Whose Church Is This? Mine, Yours, Theirs, or God’s?

House for all Sinners and Saints, the congregation I serve in Denver, Colorado, started with 8 people in my living room in the Fall of 2007. (I hereby proclaim the living room of a church planter to be the iconic equivalent to the garage of a tech start-up’s founder)

Someone asked me early on what’s your 5 year plan? Um, yeah…never had a plan.  Well I kind of have a plan:  I plan on being a responsive and adaptive leader and who and what I am responding and adapting to changes with everyone who comes and everyone who leaves. How in the world can you know what that will look like in 5 years?

Our first public Eucharist was in April of 2008 and we began worshipping weekly in Advent of the same year.  Until last Summer we never really averaged more than 50 people in liturgy.  Last night there were 120.

I know that there are some who have been part of this church for awhile who are feeling a sense of loss around the growth.  There was a greater sense of intimacy and community before we grew.  Also…there was never a line at the prayer station :) But there was also far less diversity.  I want to honor the real feeling of loss they are experiencing, but at the same time I want to be clear about something: this is not our church.  This is a gift God has given us.  This church is here as a gift from God for us and for us to share so that others can also receive what we have been enriched by.  Two years ago someone asked me what was the biggest issue facing my congregation. The fact that everyone involved likes it just the way it is was my answer.

I reject the idea I hear out there that the church is the only institution that exists solely for the people who aren’t inside of it.  (is that what “missional means?  i’ve never quite figured that one out)  When churches are turned in on themselves they can develop an unhealthy fixation on their own needs.  In this situation the church exists so that I can be around the people I already know and have everything just the way I like it so that my needs are met and most importantly so that everything remain unchanged until the church meets my final need: my own funeral. (See my previous post about dying congregations holding onto their buildings in what I am now calling The Babylonian Captivity of the Church Buildings).  However, when churches are only turned outward so that reaching out to new people and being of service to others is the only focus there can be an unhealthy fixation on how much of a “blessing” we are.  The danger here is that nothing may be feeding the people who are doing the serving and they become spiritually and emotionally malnourished.

So how do we hit that sweet spot where what we do as a church is truly a feast and a feast to be shared?

This is where House for All Sinners and Saint is trying to figure some things out.  We have never wanted to get really, really big.  The reason for that is not because we’re like a child with a bag of sweets and the more people we have to share with the less we will have for ourselves.  The reason is that there is a purpose to the way we do liturgy (see my post on the Problem with Pews) and we could not be as participatory if there were several hundred people at HFASS.  (Also, I like being the pastor of a small church.  I want to know about the lives of the people that I am preaching to.)

Now that I’ve written all of this I’m not sure what the point is.

I do know this: It makes me unbelievably happy to see all those people in church and I hope we have the grace to know this is God’s church and to celebrate it all as a feast and keep adding chairs to the table.  …and figure out how to make a larger prayer station :)

 

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • RM Kelso

    Nadia:
    Perhaps time for a second service to keep the intimacy and acknowledge the growth. The work that is being done is revolutionary for Christ’s sake — Many eyes are watching and learning and implementing…. Blessings and peace on your journey…

  • http://www.unilu.org Cindy Jacobsen

    Nadia,
    Maybe it is time to extend a blessing and send off a group to form another community. They will need to come up with a great name … of course!

    • eric macarthur

      Yes, I agree with Cindy, that’s what I was thinking as I read the post, maybe there are some who’ve ben built up by your teaching enough to go and do likewise…..remember the early church must have done that every few weeks – they only had people’s living rooms to meet in.

  • http://www.sothlutheran.com Robert Kippley

    Great post Nadia. As a congregation grows, the family system dynamic changes. The intimacy of a small group is so very helpful to people journeying together and creates the need for small groups in a larger community. The best book I have seen regarding challenges congregations face when crossing attendance thresholds is Raising the Roof, from the Alban Institute. See this link: http://www.alban.org/bookdetails.aspx?id=1004

  • Sandy Tracy

    I wish that everyone could experience the type of church that Nadia describes and that is developing at River of Hope Lutheran in Hutchinson, Minnesota. It is truly intimate, empowering, and hopeful.

  • Carrie

    Great post! It absolutely sounds like reproduction time!!

  • Andiepants

    As one of the OG who occasionally feels a little misplaced by the growth – thanks for writing this, cause I needed to hear it.

    xo,
    al

  • D.E. Bishop

    I’ve heard of more and more churches doing what several here have already advocated: Starting new churches.

    Some fairly big churches have come to the place where they needed more space. So instead of a big and expensive building project, they’ve started new churches. Some of that money that would have gone to Bigger and Bigger, is instead playing a large role in financial assistance to the new site. It’s a great plan.

    I like smaller churches too. I like knowing all the congregants. I’ve always avoided big churches with multi-staffers. I’m not interested in a business, I’m interested in a community.

  • H. A. Riggs

    “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not.” Yoda

    I could argue, for or against, the various things — that you can do, that you can’t do, in a small or large church. . . It matters not. Apparently God wants you to grow. Apparently more people need to experience this particular iteration of the gospel.

    It reminds me of this Sunday’s Corinthinan’s text: like Paul, you’ll all do what you’re called to do because you can’t not. God will have God’s way whether his way meets our current understanding of “good” or not. Whether we enjoy it in the moment or not. Sometimes this Gen Xer just has to listen to John crooning “Let it Be.”

  • http://none Tricia

    HI Nadia,
    Having seen a comment of yours on FB and having lived i n Denver I decided to look you up. i love this article. It shows the one major failing of the organized church (regardless of denomination) . The idea that we have to “grow”. The building is not and I personally believe never was or should have been the church. The people are the church. Yes of course people are upset at the lack of intimacy because thats probably why they came in the first place, it was small!! I have never “grown a church plant”. I have never looked toward having a building or a first communion or whatever. When our group gets to 20 we MULTIPLY!! We make 2 groups. WHOA what a novel idea!1 Not wasting money on a building (or a pastor for that matter but thats another subject) By MULTIPLYING we keep the groups small, we can meet in large groups once a month or whenever we want and it focuses on the REAL church, the people, not the need for the pastor to have a bigger group and a bigger salary. That is why my FB pic sayS DONT GO TO CHURCH BE THE CHURCH2

  • http://unpublished John

    What refreshment! I am a retired ELCA professional who has left the Church, not because of theoogical problems, but because of disappointment in its self-centered orientation of congregations (often shared by any established organization). I’ve asked myself, “Can a steward of God’s living Christ simply ‘retire’ and remain faithful to the calling of Jesus?” I’ve been asked to start a weekly house meeting (‘Church’ carries too much baggage–and probably would stifle creative thinking.) How refreshing to run across your “Denver esperience” and find there are others who not only share my similar thoughts, but actually did something with them! I am now teaching speech and language, offering therapies for learning disabled and retarded high school students. That at the moment, is my ministry not only for the sake of others, but for the sake of Jesus.
    New perspectives have enabled me to realize the profound truth that it was religion that crucified Jesus, and have prompted thoughts (still developing) of the distinctions between religion (of whatever label) and christ-ianity.

  • http://www.edwardtraub.com Ed Traub

    Nadia,
    Have been following you for a while…I’m touched by this post…as a relatively new pastor in West Michigan I have been asked to put together a 5-year plan! Ugh! The fact that you have been asked and haven’t really had one is encouraging. How does one navigate these waters?

    You have given me words to frame my distaste for “the plan.”

    Blessings


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