The Question of Size

For years now Protestant churches have been locked in an endless debate over the issue of size.  At the extremes, there are a few mega-church leaders who have touted the virtues of congregational growth and who argue that their size is a sign of their faithfulness.  On the other side of the debate — the leaders of shrinking denominations have made a virtue of their reality by asserting that small is beautiful, arguing that prophetic churches inevitably drive people away.

But the debate among church leaders goes on among people in the pews as well.  In the last few years I have watched people struggle with parishes on the brink of extinction.  I have heard folks say, we have decided to emphasize program instead of growth.  Some have even argued that the shrinking size o their churches is evidence of their sophistication.  Others watch people go out the back door of their churches as quickly as they come through the front door.

The truth, of course, is that the size of churches is tied to countless factors and most of those are local.

Some churches are small because they are doing tough work in tough places.  Some are small because they deserve to be small.

Some large churches are large because they are dedicated to a forthright proclamation of the gospel.  Some of them are large because they wave a magic wand over the lives their membership would live anyway and declare it God’s will.

Frankly, the argument over size is about as useful as it is on some playgrounds.

If you are doing God’s work, you will need to grow.

If you want to sit on small as beautiful — “Call the undertaker, your church is dying.”   The decision not to grow is the decision to die.  It may be sooner or later, but you will die.

If you are in a large church, heaven help you if you are big because you’ve been selling lies.  If people go as quickly as they come, you are probably not helping people cultivate a relationship with God, you are just entertaining them.  If you have built your big church on cotton candy, look out, “The Auditor is coming” and this auditor is not interested in your numbers.

Small or large, the conversation shouldn’t be all about you anyway.

Instead, what about a Christ-centered, needs-based ministry?

When was the last time people got the impression that you know Jesus?

When did you last ask, “What do the people around us need?”

Size isn’t everything and sometimes it doesn’t mean anything at all.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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