Most of my experience, discipleship and ministry has been in large (or largish) churches. As a student, I attended St Aldate’s in Oxford. After attending small churches in Southampton and Slough, I had the formative experience of seeing a medium-sized church grow large in Poole, Dorset, and in Nottingham have been involved in what had been a large church (Christchurch, Chilwell) and now am at a city-centre gathered church at St Nic’s.
So it was fascinating to reflect last week with leaders of large churches at the National Anglican Larger Churches Consultation on the inter-relation between large churches and contemporary culture. It is important to do so, since the growth of larger churches (and the corresponding growth of the number of smaller churches, whilst mid-sized churches disappear by becoming one or the other) has been driven by cultural changes. People are generally less committed to the own neighbourhood, and being used to driving to a supermarket rather than go to the local shops, they are also much more willing to drive to a gathered church than they were even 15 years ago. Nottingham has seen the growth of several large churches in the city, including the largest Vineyard church with a Sunday attendance of around 1,400; I have to avoid the queue to turn right to Vineyard as I drive into the city on a Sunday morning.
This then raises the question as to why people might attend a larger church, rather than join one of the local churches they drive past on a Sunday. Some of the leaders I spoke to were very clear of the reasons—but I am not sure all church leaders have thought this through, or considered both the benefits and the challenges of large church attendance. I made my observations along four axes of decision: the tension between individualism and communitarianism; between passivity versus engagement; between uniformity versus differentiation; and between activism versus stillness.
Although different theological traditions lean more towards emphasising personal responsibility and others lean towards a communal vision, Scripture seems to hold the two together in a vision of the kingdom of God as individuals-in-community being reconciled to God. We cannot ignore the dominance of plural verbs in Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities, but neither can we ignore Jesus’ call to individuals to respond to him and his message, at times in contradiction to the expectations of family and community.
This kingdom value has to set its face against the icy storm-blast of individual choice—which is no longer simply a value in our culture, but which now appears to be the non-negotiable underpinning for all we do. (Just imagine suggesting that, in any particular debate, whether it be about healthcare, education, economics or politics, that something should take priority over the right of the individual to choose.) But this value of choice has a quite differentiated effect, a factor that is usually ignored: only certain strata of British society has the power and the resources to exercise many of the choices that are ‘available’. In relation of choice about where to live, for example, more than half of the UK population dies in the same local authority area they were born in, whilst a relatively small layer of society is highly mobile.
I don’t think we should apologise for the virtue that large churches embody in offering choice. The fortunes of church communities ebb and flow, and such changes are often associated with changes of ordained leadership. There was a time when lay members of a congregation just had to ‘tough it out’ during the lean years of a church’s life—and wait for the vicar to move on! If some degree of attendance mobility means that Christians can continue to be fed and discipled, that is a good thing. Large churches are sometimes accused of ‘sheep stealing’. But sheep need green grass if they are to stay healthy, and there are times when they need to travel to the next field to find it. The danger of mobility is that large churches simply become an open ‘back door’ to the church as a whole; it is much easier to attend less often, and stop attending altogether, in a larger church where you will not be missed as you were in the small church where everyone knew you.
The challenge for large churches, then, is to find ways to feel like a small church in terms of relationships and belonging. This will often happen by means of small-group structures, so that the large church functions like an aggregation of small churches meeting together.
Although parts of the NT (particularly 1 Cor 12 and 14) articulate the idea of ‘every member ministry’, and this is underpinned by the theology of the Spirit as the end-times gift of the presence of God on the whole people of God (Acts 2, Rom 5.5), other parts focus on the distinctive and prominent ministries of leaders—apostles, prophets, teachers. This creates a picture of variegated ministry involvement amongst the body of Christ, where all are actively involvement, though to varying degrees.
Against this comes the powerful cultural force of consumerism, where we exercise choice but in quite a passive way, not very much engaged with that which we consume. This cultural influence can easily be seen in the tendency in large churches for worship to be a performance, and the worshippers an audience who watch the performance rather than participate in it, and where the question ‘How was church?’ invites a product evaluation exercise.
It is easy, then, to miss the virtues of scale that large churches represent. It is much easier for one person to invest the time, energy and resources to offer a really engaging sermon that digs deep into the Scriptures and draws out, with relevant application, the lessons for living in contemporary for 400 people, than for eight preachers to do this for people meeting in groups of 50. In a church will feels pressed for resources, the efficiency of large churches is not to be sniffed at. According to Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, ‘excellence honours God’—and it can also engage people who living in a culture of high production values. It always seems odd to me that the excellence of a cathedral choir is lauded as enabling encounter with the transcendence of God, but an excellent band set-up with professional lighting and sound is sniffed at as ‘performance consumerism’, when they both represent the equivalent values in their own cultural milieu. The benefits and dangers are very similar. In both contexts there is the precious possibility of those who come actually being ministered too, and enjoying rest and refreshment in the worship of God.
The challenge, then, is to find ways of actively engaging those attending—not by making them busy, but by providing moments of active learning alongside more passive listening, and proactively connecting what happens on a Sunday with what will happen from Monday to Saturday.
The consistent vision of the NT is not that everyone sees things exactly the same way—nor that there is unlimited diversity. The presence of four gospels, with their varied interpretations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sharing a core set of ideas, bears eloquent testimony to a vision of bounded diversity. There are different ways to understand faith—but there are limits to that difference, and going beyond those limits takes us outside orthodox faith. Alongside this, the NT vision is insistent on the cultural and ethnic diversity of the redeemed people of God from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9).
In a culture (and, at times, a church) which does not appear to believe in boundaries of any kind, large churches offer the virtue of focus and intention, usually expressed in a mission statement and an articulation of vision and values. (When church leaders extol the virtues of the Anglican ‘broad church’, I always want to ask ‘How broad?’. Mysticism, pantheism, animism, Sea-of-faith non-realism? When does this ‘virtue’ become a liability?) The answer of our culture to this question is to insistent on uniformity through brand identity—and some churches and church networks appear to have adopting branding in an less than critical way. The danger here is that we lean towards making Christian widgets in a religious worship factory, rather than forming disciples in all their diversity. I was recently speaking to a friend who leads a medium-sized church, who from time to time has new members coming from larger churches near by. His observation was fascinating: those used to large church life often find it difficult to settle in to a context where there is much wider diversity of views and outlooks than they are accustomed to. Within large churches, do we want everyone to look the same?
The challenge, then, is to offer a diversity of subcultures within the overarching shared values and goals of the church as a whole. Is there diversity of worship styles across congregations? Is there a diversity of learning opportunities? Do we take into account cultural differences—and, perhaps most challenging, how do we handle diversity and difference of theological views and perspectives? Bringing everything down to a single point is no more biblical than bringing nothing to resolution.
The dynamic of the NT is a constant movement from activity to rest, and back again. The first thing that humanity did in the seven days of creation was to rest. Only God can rest from his work; we need to work from rest. Jesus sends the disciples out on mission—but not before he has called them to ‘come aside by yourselves with me for a while and rest’. There is much debate about what it means in 1 Tim 2 for women to be ‘silent’—but in fact such silence was the cultural precondition for learning, and it is enjoined on the men just as much as the women. When people come to church on Sunday, do they come to rest?
The cultural pressure is to noisy activism and programmatic busyness, symbolised by the relaxation of Sunday trading laws, but infecting all of life. This seeps into our churches, so that people are (in Milton Jones’ words) afraid of church in the same way they are afraid of helicopters: they don’t want to get caught up in the rotas. There is a real possibility in larger churches for the aggregation of ministry, often by a paid team, holding out the chance of rest and refreshment (which of course sits in some tension with the danger of passive consumerism). But there is a real danger that we seek to give everyone a job to keep them busy—so that they come from a busy world and a busy job to a busy church.
The challenge here is to incorporate stillness, and the silence that goes with it, into the noisiness of larger churches. We need to explore the virtue of listening to God, and find alternatives to an activist spirituality.
Larger churches might be formed by cultural change—but they can also be a gift to the wider church. Cultural pressures will always threaten to push kingdom values out of shape, so we need to be constantly alert to how we can remain true to God’s call on us, and continue to be a blessing to others.
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