Distrust larger churches?

As comments to my Home Mission post demonstrate there is some distrust of larger Baptist Churches in the UK.  As someone who was previously a minister of a Home Mission supported small church I have some experience on both sides of this; there is something dispiriting about the suspicion that the life of your congregation is being sucked out by a larger church nearby enticing people because the worship / childrens work / youth work / preaching is 'better'. I am very aware of the issues of power, manipulation and control that some allude to and there are also theological and pastoral questions to be asked about church size.

But many of the opportunities we have are because of our size and the resources we have been blessed with. In recent years our church has used about 30% of its income to support mission in the UK and overseas. This has included giving about £9000 each year to both BMS and Home Mission. We are fortunate to have a number of people in the church who work in Christian organisations and some of our mission finance supports them and the organisations they work with (organisations like the Message, Innervation and Epiphany). We act as a home church base to folk who are forming a Church planting team in Manchester (led by Urban Expression); which we support financially, prayerfully and practically. Last year we released a number of church members to be involved in church plant in a nearby town (led by another Baptist Church). The church releases me to be involved in the wider life of the Union and the Association; another member of the congregation serves as a Board Member for the Evangelical Alliance. In the last year we have provided some assistance to other Baptist churches nearby: our finance administrator has helped two of them with getting their accounts in order, we have supplied teams of people to help with preaching and leading worship. I have been able to work with two other churches in the hope it would help them with some particular challenges. In the last couple of years I have had opportunity to do things with our Baptist Colleges and would be open to doing more. We are always willing for our facilities to be used by the Association to host events.

We are not the largest Baptist church in our association but the three largest (which includes us) account for 12% of the members in the association; our church alone counts for 3.5% of the members but 5% of the Home Mission giving. The health and vitality of these larger churches is important for our Union life. If our church grows by 30% in the next five years it has the potential to significantly add to the life of the Association.

I’m not naive enough to believe that it is all good news. I’m sure some larger churches don’t act responsibly and misunderstandings arise. There are disadvantages with being larger, we more easily suffer institutional inertia and it takes time to get things to happen; the adaptability of a smaller church to its local context and to the pastoral needs of people is not to be underestimated.

Yet there is another side to this. From the perspective of a smaller church it can seem that we have everything we need but the reality is that we have a constant struggle to find people to fill roles in church life. There are many things we would like to do but we can’t because we don’t have the people or finance to do them (unless we reduce our mission support). Given the challenges we face, and the negative attitude of others towards us, it is often easier to plough our own furrow rather than seek to work with other churches nearby.

Returning to the link with my earlier post; supporting and working with larger churches has the potential to unleash good, imaginative and beneficial things for our Union. If we ignore them everyone is the loser and our ability to share in the mission of God is compromised.

6 thoughts on “Distrust larger churches?

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  1. I agree with you – it can be hard on both sides of the equation.
    One problem with this, as I see it, is the assumption that there is a ‘larger’ church in each area that could help all the other smaller/struggling churches. I guess it depends on your definition of a larger church. In my old cluster we were the largest church of the 4 churches- at 28 members! In the city of 12 churches the largest was 103 and at least at least 5 churches were either without a minister or HM churches – I think it is more now.
    How would your idea work in an area like that?

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  2. Thanks for the follow-up Neil. I agree there are always two sides.

    One question that you haven’t appeared to respond to is that of how a larger church like Poynton might benefit from the smaller churches around it. In other words what can these smaller congregations give your church?

    You rightly talk about giving out to support others. But I wonder if true partnership in the gospel requires the grace to receive from others even if they appear to have little to give. I’d suggest that only starts when we recognise that however strong and capable we are there must be something we lack that only another can give to us.

    And in response to Julie these principles apply even if there is no larger church in a given area. The challenge remains because size is not the only reason we feel superior / inferior (or present as such) to others.

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  3. Thanks for the question Ashley. The easy answer is that we have lots to learn from churches like the Urban Expression plants in Manchester which are doing new things. The harder one is how we benefit from the smaller ones around it. I asked this question in the church office yesterday and it took 20 seconds before anyone suggested anything! That’s because the benefits are not tangible ‘lessons’ ‘examples’ ‘resources’ but about what it means to be part of the church catholic; recognising, affirming and valuing diversity.

    Yet, I’m not satisfied with my answer either. More thinking and reflecting required.

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  4. Thanks for this helpful article. It’s very encouraging to hear of the many ways PBC is supporting mission locally and nationally. It goes some way to dispel the myth of the self-contained larger church. I’m glad that many other larger Baptist churches show the same generosity of spirit.

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  5. my experience of passtoring and working with smaller churches is that the attitude of the larger Church to them has often been to take over and not listen to what is taking place in the locality of the smaller church. There are many dedicated members who work hard to try to be effecive in their local witness and one attitude that i was aware of was close your building and come to us. This removes the witness from a local area where a Church has been planted.
    When I was Association secretary in South Wales I and a colleague had a vision of Churches working closer together. However, this vision was not worked through because of the influence of larger Churches and it broke my heart. We had a vision of Churches working closer together and sharing resources in clusters. None of this happened and what I see now is that Churches within the area have grown further apart and a real distrust of Association has taken place. I see it from a distance as I now am serving a baptist Church in ontario Canada.

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  6. I have started several responses to this thread – and its parent, but deleted them unsatisfied!

    I think there are many who would assume that I am one of those suspicious of large churches. I believe my position is rather more nuanced than that. I have no problem with churches which are large per se. My problem comes when that “largeness” impinges upon my church’s “smallness.” Ie, the tacit assumption that all churches want to be, and should be, large. I would suggest that just as there is much that is good and Godly in a large church, there is much that is good and Godly in a small church – and that we can reflect God’s glory as much by being small as we can by being large.

    One of the reasons Clare and I began to write our liturgical resources was because it felt – and feels – important for our tiny community, which has received so much support from the wider church family, to be able to give something.

    We were originally asked to write a book of prayers _for_ the city. But the inner city is always caricatured as needy, seeking hand-outs, support and the prayers of those “more fortunate” than ourselves. Actually, our city is a vibrant, dynamic place. I live here because I choose to be here. Our tiny church is a celebration of our city. We are theologically literate, reflective and mission focused in a way which many churches find challenging. We have no institution left to maintain!

    So, instead, we chose to write a book of prayers _from_ the city. A book of prayers which grew out of, and celebrates our context and our community.

    If Gospel – and to be very Baptist for a moment – Associating are to be real, then they must include the ability for the anwahim, the humble poor, the little ones not to be “lifted up” and placed in the thrones of the mighty, but rather to be lifted up to God’s throne and celebrated for who they are. Not who they might become.

    Just as children need to be valued as who they are, not simply as ‘future adults’ or ‘the church of the future,’ small churches need to be allowed to celebrate what they are today, not simply to be seen as potential large churches. We decided formally some years ago, that if our church ever grew to more than 30 members, we would split! We genuinely like being small – and more importantly believe there is much of the glory of the God who knows every sparrow which falls to the ground – in our smallness.

    I’m sure there are more extreme examples of how large and small churches can walk together than Poynton and Openshaw, but I think you’d have to look far and wide to find them! There will be many differences between us. Much to celebrate and much to learn. But that has to be a two-way process. If you can’t find anything to celebrate and learn from in my 20 year ministry in this small church, then we’ve both got a problem!

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