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Church Meetings in Larger Churches

By Dr John F Balchin.

Returning to the pastorate after a number of years teaching in a theological college (and to my own home church to boot) would have been shock enough to the system; taking on a church which was twice the size of anything 1 had pastored before was an even greater challenge. At Purley, our membership nudges 500, and as such we are one of a handful of British churches which face the problems of being that size.

One of the areas which concerned not only me, but also the oversight as a whole, was the nature of our church meetings. To discover whether or not our problems were all our own or shared by others, I undertook a questionnaire survey of 18 baptist churches (not all affiliated to the BU) with memberships of between approximately 400 and 600. The results were interesting to say the least.

Understandably the frequency of church meetings varied from monthly to quarterly, reflecting different constitutional requirements. Only one church membership had actually been canvassed on the matter, the most popular response being quarterly. It was the proportion of the membership attending these meetings which was really significant. Although one church claimed that 50%, and another 40%, of its membership attended, the majority reckoned on an attendance of 25-30% at their regular church meetings, with two churches claiming attendance to be as low as 20%.

When asked whether or not these attendances were felt to be representative of the church as a whole, five said No, eleven said Yes, and the others were undecided. Some of those who felt that the church meeting did not really represent the membership also indicated that it seemed to attract a certain type of person, frequently in the older age bracket, who attended out of duty, habit or a desire to keep the oversight in its place.

Most church meetings were used for the dissemination of information, as an decisions, the routine business of the church being left to the elders or deacons. In most churches the senior minister is expected to chair (`unfortunately' commented one!), although one or two had proved the benefit of giving the job to a gifted layperson, a practice more common in larger churches in the USA.

Some churches find that meaningful discussion in such a large group is not easy. Attempts to improve this situation included: circulating home groups with policy issues beforehand, and then collating and publishing the results of the discussion before the meeting; breaking the church meeting into small groups and pooling the findings; using microphones to make members' contributions audible.

Although some churches rarely discuss policy issues without coming to a decision, some found that by one' introducing a major subject at one church meeting, and then deciding on it at the next gave time for thought and prayer. More than one commented on the wisdom of issuing full information before a meeting where a major item was to be discussed. Whereas all begin with worship, a good number are in the habit of breaking for prayer throughout the meeting as the need arises.

General comments were most illuminating. One wrote `as an oversight we are spending more time in prayer and seeking the Lord...' we need to `...learn to be more prophetic in our leadership of the church'. Another wrote that 'A traditional baptist church meeting...'is'...difficult to line up with Scripture...'; `...the priesthood of all believers is a devotional concept rather than a democratic one'; `If there was ever a context where the gifts of the Holy Spirit are required, it is in a church meeting'. One senior minister commented: I have laid emphasis on relationships, ownership, involvement and responsibility - also letting leaders lead.' Another said that `There is a constant tension (in the best sense of that word) between those decisions which have been taken at diaconate or organisational level and at church meeting level.'

One confessed, `We are agonising over the question of congregational government ... we are exploring the possibility of establishing an eldership to give spiritual oversight, and a network of leaders with specific responsibilities, freed to get on with the job'. Another church has a structure which includes five congregations, each with a measure of autonomy, although centrally funded: `They work well'. `If Yonggi Cho tried to run his church as a traditional baptist church,' said one contributor, `he'd need Wembley stadium forhis church meetings, and congregational participation would be difficult!'

Most said that they had attempted to make their church meetings more effective and more representative, while only two or three were moderately satisfied with the level of congregational participation. More than one, however, expressed the difficulty of making a traditional church meeting work as well in a larger church as it can do in a smaller one.

This leads me to the conclusion that churches of our size are not simply small churches writ large; they operate with a different dynamic. Members relate to one another and to the pastoral team in a different way, something which, coming from smaller churches, the ministers tend to learn by trial and error; few, if any, in this country have been trained to lead a larger church. Business has to be conducted in a different way too.

If we have to talk about baptist church government in `democratic' terms (and it doesn't really do justice to the Christ-led, gathered church principle our forefathers bequeathed to us), it is the difference between participatory and representative democracy. In other words, larger churches of necessity become somewhat presbyterian in polity, in that the church meeting delegates a large measure of the responsibility for the running of the church to the elected oversight. The problems that a number of our members have, derive from the fact that they are still `small-church minded', and expect a large church to work in the same way as a small one. Hence, too often, they meet with unfulfilled expectations.

While, however, it is necessary in larger churches for the routine work to be delegated, it is imperative that we find ways of allowing the church as a whole to catch the vision of what is going on, and to own the decisions made at church meetings. More than one correspondent commented that their church meetings had been criticised as `rubber stamping' exercises, while the need for better communication seems to have high priority in several churches.

I find the generally low attendance at our church meetings disturbing. Although my good friend Eddie Gibbs would say that the members' absence is a vote of confidence in the oversight (! ), I have the impression that many stay away because the style of church meeting we have inherited has little appeal, especially to those of the younger generation. An attendance of between a quarter and a third of the membership means that the church meeting is not really the church meeting, but a meeting of those who like church meetings or who feel it is their duty to attend or who use them as a platform.

Finally, it may be significant that, in this country, churches of baptist polity seem to plateau around the 500 membership mark. There may be a number of reasons for this, but it seems to me that our inherited church meeting structure with its `small church mentality' may be one. Some are already boldly experimenting to try to break through the impasse which this presents, albeit with some questions as to their continued 'baptist' identity. Contrary to present fashion, I do not believe that big churches are necessarily bad churches, and that only small is beautiful, but I do think that we need a radical reappraisal of how they are structured, and that involves aspects like meaningful fellowship, pastoral oversight and individual involvement too. Next year I hope to tour the States to see what I can learn from their experience; they have had to develop considerably more skill in this area than we have.

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You are reading Church Meetings in Larger Churches by Dr John F Balchin, part of Issue 2 of Ministry Today, published in September 1994.

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