It’s not easy to plant new congregations, even within the same building, keeping the same overall leadership. Here are some of the challenges we faced
The Challenge of change
Most people don’t like change and it took time for us to work through these changes together. There were times when none of the options looked palatable or achievable. Even three years on there are some who still find the initial change we went through painful. They would have preferred that we hadn’t had to go down this route, even though they see the necessity and event he benefits now.
The biggest fear was that we would split the church. People were making the decision about which congregation they should join knowing that good friends would make a different choice. They would not be able to sit together in the same meeting. Linked to this was the concern that we would not be able to know everyone that came to Bearwood Chapel. It was helpful to recognise that firsat of all, with a larger congregation you would still have the problem of knowing everyone. You might sit in the same room but if you were at opposite ends of the room would you really get to know each other?
I think the biggest loss for some was when most of our younger families chose the early Sunday morning service. It felt at first like the locusts had descended on the later service. People missed having those families around and seeing the children there. They were concerned that they would miss out on seeing the children growing up.
These are genuine fears and experiences. However, we had to remind ourselves of two things. First of all, we had to remember that we were doing this for the Gospel n ot for our own comfort. Gospel priorities mean that we are always sending people out and onwards and there’s always that sense of losing time with each other. If we send missionaries abroad or we plant a new church then we have a similar experience. Secondly, church isn’t just about the Sunday gathering. If we care about people then we should identify other times to meet with them. In fact, the service isn’t really the time for quality conversation! Practically we also create opportunities for people to come together including 4 combined services each year, family fun days, prayer gatherings etc.
The other big challenge has been that resources have become stretched at times. This is particularly so because we endeavoured t o provide a children’s programme at both morning meetings. Having two services means that one way or another, preachers, welcomers, musicians etc end up doing more for a time. The long term aim is to see others coming in and discovering their gifts. However, do not underestimate the length of time this takes or assume that the gifts spotted are the ones that help support existing ministries. They may bring different gifts. That’s great because it increases what you can do as a church but that’s small comfort to the overstretched people who are holding the fort.
For me, there have been three helpful lessons here. First, you don’t need to do everything in the same way. So, whilst we have provided something for children at all our meetings, we haven’t tried to run a full age segregated Sunday School programme every-time.
Secondly, you will find that different models of church gathering will be more or less suitable for replicating without stretching resources too far. Repeating a traditional style service with band, Sunday School etc takes up a lot of resources, replicating a café style discussion or a house church may take less resources.
Thirdly, we have to keep reminding ourselves why we are doing this. It’s still stretching but we can find great joy and motivation when we remember that we are working for the Gospel.
The challenge of size
Church size has an impact on how the congregation functions together. Big churches have their challenges but they also have their opportunities as well. Small churches have challenges and opportunities too. A large church benefits from having a lot of people around. Benefits include:
A sense of occasion and celebration when you gather together. Sometimes it can be encouraging to be reminded that we are not alone.
From an evangelistic point of view, a crowd gathers a crowd.
There are more people who can give time, energy and money to the work of the Gospel
The big dangers are
Pride as we look at church size and focus on numbers rather than relying on God
A lost sense of intimacy as you cannot possibly know everyone
With a small church you can effectively reverse that. The big strengths are in intimacy and hopefully a strong sense of relying on the Lord. The challenges are as we have already seen that you may struggle for resources and there may not be the same natural sense of occasion. It is worth pointing out however, first that it is still possible to become proud and focus on the wrong things as a small church and secondly that a small congregation can still celebrate together.
When we moved to multiple congregations this added a layer of complexity. At times people can feel that they experience the challenges of a larger church whilst experiencing all of the problems that go with being part of a smaller church. On the one hand, there is the increasing sense of not being able to know everyone and have a handle on everything that happens on the other hand, their own congregation remains small. In fact, they now have a much smaller experience of the gathered church than before we moved to multiple congregations. They used to be part of a single gathering of 80 people, now their gathering will be anything between 20 (our smallest congregation) and 60 (our largest congregation) but they are part of a church which has about 160 people attending regularly.
This also keeps our leaders on their toes. We are getting used to leading a church which is larger but is also more diverse and messier than we have experienced in the past. At the same time, we also have to plan for quite small Sunday gatherings.
It has an impact on children’s and youth work. We have about 50-60 under 18s connected to our congregations and so that’s a big responsibility for our children and youth workers but just like the adults, they rarely get to see each other altogether.
Yet, the very fact that we have become smaller and larger at the same time can also provide opportunities. It is helpful to keep people thinking about how God has used change for good. It means that we can focus on growing God’s kingdom rather than growing one gathering. People can still enjoy an intimate gathering where they know everyone there whilst playing their part in Gospel growth. When the congregations work well together, then they support each other and share resources. We can also plan in regular celebration events throughout the year tha gather the wider church family together.
Fragility and flexibility
On the one hand, this approach can lead to greater flexibility. It is easier for smaller congregations to respond quicker to change. In some contexts, Church planters have found that they can plant quicker and reach more people by encouraging lots of small cell churches to multiple.
However, small congregations can be very fragile. You are also flexible because you need to be. Circumstances change very quickly. Take our 11:15 Congregation. For the first year, attendance was steady at about 50-55 people then new people started coming along and it began to grow. Last year, we had a surge in growth. Suddenly we were back to where we were before the change. We had a space problem again. We were overtaken by events. At this stage, we didn’t feel ready to plant from that group. In fact, from our experience, we felt there would be some benefit in finding a way to provide some space for the congregation to grow a little larger to support future church plants. We had begun to look at moving it to a larger venue. However whilst we were working through this decision, things changed rapidly again. Many of our newer people were also beginning to find work and shift patterns affected their attendance patterns. This led to some of the Spanish speakers making Saturday night their primary gathering and others opting for Sunday Night Church. The result was that suddenly the congregation at 11:15 was back down to about 55 and it felt like we were back at square one again. We have had to work hard at encouraging the congregation to keep the bigger picture in mind, otherwise, they will become inward looking and see this as a great loss. Meanwhile, we now have a capacity problem at Sunday Night Church to solve!
Variety and Consumerism
Another challenge we face is that we don’t want people to become consumers picking and choosing church services according to preference. And yet, as soon as there is more than one option on the table, then that is the temptation. Even the time we come can become a matter of personal preference. Each service has its own style and feel, partly that’s a result of intentional decisions such as about layout, song choice etc, partly it’s necessity (we had to do the children’s work in a certain way at 9:30 because of the resources available) and partly it’s a natural consequence of the type of people and their characters who attend and who lead.
I think that this will always be a challenge and a tension. What we try to do is to keep emphasising that we are not seeking to offer consumer choices. However we do recognise that people will have different needs and that they may be naturally drawn to one thing rather than another. I think there are two essential differences that we should see.
First of all, people will start by asking “Where is the best place for me to get involved, to serve and to grow? Where will I be best placed to invite my non-Christian friends and colleagues to hear the Gospel?” This is different from simply choosing the option that suits me.
Secondly, once you’ve made that choice, do you then seek to control what happens in that congregation? Must it always remain exactly what it was when you joined it? You see, over time, things will change. We can either choose at that point to opt out and look for something better suited to our needs or we can stay loyal and remain involved with the part of the church family where God has placed us.