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What is the ideal size for a church?

One of the fringe meetings at a previous session of the General Synod focussed on the needs of ‘mid-sized churches’, in this case defined as worshipping communities of 20 to 60. The reason for this was a question that William Nye, Secretary General of Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, had raised:

Without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning. We have overlooked this middle third. Lots of staff at Church House, lots of bishops, come up through bigger churches, worship in bigger churches; bishops have led bigger churches.

I suspect some would have questions about whether this size was really the middle, or the smaller end, but it has obvious implications for church growth, as the Church Times article points out:

Arithmetic done by staff at Church House suggests that, if each of the 5,000 mid-sized churches gained an extra five people, the Church of England’s decline would be reversed. About 200,000 people worship in these churches, which serve a population of 16 million.

(Let’s pass over the observation that that works out at an attendance rate of around 1.25%.) In the session, I did point out that, from my experienced of being a member of a church of around 50 membership in Southampton, and then being involved in larger churches, one of the challenges for the smaller or ‘mid-sized’ churches was that of resource. There is quite a strong expectation in contemporary culture that things will be done ‘well’ on a Sunday morning, and that means that a church community needs to be comparatively well organised and well resourced, which can be a struggle for smaller churches. It was not intended to be a criticism (though seemed to be taken as one!) but indicates that partnership between congregations might be a key question.

All this does raise the question of what is the idea size for a local church and why. Online discussion covers a range of issues. Some discussions focus on practical and technical issues; and this short summary describes an average attendance of around 100 ‘small’, which reflects its North American context. Church growth guru Carey Nieuwhof says that his short exploration of what keeps ‘small’ (less than 200 attendance) churches small is his most-read article—but I thought it interesting that he focusses almost exclusively on technical, structural issues, particularly around how leadership is organised.

The shift from structural issues to issues of relationship comes when we think about leadership and resourcing in more personal terms. One blog discussion from a Reformed perspective makes this observation:

There are several things to think about simultaneously. One way to go at this problem is to ask what is the ideal ratio of pastors to congregants? I was told in seminary that the ideal is one pastor for everyone hundred people. My experience as a pastor over the last 25 years suggests that this is a good ratio. If this is true, then, so long as a congregation is well staffed, theoretically, it could grow as large as it wanted. Others, however, have argued that about 200 to 250 is the ideal number of people in the congregation and that after a congregation reaches 200 to 250 people it should begin daughtering new congregations.


Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday in Matthew 21

It is always a relief when we celebrate Palm Sunday from Matthew (as we do in this Year A in the lectionary) or Mark’s account (next year). Luke 19.36 in his account talks only about the garments, and does not mention palm branches, so in those years we have to call it Garment Sunday (which doesn’t have the same ring about it). In fact it is only John, the supposed ‘spiritual’ gospel, who specifies the palms. But if you are reading or preaching from Matthew’s account, what stands out?

Matthew’s account of the events leading to the entry into Jerusalem is slightly briefer than Mark’s or Luke’s; the inclusion of the fulfilment of prophecy in Matt 21.4–5 replaces the narrative detail about the collection of the donkey(s). Matthew, and to a lesser extent Luke, omit some of the ‘eye-witness’ details found in Mark’s account—the exact question the disciples will be asked (Mark 11.3), the asking of it (Mark 11.5), the fact that the branches were ‘leafy’ (Mark 11.8; Mark uses the word stibas suggesting leafy palms, rather than Matthew’s more general klados). Matthew’s account is more ‘stream-lined’ in order to make the points that he thinks are significant.

Like Mark, but in contrast to Luke and John, Matthew includes the mention of the Mount of Olives as the location of the journey into the city. This might help remind his (largely Jewish?) readers of the story of David’s exile and return in 2 Sam 19–20, which will be referenced indirectly in the citation of Zech 9. It also has messianic connotations as expressed in Zech 14.4, and it becomes the location for the extended ‘eschatological discourse’ in Matt 24–25. From this spot, overlooking the city, we get a glimpse on the horizon of the end of all things—the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and beyond that the anticipation of his final return.

In Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, the phrase he gives them ‘The Lord has need of it’ must refer to the Lord God; Matthew nowhere uses ho kurios to refer to Jesus, even in his narrative comments (a striking contrast to Luke’s usage). And, different from Mark’s account, the second phrase must mean, ‘he [i.e. the man you ask] will let you have it immediately’ rather than ‘he [the Lord] will return it immediately’. Jesus is clear that, in this action, he is fulfilling God’s own purposes.

A striking feature is the emphasis on the impact that Jesus has. The ‘large crowd’ that has followed Jesus from Jericho in Matt 20.29 has become a ‘huge crowd’ in Matt 21.8.  (Some translations render this ‘many of the crowd’ but this is not the best translation of the unusual phrase. The word is pleistos, the superlative of polus, ‘many’. Matthew’s use here is perhaps the equivalent of the way we might say in English ‘there was the most enormous crowd’ where our use of ‘most’ doesn’t actually make literal sense since we are not actually comparing it with other crowds.) It is worth noting that, though many versions title this episode ‘The Triumphal Entry’ or some such, the acclaim happens before Jesus enters the city, not at his entrance. When he does finally come into Jerusalem, Matthew alone notes that ‘the whole city was stirred’ in verse 10. Here he highlights the divide between the Galileans, the pilgrim crowd, who acclaim Jesus, and the local Judeans who do not. I have always felt this was much more historically plausible as an explanation of what is happening.

Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday in Matthew 21 video discussion

The gospel lectionary reading for Palm Sunday in Year A is Matthew 21.1–11. It offers a distinct change of pace from the passages from the Fourth Gospel we have been exploring in the past few weeks. How do Matthew’s distinct emphases help us understand this story?

John James and Ian as they explore the text and engage with its significance.

For a written exploration, see https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/palm-sunday-in-matthew-21/

Was Mary (and therefore Jesus) a slave?

Major David Cavanagh of the The Salvation Army offers this response to Mitzi J. Smith’s reading of doule in Luke 1:38.

“Was the Virgin Mary actually a slave?” That is the question raised by Mitzi J. Smith, J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and Professor of Gender Studies at the University of South Africa, in an article published in Bitter the Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Age of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (Fortress Academic, 2022). The article, published last August, has recently been recycled in blogs by Candida Moss, Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave?, and Kevin Giles, What If Jesus’s Mother Mary Was A Slave?.

Having spent eighteen years as the leader of several local congregations, together with my wife, I remember all too well the pressure to find ways of giving the “old, old story” fresh relevance, especially at recurring moments in the ecclesiastical calendar, such as Advent. It would not surprise me if this hypothesis were to be recycled in sermons next December, when preachers will again be looking for a new angle on the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the gospel itself. 

Preachers might find this hypothesis appealing because its corollary is that, as the child of a slave woman, Jesus himself might have been a slave—an idea which would certainly grab any congregation’s attention! Candida Moss quotes Smith as telling her that “In any slave society, a child born to an enslaved woman is born enslaved”, while Antony Thiselton notes that “Those who were born as children of a woman in slavery constituted up to around a third of the slave population in major urban centres”.[efn_note]Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 562.[/efn_note] Smith also points to the fact that Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty, noting that under legislation passed in AD 40 by the emperor Augustus,[efn_note]Lex Aelia Sentia[/efn_note] this was the age of manumission for enslaved men, and if Jesus had indeed been a slave, he would not have been free to begin his ministry any earlier. If Jesus, as the child as a slave woman, was indeed a slave, this might shed new light on Jesus’ ministry both in its’ original setting and for some contemporary debates. Smith comments that if Jesus was born as a slave, this 

situates Jesus at the bottom of the society into which he was born. He lived in stigmatized flesh like so many other people during his lifetime and beyond, including Black people, people of color, poor people, immigrants, and so on…The injustice of the world is an injustice that Jesus himself experienced. 

Jesus raises Lazarus in John 11

In the Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 5 in Year A, we come to the last of our for explorations of Jesus’ encounters with individuals that formed a catechumate in the early church in her raising of Lazarus in John 11.1–45. Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will return to our gospel of the year, Matthew, in the lead in to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This remarkable extended narrative forms a turning point in the Fourth Gospel. The gospel is commonly seen as being in two halves, the so-called ‘Book of Signs’ running from the prologue until now, and the ‘Book of Glory’ which runs from chapter 12 to the end. (In a previous scholarly generation, these were understood to reflect two different [written] sources behind the final form of the gospel; but we don’t need to have this obsessed with sources to note that there is different language, a different emphasis, even a different ‘feel’ in the first half and the second half of the gospel.) The seven signs in the gospel are most commonly understood to be:

Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 – “the first of the signs”
Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45
There is some debate here, because they are not each explicitly identified in the narrative as a ‘sign’, so some readers see the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water as one, combined, sign, making Jesus’ own resurrection the seventh. However, the signs are quite clearly depicted as partial revelations which point forward to ultimate reality, and it makes more sense to see each of these seven pointing forward to the eighth, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, which (if ‘seven’ signifies this age, with its seven days of creation and rest) depict this as the beginning of the new age to come.

The narrative itself is vivid and compelling, full of arresting detail and emotion. Jo-Ann Brant, in her Paideia commentary, observes:

The principal action is a reversal—the dead one lives—but to the simplicity of this reversal, John adds the complexity of emotion, allusion, report, reaction, and counterreaction. Grief and censure turn to an expression of gratitude—the anointing of feet—that in turn comes to signify a funerary rite. Jesus raises Lazarus to life, and the authorities plot to take both their lives. John plays with epithets and allusions to underscore that Lazarus’ story foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection in a variety of ways (p 170).