We need to talk about church size.
I don’t mean that we need to work on how to grow your church. Nor am I going to mount a case for it somehow being more noble to remain a tiny concern. As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to different sized churches. None of that is really in view here.
What I am concerned about is our repeated inferences that large equate to successful. Of itself, that is a problematic position to hold. We can all think of massive churches that have badly departed from Biblical fidelity and tiny ones that are godly, faithful examples doing all the “right things”. But I’m not really wanting to talk about the more general sense in which we often hold large to mean successful. Instead, I want to focus on the idea that leading a large church means we’re successful and are therefore in a position to discuss how others might emulate our success.
I think the model of the resourcing church is revealing here. Resourcing churches typically want to grow to be very large so that they might train those coming through their doors and send them out to lead new churches. They want to be a centre around which training takes revolves. They want resources themselves in a bid to resource future plants and revitalisations.
There are various problems with this model (as I highlight here). But perhaps among the worst of them is the idea that because a large church has been grown in a particular context, that the leaders are somehow experts on growing large churches in any context. If you have set up your church in a large student centre, or a gentrified metropolitan setting, and grown it to a substantial size, it is difficult to comprehend how that qualifies you to train or equip anyone to go and serve on a local council estate or in a left-behind post-industrial, non-university served town.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’ve managed to grow a huge church, wherever you’ve done that, more power to your elbow! I hope you are using your size to see other churches planting and resourced. I’ve no problem with that at all. But if you assume that your ability to grow a huge church that reaches lots of students and young professionals, setting up your services in such a way that connects with people involved in the arts or the professions (or whatever), what about that makes you think you will have similar success sending your people to a needy bit of Rochdale or Wigan?
We can go a bit further. If you are doing a bang up job reaching middle class professionals, or students, or artsy people, the chances are you are not going to have the best people to send to a deprived area. That’s not to say you won’t reach anyone or can’t plant anywhere. It just means, if we’re being honest, you’re not likely to have suitable people to send to the places that sorely needs them. It means we’re either going to end up planting in other fairly leafy places or we’re going to send a load of interlopers to an area none of them really fit in.
Now, on that latter point, if there is no church in a place and a load of posh, Oxbridge graduates who have spent 10 years working in the city are the only people we’ve got to send (and who are willing to go) to a place with no church, we should send them. Of course it’s better to send some people who love Jesus rather than nobody at all. But it is precisely at this point that we have to recognise our limitation as a church to give them any credible training for that task. Those people would be much better served – if they are deemed the best folk to send to that area – joining a small church in a deprived community for a couple of years to see, firsthand, the kind of issues and problems they are going to encounter. Otherwise, we may as well stick on our pith helmets and admit we are embarking on a colonial expedition to civilise the barbarians with our identikit middle class approach to church.
Again, I’m not (repeat, NOT) saying middle class people shouldn’t go to deprived areas. My wife is quite posh and she’s doing just fine. But what I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume, because we’ve managed to grow a big church somewhere else, that we’re somehow well equipped to train anyone to plant in an entirely different context. A large church does not necessarily equate to success and, even if we think it does, it does not make us experts on growing large churches everywhere. Leading a large city centre student church is not going to be a great grounding for figuring out how to reach working class people in an unreached, non-university town.
If you want to be genuinely train church leaders for different contexts, you would do well to send them to train in different contexts. Send those would-be church leaders to a context that is more likely to prepare them for the deprived community they will eventually be sent into. If you can only find partner churches that are just like your existing church, that tells its own story. If you genuinely want to train people to reach the unreached, then you need to send them to train in a context where they will learn the necessary skills to reach them. And I’m going to bet that mainly isn’t going to be in the hub church.
Of course, if your plan is to plant identikit churches in identikit places, I’m sure the professional, middle class hub church is a great place to learn how to replicate their model in similar areas. But if we’re serious about planting where there are currently no churches, and serious about reaching the unreached, we are going to have to accept that hub churches are unlikely to be the best place to train. Just as my church would be a less than ideal training ground for somebody who wants to work with students (we don’t have any and aren’t anywhere near any universities), most hub churches aren’t great training grounds for those who have a heart to reach deprived places. The approach to church life, the types of people you will encounter, the pastoral problems that will arise are simply too different.
If we want to be genuinely resourcing churches, then send your people to where they will be best resourced. If we really want to plant where there is currently no gospel witness, train your people in a context that is similar to where they will be planting.