Some thoughts on natural congregation size

I’ve been reading the blogs of African missionaries and also chatting with a few personally from Rwanda, Nigeria, and Kenya. The underlying story behind what they say continually reminds me how different Ethiopia is. Ethiopia is really a strange exception among all African missionary fields. It was the only place with an already-established church. A lot of the missionaries at first didn’t know what to do. They had been intensely trained for several years to convert pagans and largely avoid Muslims. What were they to do with these people? I was surprised to discover through my studies how so many of them really tried to initially present themselves as a reform movement working within the Orthodox church. Only a few of them were aggressive about planting new congregations and distinguishing themselves at first. They wanted to see the gospel preached and change people’s hearts, but most of them were able to quickly recognize that this did not require any sort of disestablishment among the Orthodox. Still, this almost never ended up happening, at least visibly. In the end, they always ended up starting new congregations. There was no way around it. It’s just how Christianity works.

I don’t think this is a case of the Holy Spirit working in their midst or not, but rather just a function of natural social dynamics. A lot of experienced people over the years have concluded that a congregation is a at it’s most active and communally potent somewhere around the 120 mark. To grow larger than that requires a certain amount of institutional glue that the leadership may not be able to provide. In that case, the most healthy thing for the church to do is multiply and start a new congregation. If they don’t, they will likely automatically divide over time regardless and not always in a positive way. I think this is the situation we find in the New Testament – the church as a network of house meetings. When Paul writes to the church in Rome, his letter was likely passed around many sub-congregations spread out around the region. Some probably had overlap of membership and their leaders being friends and acquaintances. Others were so separated by geography (remember, there were no cars) that they may have been only loosely connected to the nexus of the city and to the ones who originally received Paul’s written document.

So why do I mention this? As a young man, I used to think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all the church’s could be united?” I remember attending prayer meetings where something along these lines was regularly petitioned for. That would mean our city of 25,000 would have one mega-church about 5000 strong. Wouldn’t that be great? Actually, no. I’ve changed my mind about that. Such a thing can never be and that’s actually a good thing. Diversity is good. Small congregations are good. Geography is a God-given natural state of creation, not some stumbling block of the devil. Our minds can only hold the names and faces of so many folks in our circle (some psychologists argue the max is about 400). It’s another “feature” of our intellect. We diminish when we try to bite off more than we can chew. Nobody should be more aware of this than shepherds. So now I’ve changed my tune. I say, the more faithful churches the better – just let them love one another whenever their paths cross.