So… here’s the rub. You know the terms – “family, pastoral, program, resource – (and maybe ‘transitional’ thrown in for good measure).” They are the language of congregation size models used throughout the Church. For the past 25 years, since Arlin Rothauge wrote Sizing Up a Congregation, the “gold standard’ for most congregations in the Episcopal Church (not to mention churches in lots of other denominations as well) seems to have been “let’s work toward becoming a Program Size parish.” You see it in parish profiles. You hear it when talking with diocesan staff members. You sense it in the eyes of countless seminarians who are just looking for their first big break as a curate or associate in a Program Church.
So, if it’s such a great model, then why isn’t it working? Churches are cutting their associate positions right and left. Congregations that have languished with an Average Sunday Attendance of between 100 and 150 for the last 50 years have never “gotten over the hurdle”… despite well-meaning clergy and lay leaders; despite every new gimmick, or program, or study, or consultant they’ve tried.
Maybe it’s because “striving to become a Program Church” is a dead model, a style of church more attuned to the Age of Christendom, even though we’re now firmly ensconced in a Post-Christendom world. Let’s face it… “Build it and they will come” can’t be the mantra for the Church of the 21st Century.
So what might take its place? I think that the operative terms for the faith community of the future (and they had better become the operative terms for the faith community of the present, if there are to be faith communities of the future) are no longer “size” or “program offerings”. Instead terms like “flexibility”, “nimbleness”, and “context” should instead be at the forefront of our conversations. Vital communities of faith are asking themselves, “How do we offer the ‘faith once delivered’ in a way that will make a difference in the lives of those around us?” The question needs to be asked in churches of all sizes, in all locations, and of every theological or ecclesiological bent. Those who ask the question – and then are willing to embrace the reality of the answer – are those who will make a difference in the days to come.