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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Why small is beautiful when it comes to church

Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher
The British economist E Schumacher (British with a name like that?) argued against the conventional economic wisdom that big is beautiful. Can you apply this philosophy to church life?

Why Big is the Preferred Option in the World
But first, why is big so desirable in the world? First, Big means Power. A man who runs a business with 1000 employees has more power than a man who employs a mere five. And like it or not, people like power. Second, Big means Fame. Why have we heard of Coca Cola and McDonalds? Because they're big. Third, Big means Rich. The guy who employs five may be doing well, but the man who takes a slice of 1000 wages will be richer.

So in the world Big means Power, Fame and Dosh. 

Why Big is the Preferred option in the Church
For the same reasons? (Is there a prophet in the blogisphere?) A big church means power and influence! A big church gives the pastor and its church a name and fame! A big church rakes in more money and can employ more staff to bring in more people to bring in more money to employ....

The price of deliberately staying small (by dividing / planting) is just too great. You are unlikely to have much influence. You will be ignored by the Christian press who work in the same way as the secular media - they go for the big names. You'll be ignored by your denomination / grouping. You're likely to struggle financially, because small numbers means small budget. 

And so, since we are deeply influenced by the "Big is Beautiful" philosophy, we are unprepared to even consider small as a deliberate option. Small = death.

Perhaps I am being a cynic. But knowing my own heart and having sat in one too many ministers fraternals, I don't think I am that far off the mark. And frankly, if these are the secret motives for big church, they are nothing more than sinful worldly thinking of the 1 John 2 kind: "the cravings of sinful man - the lust of his eyes - the boasting of what he has and does."

Upside down Kingdom Logic
But since the Gospel turns upside down the thinking of the world, perhaps this very thinking itself is topsy turvy. Perhaps the best way to grow the kingdom is actually to aim to be small! Perhaps by insisting that churches remain small by splitting when they get too big, the interests of the kingdom are best served. Here are some reasons I believe this to be the case... 

Why small is beautiful in the church
For one thing, the small church is more organic than organisational. An organism is living, informal, dynamic, free and divine. An organisation is man-made, formal, constrained. 

For another, small churches require the use of every gift.  In large churches (unless you badger, bow-beat and on occasion torture!) people can always say "someone else will do it" - and they are right! In small churches every-man ministry is not necessary.

A third reason for small churches is that they feel more like a family than a crowd; a place where everyone knows one another. If I could have a pound for everyone who looks back longingly at the first days of a young church plant with fondness  now that the church is X00 strong, I'd not be rich but I'd have a fair few quid in me pocket.

Fourthly, small churches encourage ownership, rather than pewship. This is 'my community to which I am committed', rather than a faceless congregation who just happen to have the best preacher in town!

In the fifth place, Oh what silly billies we are!, small churches grow by conversions much faster than larger churches - why? If for no other reason evangelism is not a tag-on activity but a survival strategy!  (And small churches are able to adapt to culture and change must faster than large ones). Isn't that what we are actually after?

So why do some churches refuse to plant and play big ball? Sometimes its a constraint placed on them by their buildings. A congregation of 50 can't support a building that seats 200. Isn't this a case of the cart before the horse? Sell the Albatross and meet in a school instead! Sometimes it is fear? Sometimes its pride? 

But what about preachers who attract a crowd?
The argument is sometimes used that if you have a Spurgeon in town shouldn't that congregation naturally expand to fill the giftings of the man? But is a church a preaching centre? Should a church really revolve around one person's gifts - an emphatic no. Is it really possible to be the family of God and large? Wouldn't it be better if the man preached at four smaller sites? Used his time to train others rather than all that energy to preach the 'big sermon'?  In my experience 'preaching centres' are not churches at all - they may have a small 'church' at the core, but the rest are passengers - or better described, joyriders, who as soon as the big fella goes melt away, making succession a nightmare.

And what about the numbers in Acts?
What about them numbers? 3000, 5000, "a great many"? There are features of Acts that are unique (by definition beginnings are unique: you can't be born twice for example - remember that Nicodemus conversation?). Unique because this was the apostolic age in which God was founding something new. Big numbers along with spectacular miracles demonstrated God was powerfully and uniquely at work. 

The place to look is not Acts but the letters. And here, there is not one pip squeak about numbers. No church is commended for being large and no church is condemned for being small. Numbers are simply no necessary reflection of kingdom growth (in fact we all know from the Old Testament stories that numbers are often a mark of the enemy's reliance on strength, a la prophets of Baal v. Elijah).

Lost in the blogisphere.....
But this message will get lost in the blogisphere because "The Establishment" in any denomination or grouping of churches  can't encourage small (they'd be out of a job), and they got in because they were once leaders of (numerically) big congregations.

So you, my dear reader, consider just how privileged you are to read this message (!) - for you won't read it anywhere else. Why don't you thank God when you go to sleep tonight......

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