This post is the third in a series about the formational potential of smaller churches.
Benefit #2: Christian Faith as Creative Faith
As congregations experience numerical growth, organizational structures must be produced, adapted, and implemented in ways that allow for clergy, administrators, and volunteer leaders to efficiently provide goods and services—in the form of sermons, worship music, liturgy, Bible study, and additional activities—to an increasing number of congregants.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating programs for congregants. But it becomes problematic when the programs become the reason for the existence of a congregation. When that happens, church can become a marketplace where congregants consume products that meet their needs. And if a particular church doesn’t provide the goods and services that a congregant wants and needs, that person might go shopping for one that does.
It’s old news now that, back in 2007, Willow Creek Community Church courageously released Reveal, a report on a study they conducted in their massive congregation. And while the study revealed (pun intended) many surprising facts, one of the most important was that involvement in programs didn’t lead to growth in faith. For many years, the leaders of Willow Creek operated out of the assumption that the more their members were involved in church activities, the more they’d grow as followers of Jesus. But they actually found that those who were most involved were the most stagnant in their faith journey.
Willow Creek operated out of an assumption of consumptive Christianity—and they’ve discovered this and taken steps to correct it in recent years. But contrast this megachurch with one of countless smaller congregations across North America—and beyond. With so few people in these churches, a much higher percentage of members are likely involved not only in attending activities in the life of the congregation, but in providing leadership and direction of these activities. Smaller churches tend to require the active involvement of a large percentage of their members in order to provide activities, thus moving away from consumption and toward creation. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the life of the faith community or nothing will get done – there’s no one else to do it!
I’m inclined to believe that having a hand creating such activities—that is, being involved as a leader, a collaborator, and a stakeholder—is more likely to cultivate faith formation. I know first-hand that this is the case, for my childhood and adolescent faith was formed through involvement in creating what it means to be and do church, and not consuming others’ church products. As a child, I regularly helped my parents at activities our church was hosting, such as White Elephant Tables, events for high school students (who seemed so much older and wider than I was at the time), and bazaars. And in my high school years I learned how to play guitar in my church and ended up leading music at the Sunday evening Mass. This happened to be right around 9/11, and I remember making difficult decisions about what it meant to lead the church in singing that Jesus was “Prince of Peace.” I had to do some deep theological reflection with the choir to figure out how to sing about peace and love after this horrific event.
Without these experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to be part of a team that creates what it means to be the church. And I’m not the only one. As I travel across North America teaching and leading workshops and events about ministry with youth and children. I often begin by having each participant identify and share a spiritually formative experience from their younger years. Many people speak of times when they were given the reigns and encouraged to contribute to the life of their congregation—as music leaders, Sunday school teachers, members of a service project committee, or even simply collecting the offering. And when I ask how many people present grew up in a small congregation during these experiences, there aren’t too many hands that aren’t in the air.
All this has to do with enculturation, a vision for faith formation championed most famously by John Westerhoff, with whose words I end this post:
Faith is formed as people of all ages gather together to participate in the life of a community of faith, as they create church together. Through such participation, the ways of life of the community are passed on and recast through engagement in those practices that define the way of life of the community. As congregants gather together for Sunday services, potlucks, service projects, pub nights, and whatever other activities are central to the life of the community of faith, they enculturate one another into members of their faith community who participate together in hearing, responding to, and living out the gospel.