In the previous post I mentioned the Wasdell research in the 60s which was filled out by further work done by the Alban Institute in later decades in the States. Although we might think that American churches are generally full, with hundreds of members in each of them, the average congregation is not dissimilar to our own, with some 50 – 80 souls in each. It would however be true to say that in the States there are far more congregations at the top end in numbers than in this country. But for the most part, they also have small congregations which struggle with the same problems of viability (financial and otherwise) and the need to provide helpful ministry. One point that Wasdell made in his research, which was not particularly picked up by the Alban Institute, was that a 150 worshipping congregation is seldom exceeded in the UK because people who come feel a sense of estrangement when any congregation becomes too big. Anonymity is fine if you are young, unattached or in a situation of transition, like that of being a student. Having no one to recognise you is not OK if you are an older person or someone struggling with mental health issues. Being noticed is also important to anyone who lives in a place and wants to be a part of the community and make their contribution to it.
Wasdell was saying, to summarise, that most congregations find a natural ceiling of around 150 people. Obviously there may well be more people associated with a particular church but the ASA (average Sunday attendance) at the main service will only rarely exceed this number. As I said in the previous post, the larger churches have to make changes of organisation in order to manage a higher number successfully. But, if it is true that most churches in fact do stop growing when their regular main congregation reaches this 150 mark, then this will affect our understanding of mission and outreach. What are the implication of this research finding on the church’s desire to evangelise and reach out to save souls among the mass of people who do not as yet come to our churches?
When I was a Vicar or Rector I remember posing the question. ‘How many people could our church absorb at one time.? People pondered this question and the answer was generally agreed to be around 20% over the course of a year. In a congregation of 90 this represented 18 new people, or one or two a month. Were the congregation to be faced with an influx of 50 people at once, then there was a recognition that the carefully nurtured dynamics and inner relationships of the congregation would be affected dramatically. It would represent a challenging task to absorb so many new people and not lose whatever character and style the congregation already possessed. Perhaps it is a challenge that some leaders would relish, but I suspect that in practice it would also be highly stressful. In practice the last two congregations that I oversaw attracted on average of one new person a month. The integration of such numbers of people was manageable. The existing dynamics were preserved and the congregation were helped not to remain too inward looking by a steady drip of new faces arriving.
The Church talks a lot about church growth and mission but I suspect that there are not many who have really though the practicalities of managing large numbers of new converts. The structures of the Anglican church that I know could certainly not cope with a large influx all at once and I wonder whether any church could manage the enormous practical issues of large numbers of converts beyond 20-25% in the course of a year. Thus I raise the question as to whether most churches are equipped for the kind of evangelism that they say they want to provide.
The 150 ceiling which seems to describe so many of the congregations of Britain does suggest to me that mass evangelism will never in fact happen while the Church is organised in the way it is. If there is to be a partial conversion of large numbers of people in society (as many say they want) then the Church would have to change shape in ways that are impossible to conceive at present. There is however another way of understanding the meaning of ‘mission’. The church could explore more deeply how to ‘be’ a church within a community, how to do the things it does but with a far greater awareness of how these impact on the community around. The weekly tasks of worship, prayer and service would continue but there would a real effort to nurture and retain the goodwill of those around. The churches that in fact cause harm to individuals, which we explore in this blog, are also, as Chris tells us, precisely the ones that care not a jot for their reputation in the surrounding communities. They believe, wrongly, that what goes on in their congregations is what is important and that their reputation outside counts for nothing. The smugness of ‘being saved’, so they think, is far more vital to their well-being that what the community outside sees and hears. But in their indifference to the community they fail in the command of Jesus to be salt, yeast and light to the world and the world starts with the neighbouring community. When the people who do not come to our churches are nevertheless grateful that we exist, then we are beginning to succeed in being what the church is meant to be. The church would be saying ‘come and join us’ but also it would be saying something else. Our purpose is to do things on behalf the community. It exists to represent you before God. We trust that our faithful witness will in some way spill out into the community in ways seen and unseen. There may be visible acts of service but the holding up before God of the entire community in prayer is an unseen but powerful contribution to the well-being of this place. Perhaps we are called to be like the Suffering Servant, the representative human being who is faithful so that the many can be kept safe.
Such a representative function for the church would not accord well with traditional evangelical ideas of individual repentance and conversion. But as I get older and find the conundrum of the 95% of society who play no part in our churches more difficult, I wonder if we have got church growth ideas all wrong. Perhaps the model of the yeast, light and the salt is a more realistic task for us to contemplate than trying to convert the whole of society. Anyway I offer this thought to be shared and I would welcome the comments of others.