Organising congregational life is one of the difficulties of modern churches.
The first problem is that congregations become wed to their existing pattern as ‘the right way’ for church to gather. Thus we become committed to patterns inherited from previous generations. Anglicans even appeal to the 17th century Book of Common Prayer as their blueprint for church. However, the pattern envisaged in the 17th century has undergone considerable change since then.
In the first half of the 20th century a fairly common pattern developed across most of Sydney’s parishes. Most Sundays would commence with an early morning Communion. Then, as late as 11am, there would be the main church gathering. This was usually Morning Prayer but would sometimes involve the Lord’s Supper either once a month or after Morning Prayer for those who wanted to stay. In the evening there would be Evening Prayer, which again, in some parishes, would have Communion once a month.
Around these formal liturgies there were other ministries such as Sunday School, and from the middle of the century, youth fellowships. Sunday School used to be in the mid-afternoon but as the century wore on it was almost universally conducted in the morning, while youth fellowships were in the late afternoon and became associated with the evening congregation.
Over the second half of the twentieth century large changes happened both in society and church. The suburbs of Sydney expanded in post-war reconstruction leading to building programmes and parish re-organisation across the diocese. The coming of television, the proliferation of the car and the introduction of organised and professional sport on Sunday meant the demise of the ‘twicers’ (those who came morning and evening) and the nominals (who attended occasionally and regularly sent their children to Sunday School).
So by the end of the century the pattern of an early morning communion remained – mainly attended by senior members who live locally. The main morning meeting changed to a mid-morning family gathering, with concurrent children’s programme for the children of the congregation. The evening congregation became a youth oriented gathering, which loosened the pattern of prayer book liturgy and 19th century hymnody. So came the homogenous congregation, mainly developed along age and stage of life – elderly at communion, families mid-morning and youth at evening.
This acceptance of special focussed congregations opened up the possibility of other specialised churches. So congregations for students or particular ethnic groups or particular interest groups came into existence. The effectiveness of this strategy added fuel to the planting of new churches. Some of these were split from already existing churches; some of them were mission churches starting with not much more than a couple of people with a vision. Some were adding congregations to the parish organisation, utilising school or other community facilities, or the parish buildings on a different day or time slot to the existing congregations. Instead of three congregations some parishes started to run five, ten or fifteen. This enabled resources to be put into ministers and ministries rather than into increasing the size of church buildings.
However, some people have rightly seen the advantage of a single large congregation over a number of smaller congregations. Larger churches can afford to provide more specialised quality ministries, especially larger and better-organised children and youth ministries. The size of a congregation has a distinct and decided effect on how church is organised and conducted. A simple illustration is the quality of acceptable music, reading or even preaching of a church of fifty people compared to a congregation of five hundred. The little church rightly glories in the intimacy and personal care of all its members and rejoices in the stumbling attempts of any of its sons or daughters trying to use the gifts God has given them for the benefit of the whole. Whereas a larger congregation needs to be run with a degree of efficiency in order to help the many and varied people who attend. A little congregation can afford to wait for its members to turn up before starting whereas the bigger church has to start on time whether or not some of its members are running late.
So at least two models of church growth are at work in Sydney now: the large congregation model and the congregational planting model. Both have advantages and disadvantages, though sometimes writers and consultants promote one in opposition to the other.
The large church model is good when there is a large central building and a staff of specialists (senior pastor, children’s or youth worker, families pastor, singles pastor, music director etc). Its weaknesses are that it can be a ‘consumer’ and ‘professional’ church with staff instead of members ministering. It can also fail to recruit and train others for ministry as it provides everything for people and does not even train its staff with a sufficiently broad experience of ministry. These are not inevitable outcomes, they can be overcome by intentional planning.
The congregational planting model is good when it is impossible to build large facilities, or there is a great diversity of people groups to reach, and a staff of generalists who can each take responsibility for a congregation and its outreach. But it has the disadvantages of small congregations, struggling to gain critical mass to survive and grow. These are often congregations with tired members and seemingly unnecessary and inefficient duplications of activities. It is inefficient to have five men preparing sermons for five small congregations, instead of four of them freeing up one man to preach a better sermon to a larger congregation. But there’s the rub – how do we get better preachers for the future if we do not have young preachers being forced into the regular pattern of preparing and delivering sermons.
The Bible tells us very little about how to organize our church, for the heart of the gospel is not organizational but spiritual. There is no right way – neither the traditional nor the contemporary; the single congregation or the multi congregation; the large church or the church-planting model. Each has its advantages and disadvantages for the particular situation. For the sake of Christ’s church and the benefit of his people, we must be prepared to make the changes necessary to minimise the disadvantages and maximise the advantages of our congregational organization.