Does size matter? This last Sunday, we celebrated not only Mother’s Day, but also the time that Steven Headings has spent with us as a Minister-in-Training. Steven is traveling back to Michigan this week, to pursue the next chapter in his faithful journey. It would have been nice if we were able to have a full sanctuary—for both celebrations—but circumstances have made that pretty much impossible. We’ve had to find new, physically distant, ways to celebrate these life events.
I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the way we as a society—particularly the little, local society we’re a part of here in Nampa—are going to move back toward normal. We’ve heard a lot of talk about “reopening” but the truth of it is that we won’t be seeing anything like what we had back in January, when this virus was just a news story from somewhere else. People may be able to conduct some kind of business, but it’s not business as usual. And the church isn’t immune to this—as we’ve started having Sunday services again, those services have been influenced by the restrictions the state and our own good judgement have placed on us. As a result, our gatherings are smaller than we’d probably like, and promise to be that way for quite some time. Saying goodby to Steven is just one more loss, one more contraction that we have to accept.
Contracting participation is something that plagues church leaders, locally and nationally. There’s a lot more written about it than I could explore in this short article, but the gist of the problem is that people aren’t coming to church as much. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a big push to adopt a lot of “church growth” strategies to try and shore up those declining numbers. Copying the business world, the church adopted a “Bigger is Better” mentality, which created a lot of anxiety in smaller congregations. Karl Vaters, in his book Small Church Essentials, discusses what he calls the “Law of Large Numbers.” His point is that large organizations, including churches, act in similar ways, and methods in a 20,000 member mega-church can be adapted fairly easily to a 2,000 member church. But not so much to a 200 member church, or a 20 member church. Size makes the methods applicable across a certain scale, but large church methods decrease in effectiveness as the congregation size becomes more personal and intimate. Essentially, Vaters is saying that it’s not a good idea for small churches to try to act like big churches. They need to stick with what they already do well.
Vaters points out that the original Church, back at Pentecost, was only about 120 people (Acts 1:15)—not a mega-church by any definition. People like to point to the Pentecost story as an example of the explosive growth that churches should be looking for. There’s no denying that adding 3000 believers in a day (Acts 2:41) would be cause for celebration. And today’s church growth experts would love to offer you their latest seminar that will teach you how to have that same profound growth. And a lot of smaller churches might be tempted. But there’s a couple things about that story from Acts we should remember. The 3000 weren’t from Jerusalem. A lot of them were in town from other places, and eventually returned to their homes. They didn’t join First Church of Jerusalem. So just as quickly as the numbers increased, when the festival was over, they declined. But that wasn’t a big deal, because the Apostles weren’t about increasing the size of their congregation, they were about spreading the gospel. And they understood the second truth—that it wasn’t their fancy words or church growth strategies that caused the increase in believers. They just did what Jesus had taught them to do, and as Acts 2:47 tells us: “…the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The size of a congregation matters. It matters when it comes to the kinds of ministry we can be engaged in, it matters when we consider the shape of our impact in the community. But it doesn’t matter when we consider congregational health and vitality, or when we consider the faithfulness of that congregation. There are healthy small congregations, and healthy big congregations. And there are unhealthy churches of all sizes. Health should be a priority over size every day of the week and twice on Sunday. So while it may be a concern that our numbers are low for a while, as we begin the long road back to whatever “normal” will become in the months ahead, we should be clear—our goal is not just to have a full church, but to have a healthy church. That’s something a church of any size can strive for.