By Peter Corney
Not long ago I attended a service at which a senior Melbourne Anglican Church leader spoke. I was encouraged by his obvious enthusiasm for mission and his concern to contextualize our churches in the local culture. But the bit that made me nervous was his comments on congregational size. He put forward the idea that small congregations are better than large and that as Anglicans we have a particular talent for the small church. He listed the usual comments about them being intimate and having a strong sense of community. He did not define what he meant by “small” but he contrasted them to “mega churches.” What is usually meant by Mega is the very large – in Australia 1,000 plus in regular attendance. I suspect by small he means the average Anglican congregation with a regular attendance of between 60 -100. In Melbourne in 2006 we had 275 worshiping congregations, when you take out the ten largest congregations you get an average attendance of 62 for the other 265! In fact it’s not as even as that and many have only 30 – 40 in regular attendance.
These ideas about smallness may make some clergy and members out there in our many small churches feel better but it is neither correct nor very helpful and full of myths and misleading ideas. The great danger is that it can be used as a justification for complacency or at worst failure.
Here are the facts:
- The smallest average congregational size is now among Presbyterian and Uniting churches, around 60. Even among Pentecostal churches, who as a denomination have a significant number of mega churches and an overall positive growth rate, the majority of their churches are below 100 in regular attendance. So we don’t have smallness on our own nor do we have some unique genius for the small church. Small congregations are a general Protestant phenomena that we urgently need to redress.
- The comparison between small and mega is quite unhelpful. Mega churches make up about 3% – 4% of protestant congregations in Australia. If we drop down to what we might call large (350 – 450) or medium (250 -350) then we are in a much more realistic and useful comparison to small. Large or medium size churches have a much better chance of being healthy and sustainable. They are much more likely to have a good cross section of ages, a natural potential flow of new younger lay leaders and adequate financial giving. There is also the ability to provide a variety of ministry to young and old, to do outreach and even employ specialist staff. If the majority of our congregations were even medium in size we would be in quite a healthy state as a Church and making a much greater impact on the nation.
- In regard to friendliness, intimacy and a sense of community, in contrast to the mythology, all the objective research says that larger churches are in fact stronger in these areas than small churches! The reason is that their age spread, their variety of activities and programs provide more points of entry for newcomers and they usually have many home groups. They work hard at growing smaller as they grow larger. The larger church has multiple fellowship cells or circles. The small church has a narrower entry point, it is a single fellowship cell and if you don’t make it into the fellowship circle you don’t make it. Of course to those who are part of it the small church does feel intimate!
- Leaving aside rural and remote congregations, the small suburban church with 60 ageing attendees, a full time minister, a vicarage, a church building and usually a hall, are now under threat everywhere. Amalgamations and closures are common. In Melbourne Diocese in the period from 2001-2006 there had been around 13 amalgamations and 7 closures and the process is steadily continuing. The Registry estimates that it costs approximately $85,000 plus a year just to pay the minister, keep the doors open, the lights on and the insurances paid! This includes almost no serious missionary giving, very little money for creative outreach and no large scale maintenance. A study of “live giving” in the year book will reveal that many are beginning to fall below this figure. Op shops, rents and jam stalls make up the shortfall! It is a testimony to the commitment of the ageing faithful that they manage to scrape enough together to survive another year. But there is an end to this downward trajectory and it’s not far down the road for many congregations.
- Main-stream denominations are not planting many new churches. The alternative or so called new missional church movement is doing better but the jury is still out on the longevity of their low key deliberately small congregations. Most are gatherings of young adults and few have successfully negotiated the multigenerational challenge and provided adequate youth and children’s ministry. The most successful growth has come from large churches multiplying new targeted congregations that operate under the one umbrella but meet separately – the multi congregational model.
- Those congregations that are healthy and growing have one thing in common they have all challenged the complacency, comfort and mind set of the traditional small suburban parish model of church.
The truth is there is no one sacrosanct congregation size and model. We need a variety of sizes and models for our complex and varied modern society. There will be particular groups in our society that will require a small boutique approach; there will be places where the social and material poverty is so great that Christian ministry in such places will need long term external support in leadership and money. But our current standard traditional “small” suburban church is rapidly reaching a point where it will no longer be sustainable in its present form.
To have a healthy sustainable “full service ministry” to children youth and adults, that meets the needs of families, that will ensure a continuous flow of new leaders and volunteers, and an adequate financial base you need at least a medium size congregation, ie:250-350 in regular attendance.
If we were in a “vital movement” phase and were made up of lots of small vibrant, young and growing congregations then the small size of our churches would not be such a concern but we are not. Until we begin to turn around a significant number of our existing congregations so they grow to medium size we face accelerating decline.
One attitude that frequently appears when these issues are raised is the “faithfulness” argument. “We are not called to be effective just faithful!” At one level one can not disagree with the faithfulness argument. Of course we are all called to follow Jesus wherever he calls us, whatever the circumstances and whatever the response. There will be times and places where it’s tough and unresponsive. At this point in our history it’s tough out there trying to build or rebuild local congregations. Never the less there are still many healthy growing churches in this hostile environment. Christian leaders should be studying these to see why they are going against the trend! In other fields of endeavor this is called studying “best practice.”
Ministers who want to buck the trend and grow churches need to be or become transformational leaders. They need particular skills to renew and reinvent the local congregation, i.e.: how to cast vision, how to move a congregation into mission mode, how to initiate and manage change, how to build community, how to motivate, recruit and train volunteers, how to plan and organize and create new structures, how to think strategically. Without these and other transformational leadership skills they will be unable to do the large and difficult task we are asking of them.