In my review of Jason Byassee's new book on the Small Church, a book I enjoyed in part because I've been a small church pastor, I took strong issue with the afterword written by William Willimon. I didn't take issue with Willimon because of his recent emphasis on numbers and church growth, an emphasis that seems somewhat at odds with his earlier books written with Stanley Hauerwas. Heck, I have no problem with numbers and counting. Although I pastor a relatively small church, I want to see it grow. Numbers can be a sign of health -- though if numbers are the focus, then we often do whatever is necessary to market ourselves so we can get people in the door. No, I didn't take issue with the numbers issue, I took issue with the snarky tone he took toward small churches, suggesting that small churches were communities only Jesus could love.
In an email conversation with Jason after I posted the review, he pointed me to his own response to the question of numbers and counting, that he had offered in a piece he had originally posted at Willimon's blog --and now at the Duke Divinity School's Call and Response blog. In this piece he notes that hlike many theologians he had taken a negative attitude toward head counting as a means of determining faithfulness to the gospel.
I confess I can’t find a Methodist argument against Willimon’s claim that Wesley insisted on numerical measures as a plumbline of effectiveness. Amidst the spasms of bile heaped on Willimon in this blogstorm (see link and link), no one has been able to show a Wesleyan argument against Willimon’s claim that numerical growth is a mark of Methodist faithfulness. They’ve attacked him personally, or attacked adherence to Wesley, or suggested bishops be held to the same standard (agreed -- and so would Will), or offered red herrings (“What about the poor?” As if anyone is asking only for new rich members) or just whined and kvetched. But they haven’t overturned his claim that numbers mattered to Wesley and their upward trend is a sign of church health.
As an elder in the UMC this makes me quite nervous. I miss being a local pastor enough that a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about it. And I don’t much like the idea of my future hinging on whether the church I serve grows.
The worry that Willimon has is whether the church is on such a downward cycle that soon there won't be a church. Now, I'm not as pessimistic as Willimon seems to be, but then I'm a local pastor and not a judicatory. But, the debate over numbers does raise the question of how we diagnose health in a church. Does size matter? The most recent issue of The Christian Century, which just landed on my doorstep features as its cover story an article on the trend toward bigger churches. Most churches are small, but growing 50% of Americans attend churches over 350 people, with 9% attending mega churches. While a majority of megachurches remain connected to denominations, most of these churches look and feel like independent congregations -- their links being fairly loose.
For good or bad, according to the article written by John Dart, this trend has changed the face of the church. Even smaller churches face the reality that people come to the church looking for the opportunities found in megachurches. That is the point made in the followup article written by Kyle Childress entitled "Oversized Expectations." In this article he notes how people come to the church with expectations forged by megachurches, expectations that even impact long term members. He notes that his Baptist church in Nacogdoches, Texas is one of the few without screens and praise bands. The article opens with a description of visitors who seemed rather uncomfortable in the service. Recounting a conversation that occured afterward, he notes that one of the persons blurted out: "Well, we noticed you use hymnbooks. We've never been in a church that still uses hymnbooks. We've always had the words on overhead screens." (CC, July 27, 2010, p. 28). Childress goes on to recount another conversation with a young couple who had visited. In a conversation that occurred during a visit to the couple, they people told him that while they liked the church and the people, especially the emphasis on the environment that the church had, but in their estimation: "a person has to work to hard to be a member of your church. We don't have time to work that hard." Childress notes that this is part of the issue, the bigger the church the less one must do to be part of the congregation. In a small church it's always "all hands on deck."
So, the question is: how do we determine congregational health and faithfulness? Although I have pastored smaller congregations, I must ask myself -- would I join one if I were to be without church employment? What are your thoughts?