I’ve been thinking — as I do, when the UUA certifications come in — about churches, especially small ones.
Imagine this senario. A small lay-led fellowship starts up in a market town in middle America. It has the usual problems of miscommunication, confliciting interests, and insufficient resources. Still, it develops the most liberal Sunday school in town, a reputation as the go-to place for being cooperative in civic interests (when others churches are being dogmatic), and a group of friendships that last a lifetime . . . and a feud or some other calamity that led to its eventual decline and death.
It never had more than thirty or so members, and often quite fewer. They only lasted five, ten, or fifteen years. Later, locally, the most anyone would remember of this congregation was the unusual books they gave to the public library, and a kind word from the YMCA manager about them always paying their rent on time. There are still people in their UUA district who thinks there’s a UU congregation in that town, but they never knew much about them anyway. Someone clucked, “well, they’re a fellowship, after all. What do you expect.”
Was this church a failure? I’m not so sure, even with this minimal hypothetical outline. Some would say yes. Others would say it was a waste of UUA resources, though I’m never sure what that’s supposed to mean.Â If it created a community with a core ethos, and lived to that ethos with integrity, then it was not a failure, even if short lived.Â We never know what need was met, what comfort was given, or what new direction was taken. (Or what use of passive voice was made. Sorry.) Some small churches, even short lived ones, have to have done amazing things.
Some large churches — of any denomination — are sometimes accused of being all show and no spirit. But again, I can’t help but think they do more good than is heralded. As with the smallest, dying churches, there are valid questions about the use of resources in proportion to the amount of ministry done.
One response is to create large congregations of spiritually mature people. But my experience suggest that there are more large congregations with a few spiritually mature people and a large padding of zealots, aesthetes, program consumers, or poseurs than such exhalted Commonwealths of God on Earth.
Another option is to go small and light. I’l be talking more about this.Â But there’s a psychological (and perhaps ecclesiological) hurdle first: that a church, when constituted, must last forever.
The very notion of forever in human institutions is silly, but the line between of indefinite duration and forever can blur in unhelpful ways. (Ask the Restorationists.) Perhaps we have to be willing to experiment with churches that we know won’t last. And if they do last longer than expected, we can rejoice in an accomplishment (or divine gift) and not tsk-tsk away what might have been.