Thursday, February 12, 2009

Practical Ecclesiology 10 - Loaves and Fishes

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a strong proponent of "large churches." As he puts it, "There are so many benefits to size, so many things you can do that you can't do in a small church." In his view, it's not just about programs or ministries or resources to support missionaries and projects (although that is certainly part of it). He sees that in larger churches people are more likely to find other people that they can connect with, people they "click" with. In a small church, you are pretty much stuck with what you have. 

I guess that can cut both ways. Kind of like family. 

In a family, you are pretty much stuck with what you have. A large extended family can certainly be a blessing, if you allow it to be. And it may require more effort to cultivate your love for certain people in a small family, because you have's either love them or be an orphan. It seems it would be easier to strike out and start interviewing distant cousins to find somebody that you just LIKE better - to find a relationship that is more fun and not as much work. 

But then again, it is easy to get lost in a large family. To just drift. If you never attend the reunions, if you don't write letters and answer emails, if you never invite anyone over or even just drop aren't really treating them like family. It's more like padding for your resume. Even if you go to the reunion, but stay just long enough to grab a few chicken wings, a bit of potato salad, get your picture taken and then leave, you've got a free meal, but not much of a family relationship. It's not the size of the group, it's what you bring to the group that seems to matter more.

I am coming to think that both options are fine. I used to be extremely suspicious of very large churches. I am tempering that somewhat. There are certainly drawbacks, but I am seeing that there are drawbacks no matter what the size. The drawbacks are different between big churches and little churches, but the world being what it is, there is no perfect situation. 

In the particular case of my church, the challenge seems to be size, but actually I suspect it is more a lack of understanding of how to leverage that size. Plus, in being small we are standing against the current of thought that likes to overlook the disadvantages of large churches, and inflate the challenges facing small churches. It seems the focus of many Churchy Anyalysts is "get big or get out" instead of how to best glorify God with your smallness. 

In considering this, I have often found the story of the loaves and fishes coming to mind. Here is a good retelling of it from Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission. He spoke at the Midwinter Conference for our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. This is a conference specially for pastors to foster renewal, collaboration, and connection in their work. His account of the story goes to the heart of the matter for churches, especially small ones. 

Feeding the 5,000 - Speaker Gary Haugen from Covenant Communications on Vimeo.

I suspect that we have to do some real thinking about how to offer our loaves and fishes to Jesus. It seems it's mostly a matter of just passing the basket. If Jesus wants to do the miracle, he will do the miracle. If not...I guess that's up to him and folks will have to find their own lunch. But the precedent seems to indicate that He is predisposed to do the miracle. He tells us to just start passing the basket. He will decide how many He ends up feeding.

So the question is what are our personal loaves and fishes, and what does passing the basket look like for us? No matter what that looks like, in the final analysis, it's all about Jesus.


Wyman said...

As the reader who's probably best connected with both the advantages of your small church and the advantages offered by big ones, I suppose it behooves me to comment here.

I agree, to a certain point, that there are very positive characteristics to a large church. And the Church, in general, tends to be suspicious of large churches with their giant worship services, spacious bookstores and trendy cafes. However, a church of 3,000 can do ministries and reach people that thirty 100-person churches could not, and there are groups that really benefit from that: missionaries, the disabled, the mentally challenged, and so on. Having large amounts of capital in one place gives a church the opportunity to seek out unreached people wherever they are.

Yet there's a quality of community that a small, friendly church has that large churches will always lack. It's easy to slip through the cracks in a large church. It's easy to feel like you have nothing to offer by way of gifts. It's hard to get involved in a ministry that fits who you really are rather than being one of a faceless horde of "volunteers." It's harder to feel that you really belong.

I've always thought CCC's advantage was its small size - a person can come and feel welcome, the church feels like a family, you know that you belong. Maybe its members feel that it's not quite big enough to stay fully viable, but I will always feel that what some people see as its weaknesses I see as its strengths.

Anonymous said...

I think the point is not the large-ness or small-ness of a church, but the faithful-ness of it's members. Whether we are small or large, it is still the same Lord who asks us to bring what we have to do what He wants.
Midwinter was great!

Dubbahdee said...

Of course, that is exactly right about advantages and disadvantages. I think I am coming to realize (perhaps to realize again) that God uses large and small as He will to accomplish what He will.

And, as you say Ron, it is not about numbers and yet is is about the number. Look, the story doesn't say "and a lot of people had a bite to eat." It was very specific. 5000 people ate their fill, and 12 baskets were left over. There is no waffling. 3 loaves. 2 fishes. Mulitply by Jesus and BAM! The Miracle in very specific quantitative terms.

But I think that the point is to not be discouraged about the numbers on the front end, but to be amazed and encouraged by the numbers on the back end. Encouraged toward obedience and faithfulness.

Faithfulness is about taking the loaves and fishes (whatever those particular loaves and particular fishes might be in your particular church) and doing what Jesus said to do with them. Then He will create whatever increase He sees fit. In some churches that may yield 5000 members. In other churches it might yield 5000 tears shed with those who mourn. In still others, 5000 wounds bandaged with torn sheets. And in still others, 5000 cups of of coffee quaffed in friendship shared across who knows how many tables. They may be hard for us to see, but the numbers will be there, somewhere.

The faithfulness is in the obedience, and miracle (and it's peculiar shape) belongs to Jesus.