Friday, 20 March 2009

Missional chemistry

Eugene Hor comments on a trend in the US to move to smaller churches as part of becoming more engaged in the mission of God. It makes sense, and fits with something I've thought for a long time. Years ago when I did chemistry I learned that one of the key variables which increases the rate of reaction is the surface area. So if a solid is reacting with a liquid it will all happen faster if the solid is broken up into a powder than if it sits in a single lump. In ministry it is often better to have a lot of little things happening than having it all happen at one place.

It is a common claim (which I assume is right) that churches are most likely to be in effective contact with their communities when they are a new church plant. So constantly spinning off new churches can keep evangelistic momentum. Also in a smaller church it is more likely that more people will be called on to use their gifts and people are more likely to be in the kind of person to person relationships in which they will care for each other and mature together. (Of course it is only 'more likely' a small church can be just as unhealthy as a large one, and being small can be a symptom of being unhealthy).

Increasing surface area for ministry can be a challenge. A church of 70 adults might manage to support a pastor and have a few good musos and a small children's ministry and see a few people becoming Christians each year. It can be a lot more exciting to go to a church of 700+ with several specialised staff and great music team and cradle to the grave programs that meet all your "needs". More exciting, but it is unlikely that you will get ten times more "ministry" happening, though there might be hundred times more "buzz". Being a pastor for a smaller church doesn't feed the ego as well as leading a big church. Lots of small churches can be harder for a denomination to "control" and service. So there are lots of reasons why we might think bigger is better, but I suspect it isn't so.

I would also add that "spinning off" new churches has to be done with genuine mission motivation. It can not be simply a way to move off a group of people who don't quite fit the "sending church". That will do no good for the sending church nor the new church and will simply show our lovelessness. So I am not suggesting "homogenity" as the main feature of new small churches.

Of course there can be a "critical mass" needed (though that changes the metaphor to nuclear fission!). Churches working deliberately working together can provide that.

Missional chemistry is a reason to keep starting new churches, with the aim of keeping them small. It is a Kingdom strategy, not an empire one.

It might seem strange in denomination of mainly small churches to bother making this case. However I think that the PCNSW often longs to have big churches, while letting our smaller churches feel a bit second rate. It's time to help smaller churches see that they can be right in the middle of mission.


Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

It makes sense what you're saying, and it's an important topic for our denomination. You should perhaps talk to Bruce Frost. He thinks the same way. "Small is beautiful" he calls it. See if you're interested in his approach.

Anonymous said...

I agree that small churches need to be encouraged and re-assured that they can be right in the middle of mission. But as you say John, small can indicate unhealthiness. Small is not always beautiful because it does depend why a small church is small. If it's small because they're enjoying the "close knit fellowship" and they don't want to get bigger, this is often an alarm bell that the church is looking to meet their own needs and isn't considering the lost. If the church is small because they refuse to make any changes to negotiable issues which are stopping others from joining the church, this could also be a sign of unhealthiness.

I wonder whether the real issue is whether we want God's kingdom to grow and whether we are willing to use whatever vehicle is necessary (big church, small church) to help achieve this goal (apart from changing the message of Jesus). ie whether we are willing to move from being small to being bigger and from being a big church to being lots of smaller churches if this achieves the goal of growing God's kingdom. This is a question that the PCNSW needs to address alongside with your suggestion of encouraging small churches.

sujomo said...

Perhaps we can further develop this helpful chemistry analogy. We have all heard how catalysts speed up reactions. Catalysts do this by bringing the reagents together in close proximity so that new bonds can be formed (and some bonds broken at the same time) resulting in the formation of new compounds (often with the production of heat which further speeds up the process). Whether a church be 'large' or 'small' it needs 'catalysts' to bring people together for the church to carry out its mission. Just as inter-molecular reactions are important in chemistry so inter-personal interactions are important in any church whatever it size or composition.


Eugene Hor said...

Hi John, thx for the link. Another great site on the whole multi-site approach to church planting is I know that pastor cs has been working through the book with his elders and is thinking through the issue. For those interested the site has also has a section on how to develop and affordable multi-site approach to church planting

in Him, euge