In the next 10 blogs, I want to share with you 10 choices facing congregational leaders today. Each represents a fork in the road where one option leads toward increasing missional health and one option leads toward increasing missional decline. Every congregation makes these choices deliberately or by default. The question is: which way are you, as a church leader, going to choose in faithfulness to Christ and for the sake of his mission?
The first choice is whether to be a single-cell family or a multi-cell clan.
There are no giant people-absorbing, single-cell amebas. Nature long ago recognized that there are functional limits to the size single-cell bodies can grow. Then, to get larger, cells begin to join together with other cells and eventually to perform different functions to serve the whole. What does biology have to do with the Body of Christ? Simply this: many congregations try to function like a single-cell family and are frustrated that this is becoming increasingly difficult.
Now there is nothing wrong with being a single-cell family congregation. Being part of such a congregation can be a rewarding experience. Those who attend these congregations speak of knowing and supporting one another like one, big family. There is a closeness and intimacy that to them feels lacking in larger congregations. Of the 699 congregations reporting end-of-the-year statistics to our conference in 2009, 324 or 46% have 100 or less people in average weekly worship attendance.
Two significant problems therefore face almost half the congregations in our conference.
First, the number of people in average worship that it takes to sustain a congregation with a full-time pastor has significantly increased over the last decade. It used to be that 70 people could without undue financial hardship support a full-time pastor and be in missionally vital ministry. Now, due to increases in the pastor’s minimum salary, healthcare costs, property and casualty costs, and maintenance expenses for aging facilities, the Cabinet estimates that it takes about 120 in weekly worship to support a full-time pastor without undue financial hardship detracting from the mission of their congregation (i.e.: “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”). This means that congregations under 100, if they still have a full-time pastor, are likely struggling financially to such an extent that staying financially afloat has often become their main mission.
The second problem facing single-cell family congregations is that increasingly less people seem to be choosing to be part of them. Since 2000, the total number of persons worshiping in congregations where the average weekly worship was 120 or less in our conference has declined by 18%. Looked at another way, those worshiping in congregations with 120 or less in worship represented 17% of worshipers in our conference in 2000. In 2009, they represented 14.7% of the total worshipers. The likely reason is that unless a congregation is meeting a particular niche need, the smaller they are, the more difficult it is for them to offer the diversity of programming for which most families are looking.
This leaves almost half of our congregations in a bind. Both in terms of financial viability and popular appeal, these congregations would find it easier and more effective to be a bit larger. However, becoming larger requires them becoming multi-celled congregations and could threaten the family feel where everyone knows and cares for one another. Many single-cell congregations are faced with the tough choice of holding on to the feeling of family closeness (as they have experienced it) or of holding on to being missionally and financially viable.
The reality is that congregations with over 60 in average weekly worship are already multi-celled bodies. They are already more like a clan than a single unit family. They are all “related,” but are really made up of a collection of cousin groups. The fact is that few people can actually know and keep up with more than 60 or so people. In groups larger than 60, subgroups naturally begin to form. Without minimizing the challenge of making these choices, here are some of the ways that larger congregations structurally became multi-celled clans.
· They develop multiple UM women’s circles
· They develop multiple adult Sunday school classes
· They develop multiple age-specific children and youth groups
· They develop multiple midweek discipling small groups options
· They develop multiple worship opportunities
I met with the leaders of a small congregation that was vigorously trying to reach out to make more disciples in their community, but their average worship attendance just would not budge. They were frustrated. When I looked at the size of their worship space, it became evident why: they were already worshiping at 94% of their seating capacity weekly. This in and of itself is amazing. Studies show that once 80% capacity is reached, many visitors feel that there is no room for them. I suggested that they offer an earlier worship option. The leaders struggled with this because they didn’t want to give up knowing everyone and feeling the sense of closeness that they felt as they all gathered for worship. Having two worship services would be like having their family’s Easter dinner in shifts! We explored ways in which they were already in fact becoming a multi-celled clan, but they clung to the value of being one family.
That was 15 years ago. Today, that congregation has declined significantly. They no longer have a full-time pastor and are struggling just to keep the doors open. While this may not have been the only reason, the choice to remain a single-cell, family congregation certainly set them on a path where missional decline was increasingly likely in our current context.
What about your congregation? How are you making the choice between family and clan?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins