How does size matter?

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Illustration: Shutterstock

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.

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Nissa Basbaum
The Very Rev. Nissa Basbaum is dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels, diocese of Kootenay.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Not really sure where to begin here. This article makes me very sad. Anyone who has done any reading in church sociology knows that critical mass does matter. If a young family appears on your doorstep, they are more likely to stay if they see other young families in the church. The same goes for youth. But the saddest thing about this article is that the writer does not seem to understand why we might want to share our faith with others: Not to fill pews, but to transform lives! If it were not for the Church I might have been found dead in a ditch after the death of my mother when I was 15. If not for a literal ray of light from heaven, a dear friend, now in his 70s, would have taken his own life in despair. Those of us who have been saved, blessed, and transformed by the love of God do not need to “work ourselves into a frenzy” in order to fill pews. We want to share the joy of life in Christ with others! This is our joy and our privilege.

  2. Maybe both the writer and the commentator have missed the point of why larger numbers of people are staying away from attending church; There are of course several factors but neither have noted that the horrendous scandals in the Roman Catholic church caused largely by the policy of celibacy has affected all churches, for if we listen to the now most numerous agnostic advocates of sleeping in on Sunday mornings, they all complain of “Organised Religion” . It is not just the sex abuse scandals or the old “hell fire and brimstone” nonsense but how religion per se is perceived as having little to no effect on our lives, individually and “corporately”. The weird appeal of the cults and the utter ignorance of most clergy about aggressive cults like JWs is astounding. We need to get smarter and realize the importance of statements such as :”If your religion is so amazing and is doing such amazing things for the world, then it should be able to stand up to some questioning ” { Leah Remini } It`s also time to remove the moat from our eye too !!

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