Could it be that we are in the process, at least in Sydney, of seeing a shift from smaller to medium and larger churches?
Among other things, the COVID lockdowns are becoming known for accelerating the trends that were circulating before it all hit in early 2020. Before COVID, a disproportionate number of smaller churches seemed to be having increasing struggles. Viability was becoming more challenging. In my own denomination, there was a significant increase in church size that was considered to be viable. It makes sense. With the changing regulatory environment alone, the work and effort needed just to open the doors for a church service had increased substantially. And that is even before we consider the increasing expectations across the whole of our society, including within churches.
In recent weeks, I have made the (anecdotal) observation that those in medium and larger churches are seeing notable numbers of visitors. At the same time, many of those in smaller churches are still recovering from the COVID lockdowns. They are praying (and I am with them) that the Lord will help them return to where they were pre-COVID. And, there are certainly exceptions.
Those in larger churches are finding that most of their visitors are Christians seeking a new church. Some of them are visiting because their pre-COVID churches shut down or faced significant struggles. However, this is not the majority.
I can’t help but feel this is connected to the size dynamics of churches.
Smaller churches are driven relationally. Over the period of extended COVID lockdowns, humanly speaking, this relational connectedness loosened, by definition. This is not to say that there was no relational connection in smaller churches (or larger ones for that matter). However, the tight and regular relational connectedness that is so important in smaller churches could not operate in the same way.
In addition, smaller churches did not have the resources to produce livestream or online services in the same way that medium and larger churches did. One of my colleagues in a smaller church shared with me that he did everything: prepare the sermon, press record, preach the sermon; do the video editing; upload the sermon; prepare the rest of the service; and everything in between. It was a lot to “pivot” to in a very short space of time. Some churches did not have the resources to produce online services at all.
Conversely, medium and larger churches had more human ability and capacity to pivot in accordance with constantly changing COVID conditions. Lockdowns forced people to stay at home, at the very time that there was unprecedented access to churches of all kinds in the comfort of one’s lounge room and home. Not only had relational connections loosened in one’s own church somewhat, but now there was a lens into the “offerings” of medium to larger churches. If there is something in this hypothesis, I certainly grieve at the consumeristic aspects. However, I am simply trying to reflect on observations, not offer moral or biblical judgements.
Now, a whole lot of factors have been at play for a long time before COVID: a decline in volunteerism; increased expectations of “production” values and everything else like youth and children’s ministry; the challenges of increased administration and compliance; etc. All have faced these challenges – especially smaller churches with fewer resources and people. COVID times have accelerated these challenges.
I am hearing story after story of (particularly) pastors at smaller churches who have burnt out or are on the verge of doing so. Many are finding it challenging, at the very time that surveys indicate that people in our society are searching for meaning more than in recent history.
I offer these reflections as a hypothesis only and welcome any input to refute or refine this hypothesis. On the other hand, if there is something in it, there is cause for an urgent strategic review by church leaders of all denominations.
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