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Church Growth And Discipleship

Alan Hirsch argues that hyperbolic church growth depends on an understanding of Christians being constant disciples, not simply worshippers, attenders, members or consumers.

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How Many Friends Can You Have?

Mashable reports on the work of British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, who says your brain can only cope with one hundred and fifty friends. (This is supposed to be the link to the interview in The Times but I can’t make it work.) The Mashable piece applies this to the (ridiculous?) number of people some folk ‘friend’ on Facebook, but also gives examples from industry of companies that know and understand this principle, for example Gore and its breaking down of employees into small teams so that people still know each other.

But if Dunbar is right, what are the implications for church life? The size, structure and leadership of churches would all be affected, and perhaps we already know this implicitly in Christian circles.

So currently when stationing ministers (something of which I’ve had recent experience) my denomination looks for an appointment where a minister looks after about one hundred and eighty church members. A probationer minister’s appointment ideally has one hundred and fifty. (These are figures my Chair of District told me.) Even if these ratios have been arrived at out of necessity, simply by dividing the number of members nationally by the total number of ministers, pragmatically we have ended up in quite a good place if members want to feel known.

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, at least speaking from the minister’s side. It is complicated by other factors. One is the number of churches the members are spread across: three churches of fifty members create more bureaucracy for a minister than one of a hundred and fifty.

Also, a minister has a huge number of existing friends from outside the current locality as a result of all that has preceded in his or her life. I’m not generally one who makes tons of friends in ‘real life’ – usually it’s a few deep friends. However my moves and travels in life mean I currently have 278 friends on Facebook. Some while ago, Debbie and I said that before we move on from Chelmsford this coming summer, we will delete some of our Facebook friends with whom we don’t expect to continue having any meaningful contact. We’d rather use Facebook largely for keeping in contact with people we really know rather than seeing it as some kind of competition to prove we have lots of friends.

Dunbar’s 150 may also help explain why some churches stop growing around that figure. Church Growth literature used to affirm in the 1970s and 80s that this was the numerical limit to which a sole minister could generally grow a church. (Not that I wish to downplay the rôle of the Holy Spirit, you understand.) More staff would be needed. Equally, it is a point of resistance in some congregations, because some members say they don’t want a church to grow to the kind of size where not everybody knows everyone else. Therefore at this stage important questions of strategy come into play. How does the church continue to grow while honouring the need for relationships? Does it grow as one entity with a lot of smaller units, like Gore? Does it divide into more than one church?

I’d be intrigued to know if anyone reading this has any experiences or observations on this matter. Does this sound about right to you, or are there glaring holes?

Sabbatical, Day 14

Valentine’s Day. Debbie and I had it all worked out. A nice day with the children, then we’d pack them off to bed at the usual time and share a Marks and Spencer’s meal. 

And the day started so well. The children had signed Valentine’s cards to Mummy. They had also jointly signed one to me. But then they derailed things.

For the better, I might add. This evening’s quiet meal somehow ended up off the agenda in favour of a family lunch trip to Pizza Hut. And since I had been away for five days until yesterday, I think a family meal out was probably the better option. Our romantic evening has instead become me clearing down hundreds of emails that arrived while I was away (no exaggeration – I’ve deleted four hundred) and Debbie doing the ironing.

However – in response to popular demand – well, one comment by Olive – here is some more information on what I sketched last night about ‘the life cycle of a congregation’. I don’t have time to rework this substantially, so what follows is simply a copy and paste from OpenOffice of the notes I made in Stephen Skuce‘s lecture. Therefore, please be aware that the structure of what follows is his, not mine. All that is mine is my attempt to record as faithfully as possible what he was sharing with us in the lecture. I went straight from this lecture to coffee and then drove home. There are some compelling parallels with a lot of church experience, but also some gaping holes, as he indicates in the section entitled ‘reflections’. But I hope they might lead to a useful debate in the comments below.

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A CONGREGATION

STEPHEN SKUCE

Understanding this helps us know where we are and help us diagnose what to do next. Various proponents can be found on the web, including George Bullard.

Western linear thinking – but much of life is cyclical.

Gene structure of a congregation (Bullard)

  1. E-factor is concerned with energising a congregation or group, such as a project within a congregation.

  2. P-factor is for programmes and schemes. A congregation that is to become stabilised and growing needs structures.

  3. A-factor is concerned with intentionality. The way a congregation expresses itself in mission statements, and how human and financial resources can be used efficiently. Specific goals, outcomes, plans.

  4. I-factor is concerned with inclusion. How are individuals and groups drawn in and assimilated into the congregation. How are factors like power and conflict handled?

Ascent scale of a life cycle

  1. Birth – high energy levels, organised around vision, or the charisma of the founder. So many ideas bubbling up they can’t cope. The need isn’t dreams and visions but needing to broaden the congregation in order to carry them all out. People are generally very unified in a church plant, because they have all chosen to be part of the project.

  2. Infancy – time scale of this move from 1 above is hugely variable. The high quality of personal relationships matches the enthusiasm. High level of inclusion immediately. Programmes not particularly developed or thought through: this is not a problem. One or two who were present at birth may have drifted away, however. Time needs spending to develop the sense of mission. Ministries start to develop – worship team, social caring project, etc. Distinct roles and places within the church, rather than stage 1 where everyone pitches in everywhere.

  3. Adolescence – energy levels high, focussed on development of congregation. Everyone busy. Early unrealistic idealism has been curtailed. Not completely seeing eye to eye over future direction any more, although not falling out. Early leaders from stage 1 are beginning to take a less active role. The church planters are moving off to start something else. Others have been burnt out already. Paid staff may burn out. Membership still needs to be broadened to cover a range of interests and different understandings of faith.

  4. Prime – by now comparatively a large and successful congregation with strong interaction between inner and outer members. Intentional and inclusive. Still working well for newcomers who join. A number of programmes, which are organised, visible and attractive. We are pastorally caring for one another. By this stage the danger of the dominance of one or more groups has started to emerge. Youth leaders and children’s leaders may conflict, for example. Separate roles become more important than the group identity. Starting to splinter. Conflict resolution skills need to be developed in order to keep things smooth. Overall the church still moves where it’s meant to be going. Visitors from elsewhere come to see good practice. Commitment levels and financial giving are both high.

Descent scale of a congregation

  1. Maturity – hard to distinguish from ‘prime’. The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking. Maintaining high standards mean that changes start to be questioned. Still a good welcome for newcomers, but those who are a little different don’t fit in so well. Church members very busy, just not quite so enthusiastic as they were before, because they’ve been busy for a long time. Members feel important and affirmed. Corporate vision of the church, e.g., mission statements begin to develop, even though they become an exercise in navel-gazing.

  2. Aristocracy – more like a club than a church. Busy but not energetic. People enjoy coming to meet their friends. They defend their positions and territory. Status and inclusiveness can be factor. Dwindling base of support as fewer newer and younger people join. Newer and enthusiastic members are not joining. Lost sense of mission. Nobody can recite mission statement, even if it’s on all the stationery. A need to restore God’s sense of purpose through the history of the church. What was our secret in the past, and can we recapture it?

  3. Bureaucracy – people are disillusioned and the good old days are no longer sought. If loads of kids turned up we wouldn’t have the leaders. People defend status. Boundaries. People are a bit suspicious of each other – why are you doing that? Several factors induce the suspicion, but the reasons are lost in the mists of time. Structures are rigid. Hope still exist if the silent or powerless can be heard. Change is possible with new leadership (not the minister, because that post has been changing, but rather the key lay leaders).

  4. Death – the congregation is all about preserving the past or the building. The building is of great historical importance and the community would miss it if it weren’t there. Despair about the congregation’s future – it’s not going to last but it’s going to last while I’m alive. A hospice church, allowing me to live out my life of faith in ways I like until I can die with dignity. No missional impact in the community. Doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. You can’t change the hospice church, where people are now so tired and old and can’t change that now. Alternatives for the building or mergers with other churches or circuits are considered. We kid ourselves we’re doing it for mission and growth, but we’re doing it to eke out another ten years of existence. Mergers are like two drunks staggering out of the pub at closing time, holding onto each other, but they can’t and they collapse to the ground. More chance if congregations are going to come together if all the premises are sold and something completely new built.

Reflections

  1. This may illustrate a relatively small congregation or groups and ministries within a large congregation.

  2. There is nothing inevitable about the growth or decline.

  3. It depends more on the spiritual leadership than on sociological factors.

  4. External factors, such as good or bad actions, can have a significant influence.

  5. The changes in the surrounding community are not included.

  6. Times of revival (as a God thing) are discounted in this analysis.

  7. Death is deserved if a church is apostate.

  8. What does the picture of the early church in Acts and more established congregations in Revelation 2-3 impact on this?

Bibliography

  • Bullard, G., ‘The Life Cycle Model’ www.bullardjournal.org. (2007)

  • Grundy, M., Understanding Congregations (London: Mowbray, 1998)

  • Saarinen, M. F., ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ in Action Information (Alban Institute, May/June 1986)