Shrinking the church for Jesus

Tim Suttle has written a provocative column for the Huffington Post. He writes:

Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance -- to be a bigger church.

I'm absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.

Success is a slippery subject when it comes to the Church. That our ultimate picture of success is a crucified Messiah means any conversation about success will be incompatible with a "bigger is better" mentality. Yet, bigger and better is exactly what most churches seem to be pursuing these days: a pursuit which typically comes in the form of sentimentality and pragmatism.

I suspect Suttle is speaking primarily to an evangelical audience, but what do readers think about applying his ideas to mainline congregations?

Comments (11)

Well Jim, as you've been pointing out a lot lately, TEC doesn't need a strategy to grow smaller.

I've noted your worries about TEC leaders "theologizing our decline." And I think I agree with you . . . to a point. I don't believe we should celebrate getting smaller for its own sake, or just say something is now good that we long thought bad. I don't think we should "theologize our decline" if its just a matter of spin--just say Oh Well and lose all passion and give up.

But. This piece touches on something I've felt for a while now: TEC numbers soared when we were closely aligned with the culture. When we had some degree of cultural hegemony, when going to any church was a baseline expectation of civic engagement, when TEC in particular was right up there with the Rotary Club and the Junior League, then we packed the pews. Now, when we have almost entirely lost that cultural hegemony, our numbers are falling.

Is this a bad thing? In particular, is it bad if a lot of people who filled our pews the same way they filled the Rotarian rolls no longer spend their Sunday mornings with us? Do we want a church filled to bursting with mostly unconverted people? People who know very little of what it means to follow in the Jesus Way?

I'm not saying TEC has really figured out how to stand fully in the crucified place--although there have been moments when we've stood up for the weak, the least of these (women, gays) and probably paid a price for it.

But I think, like Suttle does, that we need to figure out more and more how to stand with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. And as Suttle points out, I doubt this is a growth strategy. But I believe it is what the church is called to be in the world--the only real point of our existence, if you ask me. (This is not to say the we should neglect the things--pastoral care, beautiful worship, a space for holy growth--that provide spiritual solace and nourishment to our members. Its just that, if this nourishment isn't strengthening us to go out and build God's Kingdom--why bother? Those needs can be met elsewhere; and are for many people.)

And to risk theologizing this stance--this is the relationship that Jesus had with the culture he lived in. Opposition. And he got killed for it. And then the church became the culture, and that lasted pretty much until, what, 1965? And now--just now--we are getting back to being oriented to our culture more or less as Jesus was oriented to Rome. No wonder it hurts sometimes!

I do not intend to give up, to walk away. We have work to do. I have faith that God can breath life into the dry bones of TEC, if that is God's will. But a smaller church filled with the fully converted--if that is our future (and what other future can you imagine? or would you want?)--is going to be different than what we had.

Jason Cox

Actually, I don't think those needs CAN be met elsewhere, Jason.

Pastoral care? Worship? "Holy growth" (not certain I know what this is, I should add)? Where else but the church would you find any of those things?

And I don't know about you, but I have no idea what it means to "follow in the Jesus way" most of the time - and I doubt strongly I'm "fully converted." I think we're supposed to speak to people's hearts and souls - nobody else does that, much, either, that I can see - and offer some kind of healing (which is one thing I DO maybe think is the "Jesus way"; it certainly looks like it from the Scriptures).

I don't agree with Suttle that those things necessarily have to be "sentimental" or "pragmatic." Perhaps that's the way they're being approached at the moment, but it doesn't seem to me to be a requirement.

The church really DOES offer things - those above, and others - that nobody else does. And I think people need those things, but aren't finding them anywhere....

(Anyway, I'd sure like to see Pastor Suttle sell that line of argument to St. Paul....)


I don't think TEC should seek numerical growth OR decline. Preach the Gospel (using words only when necessary!), and remained DETACHED from what comes next. As Paul said, "God gave the growth."

JC Fisher

Thanks for your response, everyone. If I thought we were moving toward a smaller church full of fully converted people I'd be delighted, but what I observe is a church full of congregations that don't have the capacity to do the most obvious work that lies in front of them, and that includes communicating decently with their own members, or spreading the gospel to those outside their doors. As it is, I don't think the people most on fire to change the world are finding their way into our churches. Rather, if the numbers can be believed, we are the wealthiest, best educated Christian denomination, and among the grayest. We are losing our young people faster than any other denomination. So I don't perceive a winnowing underway because it is too hard to be an Episcopalian. I see a drip, drip, drip of vitality because many of our parishes don't offer anything that can't be found elsewhere. My sense is that if we adopted Suttle's strategy it might actually increase the size of the Episcopal Church because it would be an attractive display of some sort of passion for something that at least some people cared about.

I don't find anything in that piece that looks like a "strategy," though - well, except "shunning of sentimentality." And that's always a good idea, I'll agree.

Do we know what he's actually doing? Convincing people that the church exists for the benefit of those who don't belong? That's a pretty common notion - but how's he accomplishing it? We don't actually know - because like a lot of other people have done, he's let us know what he doesn't like or want to do.

But what, exactly, does he do? I can't tell....

(P.S.: As a point of comparison, nobody would ever think it a good thing if, say, A.A. were to attract fewer people. The idea is to attract as many people as possible, so they can get better.

So why would it be a good thing for the church to shrink? It's kind of senseless, actually - and I hate to say it, but it seems like just another example of churchpeople expected to be superhuman workers for ..... well, for whatever the agenda happens to be. Why not just offer people a place to find rest for awhile - where they don't have to do anything in particular, but can just be?)

"I see a drip, drip, drip of vitality because many of our parishes don't offer anything that can't be found elsewhere."

Um, we have a lot that can't be found elsewhere. We have so much that even the mighty Roman Church is jealous, declared that the Holy Spirit did some very awesome work among Anglicans after the Reformation, and declared that as a result we have a patrimony that is the property of the whole Universal Church! But we aren't offering something that PEOPLE CAN'T GET ELSEWHERE?? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

What kinda lazy, spineless Episcopalians DO we have sitting in the pews, in the chancel and in the sanctuary, even on the episcopal thrones? I'm so mad about this, all we have to do is be ourselves and do it well, but I think there's a lot of people who are flat out ashamed to really do it to it.

If you're broad church and lukewarm, nobody cares. You CAN get that at your friendly Methodist or Presbyterian church. But if you give the Romans a run for their money AND live the social gospel AND include and reconcile everybody AND educate your seekers AND offer and patronize the best art and music in town AND look like you're representing the King while you're doing all that, then baby, you got a winner for Jesus. But if you're sitting around, in church, celebrating a watered down liturgy in a clownish, tacky set of vestments, trying to get high dollar white people to sing sharecropper music, patronizing (in the bad way) your one gay/black/interracial/hispanic couple-family, not letting visitors talk about themselves at coffee hour or Lord help actually have a tasteful follow up later in the week, then you're just rurnt. I'm an Episcopalian, but if I walk up on that mess (and I have), I will run to my nearest RC parish for mass until I really get to needing communion again.

Clint's got a point there. Let's not forget what happens in Seattle every Sunday night; the Cathedral draws a huge (500+) crowd of the mostly-unchurched to Compline. (Read some comments about it here.)

I mean, I think I get Suttle's basic point: the church isn't a business - that's true. But the church exists for ALL kinds of people, not just those who've been judged by the pastor to possess the "theologically correct" approach.

Let's face it -- the "Church" is in fact a business. It is for most parishioners the corner store that they want preserved so that they can get their religion in the same place every week. I'm a clergy spouse, retired, with health issues. For me a specific Church is the main source of our household income, housing, and health insurance.
Yet the "Church" is a completely dysfunctional 'business' basically run by its customers. All the theology and pastoring and marketing conferences are not going to cure the problem. The laity have to figure out that there needs to be a new business model. Otherwise we are headed towards a lot of empty buildings and unemployed clergy.

bill bonwitt

Hmmmm. I'm not sure what, exactly, is wrong with the idea of "getting religion in the same place every week." It seems a reasonable enough thing to expect; if we rented space in some storefront, we'd expect exactly the same thing, I'm sure.

The rest of your comment, Bill Bonwitt, is a bit opaque. What, exactly, are you complaining about? That laypeople don't have the time or expertise to run a parish church? Well, you're probably right. You want the rector to have more power in that area? What, exactly, is the issue? What's the "new business model" you have in mind?

(FYI, lots of laypeople feel that preserving the church building is a duty to the past generations who belonged to that parish - and that dealing with, and paying for, ancient, crumbling buildings is a rather onerous and unwelcome burden.

We're already in the time of "empty buildings," BTW - and some clergypeople have already recognized that in the future there might be fewer full-time clergy gigs....)

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