Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Small church, big church, no church

I was recently at my favorite conference, Catalyst West, and Andy Stanley made a provocative statement about the importance of Family Ministries, saying that bringing kids together was the only reason churches still need bricks-and-mortar.  He pointed out that we can listen to any sermon we want online, dial up our favorite worship music, and have it when we want, where we want.

It made me consider that the church is on the same trajectory as retail stores.  We used to have small, neighborhood stores.  Then economies of scale led to domination by big-box stores.  And the next logical step after the big-box store was Amazon.  Churches are on the same pathway: small community churches being replaced by megachurches, which are rapidly transitioning to being online communities.

This made me think about the future of the churches in the PCUSA.  We are behind the curve, but not immune to it.  The stark reality is that in our present model of church the 100-member congregation is simply not sustainable with the existing model of one church, one pastor, one building.  This doesn't mean that I don't think there is a future for the smaller faith community; it means that we haven't yet invented the sustainable model for it.

I also don't think that lay pastors are the solution, because that's not changing the model - that's just changing the required qualifications for the pastor.  The expected duties of a lay pastor are no different.

Larger churches are not immune from this issue - it's just that the harshness of its effects are felt differently.  The same problem of the ratio of pastors to parishioners is there.  In a larger church, it means that one pastor is now doing the work or two, or two pastors are in a model where three or four pastors ought to be on staff.  In the end, that will also be unsustainable.

The solution will lie in creating a model where a single pastor can handle far more parishioners than before.  But this also means that in an era of declining attendance, the number of pastoral positions will shrink even faster than church attendance.  This is understandably frightening for professional clergy.

At the moment, I think that every restructuring debate at every level of the denomination is stuck behind this transition to a future way of doing church. Existing churches want the denomination to help them sustain their present model.  This is an impossible task.  And until local churches transition to a new, sustainable model, it is impossible for denominational structures to align with the task of supporting them.  Until we know what that model is, we can't design a support structure for it.

The small church/big church divide is a false issue.  They're both facing the same problem - and they're both avoiding it.  The flood waters are rising.  The larger churches may be on higher ground than smaller churches - but they aren't above the high tide line.  The water's coming.

The PCUSA has largely missed the shift to the "big box" store era of megachurches.  And we don't appear to be well-positioned to transition to the "Amazon" era of online church.  But we need to be thinking "post-Amazon".  Because you know what?  Amazon is facing its own problems.  People once satisfied by 5-day delivery then went to Prime with its two-day delivery.  And now Amazon is experimenting with same-day delivery.  There's a very real chance that Amazon will collapse under the weight of demands for ever-faster delivery.

What comes after the "Amazon" era?  That's the question we need to be asking.  Because the flood waters are rising.  For all of us.

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