Faith is a Verb… Musings by Pastor Tony August 3, 2018
In about 6 weeks we will do a ritual of release, in which I will ask your forgiveness for mistakes I have made, and you will ask me for forgiveness for mistakes you have made. As we approach that time, I am reflecting on the many things we have accomplished together, as well as the things that are still left yet to do. I remember 8 years ago feeling a sense of hopelessness or mistrust, which is no longer palpable. Since then, we have grown in faith, hope, trust, and we show this with the building improvements and the Person of the Planet programming.
One thing that we did not accomplished is growing the numbers in our little congregation. New attendees and members have mostly balanced the deaths and losses, and more than 1/3 of our attendees have been here less than I have; yet, we could not actually bump the numbers up. Eight years ago, even though research shows how difficult it is for congregations to jump to the next size up, I naively believed we might be able to do that. Congregation size is due to many factors including: the pastor; the congregational culture; location; infrastructure of building and leadership; programming; history of choices around staffing, outreach, finances; music and worship style. None of these is in isolation. Changing the size of a congregation is complex, requiring changes to those factors and more.
Knowing this, and still wondering if we made any mistakes around church growth, I recently listened to a favorite NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, a conversation with experts on sociology. The episode called “Creating God” (July 16, 2018) looked at the study of the evolution of religion, naming how integral religion was for our species to go from smaller roaming tribes of 35-50 to becoming settled in much larger cities. In small groups of a few dozen people, it turns out, you can trust each other because it is easy to keep an eye on each other; in larger groups, it was suggested that we need an external force to judge and punish those who break the norms of the society and create trust. In ancient societies, God and religion became that judge and ethical arbiter, as well as the source of trust. As those tasks became more the realm of the government, God became described as more forgiving and benevolent.
As fascinating as that is to me, what stopped me was the number-- 35-50, a few dozen--the average number we have maintained for worship over the last 8 years. Our species evolved to be in the size of our congregation! We belong to a congregation that is natural for our species!
We say that faith is not measured in numbers; but can we claim, in this numbers-hungry, data-driven society that our faith is not related to how many people attend or how large our treasury is? Yes. Our small-sized congregation allows us to make decisions as a group, prioritize all voices rather than just a few, act out of unity rather than merely following the leaders, and test visions and dreams in casual conversations to get a pretty good sampling before we vote. We see who is present on a Sunday, and more importantly, who is missing and ask after them. In fact, as I think of all that we have done and will do with just this size congregation, I am convinced that God is in our midst, in this size, in ACC, and will continue to be in the future!