Size Mattters, But Not Like You May Think

Size Mattters, But Not Like You May Think

September 24, 2018—One common and practical schema used to understand congregations is the congregational size approach to classifying churches. Looking at congregations through this lens is used not only by denominational strategists in assessing and planning, but also by sociologists who study the role and development of religion in society. In this chapter we will use the schema of congregation-by-numerical-size to understand how the size of a congregation influences certain dynamics in the hidden lives of congregations. Our review of current material on congregational size, however, will not advocate a church growth approach to understanding the numerical size of a congregation. That is, the purpose of this chapter is not to use the schema as a way to “grow a church” or to move a church beyond a “plateau.” Rather, the concept will highlight how the size of a congregation affects corporate relationships, leadership functions, and congregational forces. What we want to do in this chapter is to understand the hidden life forces of numerical size in the lives of congregations.

One typical misguided interpretation of the congregational-size model of church is the emphasis on church numerical growth with its accompanying necessity for a particular, and narrow, clergy leadership emphasis. A survey of current literature and training programs for clergy will reveal certain unfortunate assumptions about congregational size, including the one that seems to say that “bigger is better” and that the lack of numerical growth is equivalent to not being a “successful”—or worse, an “authentic”—church. Clergy and denominational leaders who rely too eagerly on popular business models of organizational leadership will too readily come away with the assumption that a sign of effective leadership is growth in such indicators as numbers, and in business-oriented indices like market impact, product, and facilities. I remember one instance when an intentional interim convinced a congregation it has “plateaued,” sending congregational members into a tizzy and focused the call process for the next pastor in terms of “church growth.”

But the fact of the matter is that there is no theological reason for an insistence that a congregation needs to grow in numerical size. If one were to ask the average pastor or congregational lay leader, “Why do you want your church to grow numerically?” the reason given may be a marketing one, a strategic one, an organizational one, a financial one, or even an ego one, but it will not be a theological one. Most presentations that focus on the congregation-by-size model seem to fail to understand three things: first, the schema is descriptive, not prescriptive. The fact of the matter is that bigger is NOT better, just different. And a small congregation is a REAL church, complete and fully Church, and is not inadequate to its nature because of its numerical size. Part of our obsession with size may be, as James Desmond Anderson suggests, that American culture has created an ecclesiastical mentality with an entrepreneurial bias toward organizational efficiency and numerical growth.(1)

Janet Fishburn is correct in stating, “The point is that there is a difference between ministry that is a success measured in numbers and a ministry where spiritual formation and growth of all the people of God is the criterion for effective pastoral leadership.”(2) Second, the congregation-by-numerical-size is only adequate in describing ONE model of Church. At its worst, this is a monolithic understanding of Church-as-congregation related to size fosters a congregation-in-a-kit type of church that is dependent on the personality of the pastor and on a narrow scope of the function of pastoral leadership: pastor as CEO and institutional developer. This tends to leave out many pastors whose pastoral strengths are more personal and relational and not corporation building.

Third, the emphasis on congregation-by-numerical-size for church growth fails to appreciate that the reason the numbers are important has less to do with numerical size and more to do with the fact that size informs us about the nature of the systemic relationships in the congregation. This in turn helps us appreciate the formative processes and possibilities at work in the faith community. Or, in other words, faith communities shape the faith of their members through the nature and dynamics of the relationships that exist in its context. In addition, rightly understanding those relationship dynamics created by numerical size informs us about the leadership functions that a particular congregation requires.

Size matters in that the nature of systemic relationships gives the members the ability to foster a sense of identity that informs them about “who we are” and therefore “why we do things this way.” The shared and highly localized faith culture of a congregation—its system of knowledge, beliefs, practices, habits and custom, and its curriculum of faith—are built up over time, negotiated and adapted through personal interaction. This contextual faith culture—each congregation has its own—provides a matrix through which a congregation understands its mission and its identity. It is in the way people in a congregation relate to each other that such things as processes and outcomes are decided, what programs develop (and how), and how conflicts are resolved (or not). This complex relational matrix, bounded by the impact of the size of a congregation, is what gives shape to members’ faiths. These help define the boundaries of what it means to be “a believer” and what it means to “belong.” Each size type congregation provides for these identity and practices of faith differently. And members, as well as potential members, understand this at some instinctual level. This, in part explains why people will join one church over the other, and why members will either resist or welcome transitioning into being another kind of church.

Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregrations: Understanding Church Dynamics (Rowman & Littlefield)

(1) James Desmond Anderson, “Crisis, Communication, and Courage: A Ministry Development Approach,” in Carl S. Dudley, ed. Building Effective Ministry: Theory and Practice in the Local Church (San Francisco: Harperr & Row, 1983), p. 195.
(2) Janet F. Fishburn, “Leading: Paideia in a New Key,” in C. Ellis Nelson, ed., Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 209.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

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