From 1979 to 1980, I lived and served as a lay pastor in a small village church in England. During that time, I co-authored a church pantomime, a take-off on Cinderella. Our Cinderella was Nicholas, the assistant curate at St. Mary’s, who was so overworked that he had neither the time nor the permission of the rector to go to the ball.
One phrase from the lyrics of one of the songs has never left me. Sung to the tune of “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from the musical Oliver, our song was entitled “You’ve Got to Save a Soul or Two” and the phrase was, “In this church, one thing counts, in the pews, large amounts; I recall we started small…Nick, you have to save a soul or two…Nick, you have to save a soul or two.”
That song and, indeed, the entire script was intended to be just a bit of fun; as with so many other things, though, true words are often said in jest. The rector’s desire to fill the pews and save souls wasn’t far from the truth. It was the late 1970s. The Church of England was experiencing decline, and the people from our village church were not immune to feelings of insecurity caused by their own decline. The rector, a taskmaster at the best of times, was prone toward puritanism, feeding the congregation’s insecurity, and keen to work himself and everyone else into the ground in his attempt to increase St. Mary’s Sunday worship numbers. Size mattered!
I returned to Canada in 1980 and was ordained in 1984. Since then, I have often felt like Nicholas in that pantomime. We work ourselves into a frenzy, coaxing people into church to fill the pews, hoping against hope that this is how we will save their souls. It doesn’t help that mainline churches have witnessed the rise of the non-denominational “box churches,” hankering after their extraordinary numbers and ostensible success. Apparently, size still matters!
As I move towards retirement, I realize that, indeed, size does matter, but not in the way we might think. I am attracted by remnant theology where success is not measured by quantity. The remnant church offers enormous possibilities for the growth of something new, possibilities that could sadly be missed if our focus is on the accumulation of large numbers.