Monday, February 23, 2009

The Rub

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.


chuckwarnockblog said...

A good post and well said. The old models are dying faster than we can imagine. I linked to this article at -Chuck

Tom said...

It's good to see some activity here. I have missed the exchange of information these last few months. When I first discovered this blog I was excited about sharing ideas with other folks from smaller Parishes. We at St James' are currently closing in on the century mark for average Sunday attendance. Now I must confess I am not familiar with the "Program Church" as some sort of model, dead or alive. Could someone enlighten me? It makes we wonder what model we are striving for? Hmmm, food for thought.

Anonymous said...

In agreement with J. Robert. To use the Rothage terms, we are an urban congregation which is pastoral size (ASA 111) which offers programs and events which at times would come out of a program size church, at other times out of a corporate size church, and still other times out of a pastoral size church depending on commitment, drive, history, gifts of members.

Michael Herman

Anonymous said...

Our very small group of christian day care providers has nine websites
DEDICATED to helping small churches survive by providing FREE children's activities and
coloring pages. is to insure every child in the church knows the Lord's prayer and what it means. has loads of FREE QUALITY crafts for vacation bible school. is the only site in the entire world with FREE bible memory cards.

I would list all the sites but we average visits from 1000 churches a day.

I doubt you can list all the sites but perhaps
It offers free children's bulletins with one of our coloring pages
and on the back of each picture are 4 business size bible verses.

what more could a small church do than give the children free bible verses?

In his service and yours

j. charles white
project facilitator