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Shrinking the church for Jesus

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?


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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….)

bill bonwitt

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


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.

Clint Davis

“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.


(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?)

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