Large congregations and the future of the church

May 17, 2007

The family-owned stationery store serviced our church's office needs for decades. Whenever we needed paper, envelopes, or other supplies, there was no question where we would buy them. But that was back in the day, about 15 years ago, which indicates how quickly change relegates a familiar situation to the nostalgic past.

As our city grew, so did commercial and entrepreneurial interests. Soon the big box stores arrived and we had our own Office Depot, and shortly thereafter a Staples too.

It only took a few months before the big boxes forced the little stationery store into quiet submission. Realizing that they could not compete with the vast resources of their rivals, the owners called it the end of an era and closed the doors. Our parish now buys all of its supplies from one of the giants that did them in.

While we were sorry to see the little store die, we were admittedly dazzled the first time we stepped inside and beheld the glorious array of products offered by the big-chain supplier. The inventory was deep and the choices abundant. Now, even if the little stationery store were to reopen, I doubt that we would even consider going back. The big store just has too much to offer.

This trend toward bigness is not confined to retail stores. It is showing up in other institutions such as health care and education. And now there is evidence that bigness represents the future of the church as well, at least for those that hope to survive.

Mark Chaves, in his article "Supersized" (The Christian Century, Nov. 28, 2006), analyzes the national trend toward larger churches. Examining data on church size in twelve Protestant denominations -- including the Episcopal Church -- he concludes that large churches just keep on getting larger. Furthermore, his data indicate that the rate at which they are getting larger has increased since the 1970s.

While there are of course exceptions, overall, large churches appear to be getting larger while small ones continue to decline. "Increased concentration is occurring mainly because people are shifting from smaller to larger churches, not because people are shifting from uninvolvement to involvement in big churches," Chaves writes.

Such an assessment is chilling enough for a denomination that has seen steady membership decline in recent years, but Chaves also maintains that we are witnessing "a significant change in the social organization of churches." The result of this he says "is that people will be pushed out of smaller churches that no longer meet their minimum standards and into larger churches that still do." It seems that when it comes to stationery stores and churches, we like them big with plenty of inventory to draw from.

Who among us is surprised anymore when someone who is checking out our church asks about the amenities provided? They may ask about worship services and Bible study, but it is just as likely that they will also want to know about the nursery, the pre-school, the playground, the family life center, the educational facilities, the youth room, and maybe even about the gymnasium and recreational facilities. If you don't have such offerings, and someone down the street does, you may have seen them for the last time.

I know ... I know. We have a glorious tradition and beautiful liturgy. We are inclusive and progressive and reasonable and all of that. But for a lot of people that alone won't bring them back for a second look.

Shouldn't this shifting ecclesiastical landscape prompt us to at least ponder drastic measures? For example, should we consider being more aggressive about closing marginal congregations that show no signs of revitalization, so that the resources expended there might be concentrated on places that show evidence of more promising results?

We might also want to consider deliberate and structured collaboration efforts between small- and medium-sized congregations that are located in close geographical proximity, or maybe even outright consolidations where combining congregations would result in larger, stronger, and more effective faith communities.

A shift in focus away from national church and diocesan structures, and toward local congregations, may also prove worthwhile. Slimming down those hefty annual diocesan assessments could leave congregations with a lot more ability and flexibility to carry out direct-service mission and ministry to the communities that they serve. And all ministry, like all politics, is more accountable at the local level.

There is certainly much risk in even considering these possibilities. But if current trends continue, there could be an even greater risk if we don't.

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