When a House Church Becomes Too Large

I've recently enjoyed interacting with Eric Carpenter at his blog A Pilgrim's Progress on the subject of How Big is Too Big? when asked of a church that meets in the home and places a high value on all-member participation in the meetings. Eric was a full-time salaried pastor who left this employment in pursuit of a "simpler form of church life."

In the comments section, I suggested a number of possible next steps that such a church could take when it starts to "feel too large." My option four was to "split the group into two or more smaller groups and try to replicate what you have experienced so far." Option five was to "intentionally start to dream, pray and prepare, for a long-term process of multiple future church planting."

Alan Knox then asked the following question: "I'd love to hear some examples of the outcome of #5 and how it differs from #4."

Rather than presume on Eric's bandwith, I thought  might make a few notes here in response to that good question.

Many groups respond to numerical growth by splitting, dividing or multiplying (option 4). Biological cell concepts are often employed to explain or in some cases justify this course of action.

In my experience, such an action can be a mixed blessing, with long-term relationships sometimes severed or at least placed under strain as a group that may have taken months or years to bond together finds itself torn in two.

Option 5 takes a more intentional, long-term view, rather than just responding to the immediate lack of space in a home. As such, it allows the possibility that some of the more difficult aspects of "splitting" a group can be avoided, or at least mitigated.

In essence, I would distinguish option 5 from option 4 by comparing the ways that a cell divides from the way that a family grows and reproduces. In the latter scenario (option 5), we are not looking to divide a group but to start a new household - specifically a household of faith.

In my own limited experience, pursuing this latter option involves looking for and recognising those individuals who have the capacity, character and inclination to become spiritual parents. They should be supported, empowered, trained and encouraged to intentionally begin the process of opening their homes with the aim of forming a new community. This should happen while the existing church is still quite young and while it is itself forming and developing. The intention to plant out is therefore sown into fabric of the church from early on in its life. As I have said, however, this process becomes part of the ethos of the church, but is not done in such a way that "splits" the existing church in two.
Again, in my limited experience, I have seen this process undertaken resulting in the formation of six new churches that I have had a part in helping to plant in the west of England, during the period 1997 to 2004. At least one of these, becasue of the gift mix of the couple hosting it, started as an Apha course and was composed overwhelmingly of new converts. All of them began as home-based churches. Because of where I was with my ecclesiology at that time, most of these churches went on to become somewhat larger mono-congregations rather than remain small and reproduce smaller household-style churches. Having said that, because of their theological values, these churches do tend to have a higher level of member participation in the meetings than might be experienced in a more traditional "church service" model.

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1 comment:

Andrew Knight said...

Very helpful.
I find the analogy with family is often useful in thinking about church (not least because it is a bit messy).