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Being large: The advantage and challenges faced by big parishes

Being large: The advantage and challenges faced by big parishes

Writing for the Alban Institute, Susan Beaumont discusses the advantages and limitations of large parishes. The advantages are:

Capacity for Excellence

We live in a high expectation culture. Increasingly, people are looking for congregations with a threefold emphasis on relevance, quality, and choices: excellence in presenting the gospel in what is perceived as relevant terms; a reputation for quality worship, teaching, and training; and provision of a broad range of attractive choices in worship, learning, and involvement.

Effective Use of Technology

Culturally we have shifted from communication that is printed and spoken to communication that is visually supported with imagery, motion, humor, drama, and music. This shift is transforming the worship service from what has traditionally been a low-energy, verbal presentation style to higher energy, multimedia, and entertaining worship experiences. Overall, large congregations have greater resource capacity to purchase and use technology effectively, which contributes to their sense of cultural relevance.

Space for Anonymity and Intimacy

One of the reasons that larger congregations are growing at a faster rate than smaller congregations is because of their unique capacity for accommodating both intimacy and anonymity. The large church provides an arena in which a person seeking to be unknown can be present and participate in worship and education without compromising anonymity. Larger congregations can also meet the intimacy needs of individuals through small-group educational, service, and programming venues, where people can know and be known in deeply connectional ways. People who are seeking engagement at opposite ends of the intimacy/anonymity continuum can sit comfortably side by side in the large church.

Presence of Diversity

In addition to being better able to serve diverse needs and appeal to different demographic groupings, the large congregation allows members and participants to engage diversity, in measured doses, as they feel comfortable. In a small congregation, when diversity shows up in the form of a visitor who presents some form of “otherness,” the congregation as a whole must encounter the difference if the visitor is to feel welcome. In the large church, however, people can find their way toward others with whom they identify, without the entire congregation having to negotiate difference all of the time. Congregants balance the tension between engaging differences when it feels safe and retreating to more homogeneous groupings when that feels right, in much the same way that they negotiate intimacy and anonymity.

Capacity to Make a Difference

“Think global, act local” has become a mantra in our culture. We are becoming increasingly aware of our own insignificance in the global scheme of things, and we crave ways to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. Large congregations offer members and constituents the opportunity to participate in something that feels significant. People who struggle with a sense of insignificance in life may be drawn to a large congregation so that they can finally be part of something that makes an impact. People who are movers and shakers in their communities may similarly be drawn to these institutions, because they expect to invest themselves in places where their voice matters.

To read the limitations, check out her article on the Alban’s Institute’s blog. A question for discussion: What implications–if any–do the advantages that large parishes hold over small ones have for diocesan evangelism strategies?

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