Is Bigger Really Better?

As I continue to ponder the distinctive traits that Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger argue identify Emerging Churches in the West, I want to take a quick sidebar with regard to the important issue of community. In my last post I covered the issue of community as it relates to emerging churches according to Gibbs and Bolger. As I ponder this issue further, I find myself wrestling with the issue of growth. Most pastors are evaluated upon their ability to (for lack of a better phrase) put butts in the seats: we are deemed “successful” if our average attendance is higher than it was last year etc. The Emerging Church resists this method of evaluation, opting instead to strive for deepening relationships by intentionally remaining small.

Dwight Friesen of Quest in Seattle talks about the “gathering” that he leads: “Relationship is our organizing principle. In our informal research we learned that twenty-five to forty was the upper limit for relational connectedness. Any bigger than that and the group needs to organize functionally. Consequently, we committed to never growing beyond forty, and so we never built the infrastructure to enable us to go beyond that. We believed that our community would self-regulate. We have a radical commitment to being small” (quoted in Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 110).

In theory this sounds right. Many scholars have said that Jesus ended his ministry with at most 200 faithful followers; he wouldn’t have been very successful by modern church growth standards. But then on Pentecost we see that God added 3,000 to the church in one day (see Acts 2: 41). Most pastors would take that.

So, while I can see the benefit of staying small for the sake of community and accountability, I can’t help but remember the words of one pastor friend who, when confronted with a parishioner who was somewhat uncomfortable about the growth of the church,said, “If we refuse to grow, we’re essentially telling all the people who might come to this church that they can all go to hell.” No need to be subtle, I suppose.

Even those who champion “organic” forms of church development must admit that organisms do, in fact, grow. Of course growth for organic movements is normally concerned with reproduction as opposed to expansion (as in the formulation of new organic communities).

I wonder what others think about this topic. Should the church work towards numerical growth in order to seek and save those that need Christ; or should the church remain small, working more towards the development of healthy relationships and genuine spiritual community? Or can we do both?


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