Advent 2015: Size Matters

Size. It’s a central part of modern society. Bigger is better is the message.

From shopping malls to airports to planes to cars to churches, the message is the same. Size matters.

Yet Jesus started the Church with 12 disciples, increased it to 72 at one point and when the Holy Spirit fell the first day of Pentecost the entire Body of Christ could fit in a single upper room in a house in Jerusalem.

Peter’s first sermon added 5000 to their number, but even then the Church grew rather than the size of the congregation. Churches met in people’s homes. They would gather in small numbers and have an intimate relationship with each other and Jesus together.

I have visited several larger churches, by which I mean a congregation over 400, and felt overwhelmed. Now I don’t include rallies and events similar in this statement – they have a different place in uplifting the Body. But you reach a point where a single minister or pastor simply can’t be the pastor to a flock so large he cannot get to know the names, never mind the story, of each of his congregation.

The church I grew up in, All Saint’s with St John’s in Stamford, Lincolnshire, was shepherded by a highly intelligent teacher who made a point of visiting his parishioners when he could. He would pop in just for a chat every so often and try to keep up with what was going on in the lives of his flock. Even with around 130 members it was a hard job for him. It was at least 3 home visits a week in addition to all the administrative duties he had as Vicar. Some families saw him more regularly than others simply because of their circumstances. He spent a lot of time with us as a family after my younger brother died in a road accident, then again a few years later when I was considering the Anglican Church as a career. In between times we saw him once or maybe twice in a year and he would always call first to make sure we’d be there. Had the church been any larger he’d never have been able to do even that.

When I left home I joined another Anglican church in Buckfastleigh, Devon. The Vicar there, the late Paul Wilson, was a very gentle man – when not driving – who at first glance came across as bordering on insecure. But his passion for his flock was unrivaled. He knew every member’s story. Some loved him for it, others were more hostile to him because of it, but he reached out to all as often as he could. I saw him regularly and counted him as a dear friend. The church was about 90 regulars, but Paul made sure he saw as many as he could as often as he could and appointed home group leaders to help him – a wise move as it helped in understanding him and him to understand us.

My next move was to a church that had recently suffered a split and was a congregation of about 100. I went through Adult Baptism there before I joined as a member and spent several years there. It was a congregation of Baptists, United Reformed and New Frontiers members, an eclectic group to say the least, but with younger members, had an outward passion the more reserved Anglican churches had not shown so easily. Home groups were very important as the church grew and from the beginning of the growth the church leader appointed leaders within the congregation and Elders to be pastors within the church so no group was without a pastoral presence.

Larger churches, especially the so-called “mega-church” concepts leave me bewildered. I visited one for five weeks in a row and was greeted by the same person each week asking me if it was my first visit. I was one among many and it wasn’t important to remember me, or anyone else. I tried to join one of the small home groups but there was a distance kept in place. When I stopped going, nobody ever called to ask how I was or why I’d gone. I was simply a passing ship.

So size matters. But not in the 21st Century concept.

We must be mindful of sacrificing quality of relationship within the body of Christ for numbers in pews on a Sunday morning. It’s the relationships we have that will determine our peace in a church, not how many other zombies sit there for an hour or two, never being real or recognizing the issues in other’s lives.

Smaller is not necessarily better, but it allows for pastoral work to be done on a more intimate level.

Aristides wrote in his apology of Christianity: “And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them.”

This description was written in a letter to either the Roman Emperor Hadrian or his successor as a call to end the persecution of the Christians in the empire. It was a time when congregations still met in each other’s homes. Intimacy and relationship were the keys that were lived by.

Imagine for a moment if all 21st Century Christians with serious wealth were to live in the way of the first and second century Christians for a year.

Poverty could be ended. Relationships equalized and no longer based consciously or unconsciously on a social hierarchy based on income as we could have all things in common like the earliest Followers did.

But it can’t come through a mega-church mentality.

Size matters. Too big and relationship is lost. Too small and we can’t help each other.

Maybe Jesus was onto something when He started out with 12 intimate relationships.

Maybe we need to find that place again as well.

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