesus, they didn't share their reason gor serving the community (which surely is simple - He came to be 'servant to all' and likewise so do we!).
Another group had been fired up by a visit from an expert who told them that they needed to grow their church. When I asked the ministry team what their core message and means were to be, the looked at me like I was from Mars (the planet, not the confectionary maker). They were merely seeking to grow because that was what 'church was supposed to do'. As I outlined the process of presence ministry, development of relationships, bring people into a place where faith was made real, discipling and all the other stuff, they looked downcast. 'We were just looking to bring people in through events and fairs, not do all that,' moaned one of the team. Oddly, last time I spoke to the minister, they were still waiting to get started!
There are many churches who would (or so it appears) be happy to pootle along being church for themselves but they (and oddly, it is always 'suddenly') find themselves faced with an inability to pay their bills and meet their commitments. The result is rarely a series of sermons and teaching on giving but a rallying of the troops to get out there and bring in more people so they in turn can bring in more money. I wish I could say that this is an isolated, far between, experience but this is probably one of the greatest spurs for a church to be 'seeking the lost'. Which brings me nicely on to the next category . .
No, not ministry for those challenged in the follicle department but those who see the role of church being that of 'winning scalps for Jesus'. The positive side is that these folk preach the Gospel and do some fine teaching and often have good musicians too. The down side is that they tend to engage in 'transfer growth' (which is 'sheep stealing ' when the people joining them were once with you) techniques and much like David and the tale of the man who has many sheep but nicks the only sheep another has, these people exist for themselves rather than the wider body.
Now I'm sure some think that this is harsh but I have seen a number of churches where they able and active have been drawn away bu the bright lights, big names and the thrill of the 'bigger church'. This is probably one the most difficult outworking of the 'size really matters' fraternity for as much as one wants to celebrate big churches I find myself wonder what many have left to join and how many churches that would become effective if they were members they pass on the way to the 'Godfest International Gatherings'?
So there we are - a five minute splurge and as the old joke has it, 'I do feel a little better now!'
Let's hope I still do when I read it again later tonight.