Alright, pop quiz time! Can you find the church in this picture? (Hint: it’s a trick question.) There was some discussion following Philip Edwards’ post on the End of the House Church? last week, as well as on my own post on the subject. Philip has posted some followup thoughts today, and I wanted to do the same, as I don’t think we’ve yet gotten to the heart of the real conversation we could be looking at on this issue… which I hinted at in my opus reply to the comments there.
By the way, if you were cautious about my question concerning the church in the photograph and said “both”, you’re wrong. Bzzzt!! Thanks for playing. The church is a people, not a building. The image shows two of the types of buildings where the church sometimes gathers. (Hey, I warned you, it was a trick question.)
So far, we’ve determined that the growth rate pre-Constantine was 3.4%, per Rodney Stark (see The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries and Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome). I used a more modest growth rate in the hypothetical example of my prior post, and though I don’t want to defend my hypothetical rate (I have no basis for it), I do want to make two comments on its difference from Stark’s. First, where presumably Stark’s would be a 250-year-average, the rate in my example would change over time, increasing slowly through the magic of compounding, though I only projected 40 years. More importantly, in the comments following the post, I said that I didn’t think we could sustain that growth rate today… certainly not initially.
Why not? The answer comes out in other parts of the discussion, where it is acknowledged that essentially, we have a history of doing things a certain way, and once we break out of that mold and attempt to establish a different pattern, we have a tendency to run back to the old method whenever we get momentarily disoriented. This is true of our recovery of (to borrow a phrase) the “forgotten ways” or mDNA for being church, and it relates to the way we now look at neo-monastic organic missional simple house small church gatherings — pick your favorite term (Brad is somewhat inspiring me to just call them mangos). Essentially, because this “new” form is unfamiliar, we tend to mess it up with wrong expectations, habits, and practices… then abandon it because “it doesn’t work.” And we know it doesn’t work because we don’t stick with it… and when we think it through, perhaps there are some things about it that we’re just not ready to fundamentally believe yet. We’ve learned some bad habits about how church “ought” to work, and we keep imposing them on our attempts to reinvent or rediscover the way it could work.
Next up is the matter of the census. Not everyone is confused about what the numbers don’t mean, and take the time to ask In the abbey, what do you count?, so I don’t want to suggest that simply counting bodies is always evil, but perhaps there are times when the counting of adherents is not exactly God-inspired. Most often, we’re just counting the wrong things. We aren’t quite as far as basing compensation on salvation counts, but we do tend to throw extra credence to spokepersons with more “butts in seats.” Somewhere we got the idea that size matters. Was it the church growth movement? That’s what I want to blame, but Ryan Bolger says (and he ought to know) that even Donald McGavran would not have held up Sunday attendance as being nearly so authoritative a measure of effectiveness as we seem to think.
What is counted is always imbued with theology. When we count ‘butts in seats’ at a church service, we implicitly raise that up as a sign of faithfulness. We track it, it must be important. But what if what we counted dealt with Jesus-like activities? What if we counted how many in our congregation did activities for the poor, opened their house to their neighbors, participated in acts of justice? In this way, what we track in our churches is in synch with our stated theology; our numbers ‘in church’ are those who follow Jesus into the world. In our church growth class, we came to the conclusion that when we track kingdom-like activity instead of static church membership rolls, we come closer to McGavran’s goal of numbers as a window into the work of the Holy Spirit.
Essentially, the tracking of “butts in seats” on Sunday morning is another bad habit we’ve picked up from our institutionalization of church, and it needs to be un-learned. Not un-learned as a practice (go ahead and count if you like), but unlearned as a means of measuring what this number cannot measure. We get all wrong-headed when we compare the wrong things and use the wrong metrics for comparisons. It was someone long before the advent of blogging who said, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.”
If we are wise, we’ve got some bad habits to unlearn from the way we’ve expressed ourselves as the church, and some of them run pretty deep. Numbers is actually the easy one. So am I saying that the institutional form of church is a bad habit that we’ve picked up and need to unlearn? Well, …let me think about that for a while. In the meantime, I toss out some additional questions, like what do we measure or count, then? And if we count “butts in seats”, what does it tell us that is helpful? The links and ideas already presented provide a good start, but how would we distill it? Fundamentally, how do we know if our little gatherings are effective, healthy, and growing (whatever that means)?