Professor says bigger churches aren’t always better

ATLANTA – A recent comprehensive survey of American congregations affirms what the Rev. Thomas Frank has been telling his students at Emory University and congregations all along: Most of the country’s churches are never going to be mega-churches. And, he adds, that shouldn’t be their goal.

Goals are all wrong.

Frank, a United Methodist professor of church administration and congregational life at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, said he is surprised by how dominant the “utilitarian commercial perspective” on church has become.

That perspective maintains that bigger is better, that growth is the byword, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.

“Few people look to a congregation of a hundred participants with a thriving ministry in an urban neighborhood, or a church at which a few dozen immigrants gather to sustain life and hope,” he said. “But maybe they should.”

Stop measuring growth.

In his most recent book, “The Soul of the Congregation: An Invitation to Congregational Reflection,” Frank urges pastors and lay people to stop thinking of growth as the only yardstick by which to measure their faith and begin studying one of the thousands of congregations that have been around for awhile – namely, their own.

“Look what you can learn if you look at your church as a living culture,” said Frank. “There is a tremendous treasure of stories, symbols, traditions that pass from generation to generation that represent the best of what churches have to offer.

“It’s rare to find that in today’s society, when the emphasis tends to be obtaining the latest product that can improve my life.”

New mental approach.

Frank wrote the latest book partly out of frustration with what he calls the “product mentality” of church literature, most of which he says “treat churches like a widget.”

A frequent leader of seminars on congregational vitality, Frank likes to point out that “the theology behind this [widget] mindset is the more we produce, the closer we are to God and to doing God’s will.”

Clearly he doesn’t agree.

“Thinking of a church as a system of productivity does not reach the depths of what church is for or why people associate with churches,” Frank points out.

He admits that the message “more is not necessarily better” is hard for many churches to hear, particularly those with an evangelical tradition such as his own United Methodist.

“Yes, we’re evangelical; yes, we go where the people are. Methodists traditionally have been among the first people in the community,” said Frank.

Now what?

“But we, along with Protestants from many traditions, are facing the question of ‘now that we’re established, now what?’ What is the content of our faith and how do we sustain it over a lifetime or many lifetimes?”

One way to do that, Frank said, is for congregations to draw deeply on their own traditions, to find their own soul – and nurture it.

His definition of a congregation’s “soul” is the place where people “meet the world through everyday practices, activities, things they make, actions they take, ways they find to express themselves and their faith out of the materials the world has to offer.”

A comparison.

Frank cites the experiences of one of his seminary students who divided his time preaching at two small country churches that look almost identical from the outside, yet respond very differently to crises.

One congregation responds “with panic. They draw inside,” said Frank.

The other responds with action. “When the local plant down the road closes, they open up the building and set up a soup kitchen for the unemployed.”

Makes a difference.

What difference does it make, knowing the “soul” of a congregation? “It’s crucial for pastors and lay leaders,” Frank said. “You can’t adapt to a changing world unless you know who you are.”

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