“Stuck or Strategic” is another way Vater invites small churches to evaluate their situation (remember, he defines small as any church under 250 members).
There are good reasons for being small, and there are not so healthy reasons. In an earlier chapter, Vaters notes that organisms grow to their proper size and then they stop; they’ve reached maturity and that’s normal.
Actually, I’d suggest that this calls for a bit of nuance. As Neil Cole points out in his book Organic Church; biological maturity is marked by the ability to reproduce. While I believe Cole would agree that not every church should aim to be enormous in size, he strongly suggests that most healthy organisms, upon reaching maturity, reproduce; in this case: planting new churches. Another way to frame that observation is to ask what ministries or disciples are being multiplied and sent into the community, apart from the matter of whether or not they remain structurally part of their host church community.
With that thought in the back of our minds, let’s examine Vater’s framing about whether a given community is ‘stuck’ or ‘strategic’ in their smallness.
Vater has spent half the book already to combat the notion that a congregation is small because it’s failing.
That said, sometimes small *is* an indication that something’s not right.
- Stuck small can reflect ‘mistakes’ – which he leaves fairly vague, but seem to reflect an unwillingness to change things that don’t work or realize barriers the congregation creates for new people. If the worship is awkward, or events and groups are planned at times which don’t work for anyone outside the group that already attends, there are going to be challenges.
- Stuck small can reflect ‘exclusion’ – recognizing that most churches don’t intentionally exclude others (though some do). As I see it, exclusion can happen in a number of ways:
- sometimes a church is so close knit, that they are extremely friendly – to one another! We might think our doors are ‘open’ to someone else, but are we extending invitations and making them feel welcome?
- exclusion can also be in our language: using ‘churchy’ words that aren’t necessary (or without explaining them) can create barriers to the community. I remember being on sabbatical last year and attending a worship service at a local church that was beautiful and biblically based, and none of it was explained or framed in language a new person would understand. Even as a pastor with many years of ecumenical experience, there were parts of worship I was left feeling an outsider about.
- exclusion can also be deliberate; the legalistic kind as well as a cultural kind that looks down on people if they don’t “dress right” or come from the same socio-economic or ethnic background.
- Stuck small can also reflect being ‘frozen in time’ (or well, stuck…) – tradition is great, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. But some of our traditions are more about our preferences and comfort than what is needed to fulfill the Great Commission (as Vater puts it)
- Stuck small can reflect ‘Looking Less like the Community Around You.’ – Does the age, income, ethnicity of our church reflect the makeup of our surrounding community? If not, unless that’s for a specific strategic reason, that’s not healthy.
On the other hand, there are strategic reasons for being small:
- Because some people worship and relate better in a smaller setting.
- To create spaces of rest for people in a cluttered and chaotic life
- Because (recognizing that we are small for now), the church has chosen to focus on health over mechanicla growth
To be honest, this chapter really re-visits some things he listed well at the very beginning of the book, without adding a lot of extra nuance. That said, the question posed and re-posed is essential:
It’s not about feeling bad about the size of the church, it’s coming to an honest evaluation of why, and letting that inform how we respond.