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How Do You Describe Your Church?

May 12, 2006 jill Blog
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This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue.

By Lyle E. Schaller

For more than four decades, Lyle E. Schaller has served as a parish consultant to hundreds of congregations and scores of denominational agencies. His recent books include From Geography to Affinity, The Ice Cube Is Melting, and A Mainline Turnaround.

“I served a small, open-country congregation on a part-time basis while I was in seminary. After graduation, I accepted a call to be the associate minister in a church in a county seat town,” recalled one pastor. “We’re an Afro-Centric church and proud of our heritage,” explained an influential volunteer leader in a large black congregation. “Our No. 1 goal is to transmit the Christian faith to our children,” declared the Sunday school superintendent of another congregation. “We’re an Acts Two church,” explained the founding pastor of a spirit-filled congregation. “I’m a third-generation member here married to a second-generation member, and we excel in taking care of our people,” commented an elderly member of a congregation averaging 40 at worship. “We’ve earned our reputation as the leading church in this town on social justice issues,” declared one pastor. “We worship in Korean with recent immigrants from Korea who came to this country as adults and want to transmit the culture and the language as well as the faith to our children,” observed a 47-year-old with four academic degrees.

Those comments illustrate a few of the many ways American Christians use to describe congregations. This discussion describes six components in a classification system that can be used in designing a customized ministry plan. One driving generalization is the larger the number of people in that congregation, the greater the probability there will be a high degree of intentionality in choosing that particular design.

The Overgrown Small Group

The most widely used design can be found in most of those 75,000 congregations in American Protestantism that average 40 or fewer at weekend worship. The ideal size for the effective functioning of a small group is seven. Some research indicates that number is five, not seven. If the participants see one another two or three times a week (perhaps in worship and in the choir or at the post office or at work or in a Sunday school class), that number can be increased to 15. Thus, in that third-grade class in the local elementary school, where everyone gathers daily in the same room with the same teacher, that number can be stretched to two dozen.

When that number exceeds 35, anonymity and complexity begin to undermine that social network. If the sense of cohesion is reinforced by kinship ties and/or ancestry or skin color or social class or a long-tenured pastor or by the sacred memories in that meeting room, that number can be increased to 40 to 50. One consequence is when denominations report the average worship attendance of all congregations, the most frequently reported numbers tend to be 12, 18 (17 plus the preacher), 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 and 45.

When that number exceeds 40, it is easy to be absent, but not be missed.

These very small congregations are organized as a collection of individuals and families. The big threat comes when the new minister arrives and not only designs a strategy to double or triple or quadruple the size, but also successfully implements it! That usually produces one or two of these four outcomes: (1) that old organizing principle is soon replaced by a new one (see below), (2) the average worship attendance doubles or triples, the minister departs, and attendance soon drops back to that comfortable size, (3) the minister stays, the congregation continues to increase in numbers, the church is reconceptualized as a congregation of choirs, circles, classes, committees, communities, fellowships, groups, ministry teams and task forces, and about one-third of the “old-timers” leave because this congregation has outgrown their comfort level, or (4) most of the congregation move to a new and larger meeting place, leaving behind the people who were attached to their old church home and who continue as an overgrown, but smaller, small group.

A Collection of Face-to-Face Groups

This introduces a second design. Most of the 150,000 Protestant congregations averaging between 41 and 125 at worship fit into this category. The three big exceptions are (1) a minority of new missions that pass up through this size bracket on their way to over 125 at worship, (2) larger congregations on the decline that pass through this size bracket on the way down, and (3) a modest number of congregations that spent decades in this size category until the arrival of a new pastor led them up out of it.

Instead of conceptualizing this as a collection of families and individuals, the leaders conceptualize it as a collection of face-to-face groups. As recently as the 1980s, five of the most useful reinforcements for this design often were the circles in the women’s missionary society, the classes in the Sunday school, the adult choir, the volunteers who worked together to maintain the real estate, and a men’s fellowship.

One of the common characteristics of nearly all the congregations in this second category is they schedule only one worship service for Sunday morning and none for Saturday evening. The sense of unity is reinforced by the fact that everyone gathers in the same room at the same time for the corporate worship of God. The big barrier to growth is fear, the fear that adding a second worship experience to the weekend schedule would “split the church.”

A Collection of Worshiping Communities

A third model of how churches conceptualize that collection of people includes many of the 80,000 congregations averaging between 126 and 350 at worship. These congregations usually display at least three of these four characteristics: (1) a long-tenured pastor, (2) a high degree of homogeneity among the members in terms of ancestry, education, theological stance, age, marital status (most adults have been married at least once) and earned household income, (3) room for expansion and adequate off-street parking, and (4) a reasonably stable community environment.

The leaders in these congregations conceptualize their church as a collection of worshiping communities of classes, groups, et al. If the congregation is blessed with two pastors who are both personally and professionally compatible and who bring two different skill sets to the ministry, and if at least one has a tenure of two decades or more, this scenario may produce a congregation averaging 350 to 800 at worship.

Today it is not unusual for one of these two ministers to be the regular preacher at two or three worship services on at least 45 weeks out of the year, while the other preaches at one service nearly every week. In some churches, they swap roles on fifth Sundays. In addition, each service usually is led by the same worship team and also has its own distinctive style of worship. Thus, people have choices in terms of day, hour, place, preacher, music and style. One consequence is this becomes a collection of congregations.

The Staff-Led Model

A fourth model presents two faces. The highly visible one is this congregation is organized around the personality, gifts, charisma and superb preaching of an exceptionally long-tenured minister. A rough guess is that at least 5,000 congregations fit this model today.

In at least one-half of these, however, a closer inspection reveals another exceptionally valuable asset. That magnetic personality also is comfortable serving as the team leader for a professional staff that includes several, and in some congregations, dozens, of remarkably gifted, extremely loyal, deeply committed to fulfillment of the Great Commission, highly productive and unusually creative Christians–usually a majority of these people are laypersons.

While the vast majority of congregations in American Protestantism use either a participatory democracy style or a representative system of governance, these congregations are staff led. The laity do have a voice, but only rarely does that voice override the preferences of the paid staff. This model can be described as a collection of staff plus three to 10 worshiping communities. Most people identify themselves with (a) one specific worship experience held in a particular room at the same time every week and (b) one of the paid staff members. The younger that person, the less likely that individual will display a strong identification with a specific denominational family.

Believers on a Pilgrimage

The 1970s saw the emergence of a fifth model for designing a Christian congregation. One of the older classification systems divided people into two categories–Christian and non-believer. One polite version was “churched” and “unchurched.”

This new system affirmed that Christian believers are scattered along a wide spectrum that can be described as a faith journey. One version begins with inquirers or searchers or seekers as the first stage followed by believers. A third stage may be described as curious learners followed by fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ followed by apostles equipped to do ministry. Experts in this field with six or seven fingers on their right hand have expanded this by adding one or two stages in the middle.

Why schedule five different worship experiences every weekend? In that scenario, the No. 1 explanation is each is designed for one specific stage of that five-stage faith journey. Other large congregations with more limited resources schedule three different worship experiences every weekend–one for new believers, one for curious learners and one for the transformation of believers into disciples.

One chicken and egg consequence of this model is only the larger congregations are able to mobilize the resources required to speak to the agendas of people scattered at various points on their self-identified personal faith journey. As a result, many Christians may switch from Church A to Church B to Church C over a period of several years without ever changing their place of residence. Another consequence is succession. When one key staff member departs, that can become a disruptive experience. The highly visible consequence is the large congregation that is able to address the needs of people scattered all along that spectrum often evolves into a regional megachurch, thus enabling it to expand the demographic diversity in its constituency.

The Multisite Option

Finally, a sixth model has become increasingly common during the past 15 years.

One of the common agenda concerns in all of the other five models asks two questions. First, how can we persuade more people to come to our meeting place? Second, how can we accommodate them if they do come? Adding staff, razing church-owned houses and creating more parking spaces may be part of the answer to that second question.

Expanding the group life, improving the quality of the ministries and adding new worship experiences often are the results of asking that first question.

This sixth model adds another factor to those plans for welcoming and serving more people. This strategy recognizes that tens of millions of Americans prefer to help create the new rather than to join the old. In addition, it adds a hospitality feature that can be seen all across the American economy. “Instead of asking you to come to us, we’ll come to you.” The branch bank in the supermarket, the online grocery store, the medical clinic with six locations, professional football games on TV, online university classes, stamps being delivered to your home by the Postal Service and the theological seminary that offers classes at five locations are examples.

Most multisite churches fit into one of two categories. One uses the term “satellite” to describe off-campus sites. Thanks to modern technology, it is now possible to present the same message, via projected visual imagery, at many different locations. The choice of place, time and worship format usually is made by the staff back at headquarters with a worship leader sent to lead that service.

The second is based on two foundational concepts. The first is the old “four self” missionary concept that every worshiping community should be self-governing, self-expressing, self-financing and self-propagating. This empowers the people at the off-campus locations. The second foundational self-image is, “This is a congregation of congregations with one name, one message, one staff, one governing board, one budget, one treasury, many different groups and a variety of weekly worship experiences offered at several scattered sites.”

Which of these models describes your congregation today? Which one describes what you believe God is calling it to become in the years ahead?



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