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Does size matter?

small churchWe recently met at our diocesan synod. At one point there was a powerpoint image put on the screen about the four parishes in Timaru. These are led and served by stipended clergy (3.2 stipends).

Quickly adding up the numbers on the screen – total Sunday attendance across the four parishes: 170.

No one gasped.

I have expressed previously my astonishment that our church nationally keeps no statistics. I cannot tell you how many Anglicans are in church in NZ on Sundays in total. From previous studies I understood that 1% of our population could be expected to be in an Anglican Church on Sunday.

There are about 30,000 people living in Timaru. 1% of 30,000 is…

Obviously times have changed. I am no longer correct about the 1%.

Do numbers matter?

I am no promoter of mega-churches. I have argued for the value of local worshipping communities of a reasonable size led and served by well-trained clergy.

But I also think there is a critical mass in many situations. A community of, say, 30 people struggles to support a stipend. Young people, especially, normally need peers.

[ps. as I spoke to people about these statistics, other parishes were open about their numbers: less than 50; about 30; 24; about 35; over 220 with one stipended priest;…]

Ps. clearly I am wrong, and need to revise my 1% rule-of-thumb. There are about 380,000 people living in Christchurch – yes, when I think about it, I cannot guess where those 3,800 people in Anglican churches would be going to church…

Why not?…

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19 thoughts on “Does size matter?”

  1. As you know Bosco, many Anglicans are currently worshipping in other churches. So with a bit of Sherlock Holmesian persistence, I think we could track them down.

    Personally I am a great believer in statistics re working out the present and future of the church. I also believe in the value of a variety of church sizes being of value to Christians (some can only cope with small churches, some things can only happen when a church is medium sized, large churches can do things others cannot, including providing St Christopher’s which I increasingly think is ‘the’ venue to hold our synods in.

    But what constitutes a small or medium or large church in Anglican land? When is ‘small’ healthy and viable, and when is it dys-functional in the sense that (say) it only functions because some kind of subsidy is being ‘dys-pensed’ to it.

    The numbers you refer to absolutely highlight a major challenge for our diocese (also, I am confident) for other dioceses. When are low numbers too low to talk meaningfully about ‘small church’?

  2. I had some very good conversations about size when i shifted province (Scotland to England) – the diocese i am now in considers itself small, yet had the same (if not more) stipendiary clergy as the whole of the Scottish Province, and at least 5x the Diocesan staff at Diocesan house – in fact my former Diocese (Glasgow) has the same number of stipendiary clergy as my current deanery.

    I spoke at Deanery synod about this – about being overwhelemed by the size of the church machine, and about the negativity which goes with some of the number crunching. “Small” to often seems to be an excuse for not acting, rather than a motivation for change. It cn become to easy to hide behind the labels and become protective of the few that are present, instead of seeking new ways to engage in prayer and mission.

    1. You bring up some very important points, Ali, which I have not even alluded to in my post. NZ Anglican attendance may be that of a diocese elsewhere. So we have a lot of what you refer to as church machine. We have three archbishops. Few could name all the bishops, offices, staff etc. I often wonder if we were honest about our size how we might move forward more positively. Blessings.

  3. What would you offer a faithful congregation of about 30 who cannot afford a stipend?
    Here in Scotland a number of congregations are exploring ways of sharing ministry in areas where there may be some retired priests, a very few stipendiary priests, some lay readers and some lay members trained in offering reserved sacrament or in preaching or in leading a service of the word.
    I feel it is much too early to start assessing what is happening but there is the beginning of a
    greater sense of community within each congregation coupled with a growing awareness of
    being part of a wider family as churches share their resources with their neighbours. We are learning together about seeing different paths even as we are all journeying in similar directions.

    1. Jennifer, I do not think that there is a cookie-cutter solution, generalising into every situation.
      Some of the questions that spring to mind are:
      How many people live in the parish/area?
      How is contact made with those people (door to door, letter-drop, how good is your website, signs)?
      What are services like?
      What expectation is there that new people will arrive, Sunday by Sunday?
      Do people bring their friends?
      What is the giving like? (5% of income, 10% of income,…)
      What is the church doing in the community that is service without expecting any other return than the knowledge that we are going God’s will?

  4. The church I serve is small by any definition. But just how to do you measure the size of the community? If it is average Sunday attendance it is 35. But only 20 of those are the core folks who are there every single Sunday. If it’s number of unique visitors in a year – then we have just over 100 in our community.

    We are able to support about half of our denomination’s guidelines for stipend. I work full time in addition to this pastoral ministry.

    I have loved small church ministry – I can greet everyone by name; there is more ministry that must go around to the lay folks; and our governance is much more nimble than the large program-centered church I grew up in. We have a single board (called Consistory) comprised of ministers of the local church which we call deacons & elders and we have the freedom to do a great deal of spiritual reflection in the “business” meetings.

  5. WHy four small churches and in how large a geographical area? Were they once large congregations and this is the faithful remnant in a post Christian world? What can’t some of the groups merge? What could n’t a group or two share their building with a small congregation or two of other denominations? Why couldn’t two congregations of two different denominations share a building and a minister?

    In the USA TEC is in full communion with both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and also with the Moravian Church. (The Lutherans and the Moravians are not yet in communion with one another.) Small congregations of two of the denominations could share a building and a clergy person versed in both liturgies.

    1. Thanks, Br David. I don’t think we will be able to solve those particular issues from the comfort of this blog. Timaru is a city, not a rural area. One of those parishes has two church buildings (and a total Sunday attendance 18-20). One of the buildings is the size of a small cathedral. There are post-earthquake issues. I am looking for their websites, their facebook pages, the information on our diocesan website; how would I, as a visitor find out where and what time to go to a service… I guess in this post I’m trying to look from particular trees to the wood. Blessings.

  6. Where I live just about anyone can start a church- and a new church opens every week! One opened a couple of months ago opposite our nearest High School, now there’s a board up on the plot of land next door to it saying another will be built soon!

    I believe the tax-exempt status of these businesses harms the local economy once there are too many, but since there is no zoning here, and President Clinton signed a law in 2000 basically allowing churches to open anywhere unless there is a very strong reason to oppose them…they will continue to be built.

    We joke soon everyone will have a church each.

    So many churches are struggling to maintain their buildings, pay staff and retain their congregations…yet new churches are being built all the time. And this just the homogeneous denominations for this area, or the burgeoning non-denominational churches: the many Catholic and Orthodox etc immigrants to this area have also built to meet their growing community needs!

    It’s not just here. My father-in-law in England told me his congregation have just built a new church and leased out their old building, I asked how big is the congregation- 47. Literally hundreds have churches have closed in their area, beautiful buildings demolished or repurposed, usually because the cost of staying open is not viable.

    My heart sinks every time I get involved with a church now- it’s never long before they need more money for a rebuild or extension…one of my friends refers to her church as Our Lady of Perpetual Giving. It all seems a bit self-indulgent in a world with so many needs…

    1. Perhaps the law was passed and signed because of Statesonians addiction to “not in my back yard!” Churches were having to spend fortunes to overcome the law suits of the neighbors who decided that they didn’t want a church in their neighborhood.

      A separate issue for many churches with older buildings in the US and Canada, perhaps England as well is the local historic societies/government bodies that go around designating buildings as “historic.” Then the congregation is saddled with a building that no longer meets their needs, but their hands are tied with restrictions because of the historic designation with regard to remodeling and modernizing the structure for the present congregation. Often it would be cheaper to semi-abandon/place it for sale and build a new building from scratch.

  7. A few random thoughts here (and as per usual I’ll go slightly off-topic :0)

    I have been a member of a church with a small congregation (church plant) where, although small (and growing) we had a committed church who did spend the time in prayer, study & fellowship- and probably deserved their own priest. I have also been a member of a larger congregation where politics was taking over from Christianity …

    Note I’m not knocking large congregations – I have visited a large successful Anglican church (they do exist) that I know will only grow.

    Am important point, while the core group (lay & clergy) met separately to pray (once a fortnight), God added one family a month to our numbers (and these were random visitors who decided to stay). When we stopped meeting for prayer outside of the Sunday worship, we stopped growing.

    As God has chosen to move me around a bit . I have been a member of multiple diocese. In one I was authorised to lead a reserve sacrament service (i.e. the bread and wine were already consecrated by a priest before hand). While (at the church I was at) this was every second week, the weeks without the priest, the numbers were lower (regardless of who was leading). Churches without a priest (full time or part-time) have a problem.

    For those who like statistics (plus a good read) I suggest “The Road To Growth” by Bob Jackson (Church House Publishing). I just went to find the book so I could mention it – I opened it randomly to a section that quoted “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. For those that have the book it is page 138. The same section states that although things seem bad, there are good points if you look and there is a way forward (this is encouragement to churches / diocese that think they have a problem).

    In my experience, most churches want to grow. Two points here.

    1. It requires good leadership from a priest who can identify what works within the church’s context and encourage the congregation to make it happen. In the case of a diocese, it is up to the bishop to encourage the clergy.

    2. Most Anglicans (in my current diocese anyway) have no idea what to do to make the church grow.

    On that last point, a challenge to readers. Have we forgotten how to grow our churches? It has been proven that churches either grow or shrink – there is no stable (if you believe you are stable, go through your register of services for the last 6 months, and be afraid).

    A couple of years ago I was talking with a friend (a retired priest) about “Back To Church Sunday” (http://www.backtochurchsunday.com.au/). He responded by asking, “Shouldn’t that happen every Sunday?”


    1. I agree totally about the “Back to Church Sunday”, Dave. Are people inviting others to their church; bringing them to church; and is the service such that we would be proud to bring others to it? Blessings.

      1. As an aside to another topic of recent discussion, the Mormons aren’t only growing because they have an active full time missionary army pounding the world’s streets every day, but also because they have an aggressive “every member a missionary” program that is constantly emphasized at every level of the church’s structure; ward/branch, stake, region, priesthood meeting lessons, relief society meeting lessons, youth and young adult meeting lessons, primary meeting lessons, General Conference (2 x per year) and in the church magazines and online resources.

        1. BTW, the LDS Church embraces technology. It has historically owned newspapers and periodicals, radio stations, TV stations, satellite broadcast, internet broadcast and websites. I have even noticed iOS apps in the iTunes Store for study resources. I haven’t looked, but I would bet there are now or will soon be podcasts as well.

  8. I do have a church in my back-yard so to speak, it was quite a big church with a childcare/fitness facility ( now empty and rented out for events until the building sells ) then they built a giant cinema- which no one hardly uses.

    Truthfully I’d rather see these failed projects as viable businesses generating taxes and jobs.

    As church numbers are small the traffic is less of a problem- except on Sunday mornings when the church has the traffic lights switched off and police officers directing traffic, quite unnecessarily in my opinion- but I would hate to live next door to a mega-church with thousands of extra vehicles coming and going!

    Re. older buildings, in the UK yes, many many churches will have preservation orders: it is a big part of the heritage to preserve ancient churches and Cathedrals and architectural history!

    It can be done, for example Chester Cathedral runs a cafe and bookstore alongside religious services http://www.chestercathedral.com/ and retains its place as cathedrals traditionally were- the centre of the community.

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