Congregation Size – Sit the men down

There are times when I write about something which is doctrinal and even dogmatic. There are times when I write about the authentic spirituality which is the basis of our Christian faith and experience. But there are other occasions when I am simply writing about my reflections and opinions, and do not intend them to be taken in an absolute and incontrovertible manner. In this article I want to think about the size of our congregations, and the loyalty we should preserve, as far as possible, to the congregation, the Christian family, to which we belong. You may disagree with my conclusions, but they are, nonetheless, the fruit of my 54 years of Christian experience and to the extent that I have put time and effort into my thinking, this is what I believe to be true and useful for the Church.

I believe that we should not imagine that everything we do is always entirely the will of God, just because we have done it. It is possible for us to become so enthusiastic for a project that we press ahead whatever God wants of us, and we assume that we should offer God what we have done, rather than wait for him to guide us into his will before we start. This is a temptation I am well aware of. As someone from an Evangelical background it can be easy to confuse activity for obedience, and the need to wait for the will of God to be made known to us is often more than we are willing to bear. Muslims rely on the assumption that whatever happens is God’s will, but we have to be conscious that  it is possible to accomplish much and yet not be doing God’s will.

I think that congregations can be too small and that they can be too big. I’ve plenty of experience of working with small groups of people who are investigating the Orthodox Faith. I have no problem at all in celebrating the Liturgy with a handful of people. But when a small group is transitioning into becoming a congregation then more is required than an occasional Liturgy, and more resources are required in time and commitment, as well in material and finance, than a very small group can provide. There is no absolute need for a Church building. A small, but functioning congregation, can use a rented property, and can even survive with a shared priest for a while. But what is certainly required from even the smallest congregation is a commitment to prayer and to the effort needed to sustain the activities and services of the community.

If a congregation has about 30 people, of all ages, regularly attending the Liturgy then perhaps it has just about the minimum number of people necessary to provide the pastoral care and discipleship which every Orthodox community needs for its healthy development. There is a need for the care of children and youth, for service and attention to the elderly, and for all the practical aspects of coming together to pray and worship God. I have many years of experience of celebrating the Liturgy with small groups that are not yet congregations in this sense. I have had many years experience of setting up the altar myself, baking the breads, travelling to distant places. This is all part of the service of a priest when it is what is required. It may be required for some considerable time as a small group grows and develops. There is a faithfulness which is required of those participating in such a small group of Orthodox worshipping and meeting together whenever it is possible. It is a faithfulness and commitment in hope. It is a desire to become something more substantial, together with the patient perseverance which understands that the very process of waiting is itself spiritual and significant.

Nevertheless, when I have prayed with small groups who have begun to become a congregation, groups of 20 and 30 people or more, usually without their own priest, there are some important differences. These are not absolute differences of course, just some things I have noticed. There are now enough people for some to take responsibility for setting up for the Liturgy and other meetings. Someone is baking the breads for the Eucharist. Another might be producing a service sheet with the readings for the Liturgy. Some others might spend some time with the children and the youth after the Liturgy. There are enough people for a small committee to be formed with the priest without having to include every adult or even every family because the community has grown. But at such a fragile stage it is necessary for everyone to fulfill their own service. There are many things that need to be done, and not yet enough people to do them all. There is no place  in such a community, for someone to begin to demand service for themselves, as if he was not a necessary member of the family of Christ with his own duties and responsibilities. Indeed, the words of President Kennedy, slightly modified, are especially applicable here. Do not ask what the Church can do for you, ask what you can do for the Church.

There is a sacrifice required of those who are participating in building a small group into a small congregation. All of the various enjoyments and services of a large congregation are often absent. But there is the great blessing of an intimacy and family nature about a small congregation, where people become much more than a recognised face, and there is the experience of sharing life itself, with it ups and downs. A family BBQ becomes a means of gathering the whole congregation together. Children and youth live close enough together that they are friends outside church meetings as well as when the community gathers. When a visitor comes to the services and activities of the Church he cannot be ignored and is welcomed into a family of Christians which has gathered together.

In our Coptic Orthodox context there is no need for a smaller congregation to be entirely isolated. There is value in meeting often with other and larger congregations. It is even possible to hold services on Saturdays and in the evenings so that people are able to attend services in the nearest large congregation while also supporting the smaller. But there must be a commitment. There must be a sense that the Church doesn’t exist to meet my needs, but that I myself have a part to play in the growth and development of the whole Church. Someone who only views the Church as if they were a customer will not have this commitment. They will choose the spiritual superstore over the  corner shop. But if we understand ourselves to be shareholders in this great enterprise of the Church, then we will not be thinking of ourselves but of the whole Church, and her mission and service in the world, and will always ask – Lord, what would you have me do?

As a congregation grows further, to 50 and 100 people regularly at the Liturgy and participating in the life of the community, the priest is able to be a spiritual father to all, according to his ministry. There will be others to help with the practical aspects of the community, and there are not so many people that he cannot know every one by name, and be involved in the life of all, for their salvation. There begin to be enough people to sustain and support the activities of the congregation. A property can be purchased and regular services organised in the Church, and service to the wider community outside. But commitment is still required. A loyalty to the family into which God has placed us, and a desire to be of service to God and the members of the Church and the world in this particular place. This loyalty and commitment, this faithfulness, gives grace to sustain us through difficult times, the stresses and strains which every human community must endure because of our weakness and sinfulness. This loyalty is not absolute, as I will consider shortly. But it is necessary if a small group is to become a small congregation, and if a small congregation is to become a growing one.

What is this commitment? It is the sacrifice of self for the service of the will of God, and for the sake of the members of the Church with whom we are united, and for the sake of the mission of the Church in the world. Our Lord Jesus says, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. And he says to us, If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. We should not think that this does not apply to us. Life is serious. It is a matter of life and death. It is not a matter of what we prefer, and what we enjoy, and what is easiest for us. It is the death of self for the service of God. He says, If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

To participate in a small group and a small congregation requires this sort of sacrifice. A death to self for the sake of the life of the Church and the salvation of the world. A small congregation, and the demands which are placed on all, expose whether or not we are along for the ride, or are committed to playing our part to the very end.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I do not believe that very large congregations should be our objective. Of course this is not absolute. There are lots of reasons why there are very large congregations in Egypt at the moment. Those reasons have not been in force throughout the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and they do not apply at all outside of Egypt. In a very large congregation there are naturally some benefits. Usually the financial income and situation of the congregation is well established and the congregation have resources available for many activities. But I think that there are issues to be considered in a very large congregation – and whatever the size of a very large congregation is rather subjective.

I’d like to suggest that there are signs that a congregation is too large. Firstly, it is no longer possible for the priest, or the priests, to know all of the members of the congregation by name, and more importantly, to be personally involved in their lives. The priests are unable to fulfill their ministry as spiritual fathers to all the congregation, and become ministers of the sacraments, offering them to people that they don’t know well, or even at all. Secondly, if there are several liturgies every Sunday, then it is an indication that the congregation is too large. Of course there is always scope for the pastoral provision of Liturgies to various groups. recent migrants perhaps, but when in the normal course of events there are always multiple liturgies then the congregation can no longer express its unity as being one communion at one altar. Thirdly, if the congregation is so large that the members do not know each other well, and if private groups and cliques have developed, to fulfill the sense of intimacy and family which is found in a smaller congregation, then I suggest the congregation is too large. Especially so when some members find themselves no longer invited to private events and activities because they are not of the same class, or income, or education, or race. Fourthly, if the congregation is so large and resource rich that is able to support many activities, it is easy for all of the free time of the members of the congregation to be taken up with internal events, clubs and service so that there is no connection with the outside world. This can be a temptation for an English speaking congregation as much as an Arabic speaking one. We can judge if this the the situation if we imagined picking up the Church and moving it to another city. If no one in the world around would notice that we had disappeared then I would suggest that we have become too large and self-sufficient, and that we are using all of our resources to serve ourselves and not the world around us. If we have a large facility, but non-Orthodox and outside folk, are never served within it or invited to a ministry that serves their practical needs, then perhaps we are too large and have forgotten our purpose. Fifthly, when a congregation grows too large it is no longer possible for every member of the congregation to participate in the service of the Church. In a small congregation every member, or 90% of members, will have some job to do, if they are willing. But in a congregation that is too large this percentage must fall. It is now possible to simply arrive at the Liturgy on Sunday morning, receive communion, and leave without feeling the need to serve, and even without the possibility. What will the percentage of committed people fall down to? 50%? 30%? 10%? And when people are only coming to Church to receive religious services then there is an increase in complaints, and in gossip, and in the development of parties in the congregation. Finally, when a congregation is too large, it may often fail to express the mission of the Church. When the building is already full there is little inclination to share the faith with the local community and to evangelise non-Orthodox. There are reasons why a small congregation of recent migrants from Egypt might feel hesitant in engaging in mission, but when a congregation is very large and filled with English speaking members, many of whom were born in the West, or even have parents born in the West, then a lack of mission might well be a sign that the congregation has become too large and inward-looking.

I don’t believe this is an idiosyncratic view. I was speaking with a fellow Coptic Orthodox a little while ago and he told me that is own bishop did not allow congregations to grow too large, and created new congregations to preserve the essential qualities and character of the Church as family, and as a community in which every member is known and participates.

If we look at history we see this same practice. In the city of Norwich, for instance, one of the largest towns in England in the Middle Ages, it had a population of about 10,000 in 1500, and in 1500 there were 40 parish churches. On average, each Church served a congregation of 250 people of all ages and classes. Some were larger and some were smaller, but none would have been very much larger. People would usually have attended their local Church, and would have been known by all those who worshipped with them each Sunday and Feast Day, and by the clergy who served the different congregations.

In the Late Roman period in the British Isles, in the early 5th century, it is estimated by scholars of this age that there might have been as many as 50 bishops serving the Christian population. The whole population was about 3.5 million at this time, and the density of bishops is considered to be comparable to that in Roman Gaul at the same time. If the Christian population was 10-20% of the wider population then a bishop might be responsible for just 7-14,000 Christians of all ages and classes. If each bishop, at an estimate, had 20-30 priests serving under his care, then we might reasonably estimate an average congregation size of 230-700 people. That seems within the bounds of what we know about the Church in Britain at that time. The congregation that met in the Church building at the edge of the Roman city of Colchester was clearly active, and is surrounded by a cemetery containing 650 graves. It is thought that there are the remains of other Churches in the city from the Roman period. Therefore it was not the only one, and it is built carefully upon a Christian grave which preceded it, and seems to have been the reason for its location outside the city walls. Either a local bishop or saint was buried there, and a community developed over the place where he was buried. The building is reasonably large, and would have accommodated about 200 people, who lie buried in the graves around it.

If we consider the ancient Churches in Egypt, they existed in every village, to serve the local population. Every town had several congregations, and Alexandria, the great Christian city, had many Churches, and even the Cathedral was relatively small compared with modern buildings in Egypt, by necessity, and in the West, by choice. More or less all Christians in early times, had access to a local Church, and were able to know and be known by their local congregation and priest. Indeed to a great extent the local population were also the local congregation, and people shared their whole life together.

What do I think that a good size for a congregation might be? For many years I have considered the words of our Lord Jesus to give us an indication. At the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand he says to his disciples,

For there were about five thousand men. Then He said to His disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of fifty.”
The crowd of five thousand was too big to deal with in a pastoral sense. And there were more than just men present, because it was a young boy who provided the bread and fish for the miracle. So the crowd is instructed to sit down in family groups of 50. That’s about 250-300 people in each group. Not so big that it is impossible for the disciples to speak to everyone and be heard by all. More than that, and people start to get missed. The quiet and the shy and the elderly don’t get fed in a crowd of 5000. But in a group of 250-300 people can still look out for each other.
Historically and Scripturally, I think that 250-300, or 200-400, is a good size for a congregation and that things start to get problematic when congregations grow bigger. Academics who have studied human relations have proposed that we are only able to maintain relationships with between about 150 and 290 people. So science also suggests that communities larger than this are more than we are created to cope with.
Larger communities begin to run into issues with commitment and loyalty. This is why I consider it so important that we make the effort to remain faithful to the will of God and to the Christian family in which we have been placed. A large congregation, where it seems that there are more than enough people doing whatever is required does not inspire the same self-sacrifice which is necessary in a smaller congregation where almost everyone must be doing something. A large congregation, where it is possible to simply be a consumer of religious services, allows those who attend to imagine that they can easily attend somewhere else to receive the same religious services, just like changing a restaurant because we don’t like the menu anymore. And in a large congregation it is possible to do this and not be missed by many simply because there are more people around than we can possibly know well.
I insist that we should be loyal and faithful to our priests and congregations, since this is the only way we can discover the will of God for ourselves and our communities. It is only by the prayerful, loving and humble service of others that we draw down the grace of God for ourselves and our Christian family. We must seek to be among the last to fall into complaining and gossip, back-biting and divisiveness, whatever anyone else might choose to do. If we are in a small congregation there will be much that we need to be doing so that we play our part. In the sort of average sized congregation I have proposed, there is a need for greater commitment not less. There are now more people in the congregation, some of whom will be harder to love than the small group of enthusiastic people we began with. There are now more people working in service, and so there is a greater opportunity to start to relax and begin to view the Church as a place that serves us. And in a very large congregation, it is imperative that we be committed and faithful, as the problems we might experience can grow more personal and can be more distressing.
I have many friends around the world, Coptic Orthodox Christians, who tell me that, for some of them, being part of a congregation on Sunday is the loneliest time of the week. They feel excluded and isolated, and certainly don’t feel part of a warm and loving family. Indeed, some feel themselves more alone sitting in a pew with people either side of them, than they do at any other time. This requires a commitment to being faithful to God and the place in which we find ourselves even while it is uncomfortable and even distressing. Will we attend Church only while we receive blessings? Or will we pray earnestly for our priests and brothers and sisters, so that whatever problems our congregation faces we will stick it our for the sake of obedience to God and in love for our brethren? In my own experience, life has not been as I had expected, and my experience of the Church has not always been as positive as I could have wanted. But somehow, thanks to God, I found grace, and in small things and closest relationships, I received enough to sustain me.
What am I saying? It is that when things get difficult in a congregation we are called to be loyal and faithful, prayerful and obedient to the will of God. Patient and persevering, believing that God will work out his will for our salvation. I have taught this in different places and I believe it. But nothing I am saying is absolute. I am not saying what size of congregation is too large. I am not insisting that my own ideal of about 250-300 people is necessarily better than anyone else’s ideal. And I am certainly not suggesting that a person must absolutely stay in a congregation that is harming them. But I do believe we have to persevere and be patient and give ourselves to unceasing prayer that God’s will be done.
A little while ago, His Grace Bishop Angaelos, was asked if Christians facing persecution in the Middle East should stay there to preserve the Christian population. He wisely and compassionately responded,
I should not put the burden in any single individual… and have him or her stay at personal cost. People need to make a personal decision. If they think they have a viable presence and existence we must support them. … But if they need to leave, based on the interests of their children and family, then we have to provide safe passage.
He was talking, of course, about the cost of facing violent persecution in the Middle East. But his words apply to those facing very great difficulties in a congregation. I urge all to be patient and to persevere in prayer, and to find grace in the gifts of God and the blessed relationships we have. But in the end, this is not an absolute, and our loyalty to a congregation, and even to a priest, must be weighed against the safety – not the personal preferences – of our families and at the last, even our own spiritual health.
Do not give up to soon. If you are not praying for the saving grace of God and for his will to be done, unceasingly, then you do not yet have the right to abandon the place where God has put you. But in the end, in the very end, when the will of God is made known, then there cannot be an absolute demand to stay in a place that is harming us.
May our congregations not be like this. I do believe that very large congregations can be at a greater risk of such developments by their nature, but the same problems and attitudes that harm people can also be found in smaller congregations. This is why our first and last loyalty must always be to God himself, asking for knowledge of his will, and waiting for him to open doors for us. Our second loyalty must be to those around us, seeking their salvation, and doing all that we can so that we do not add to a difficult situation, where one exists. If we are men and women of unceasing prayer, of increasing love and understanding, then the way of God will become clear to us.
Whatever the size of our congregations, and I do believe that the mission of the Church in the West needs many more, smaller and local congregations, we can and should play our part with commitment and self-sacrifice, putting others first, unless, in the very end, the spiritual welfare of our families demands some action. And even then we should seek to do whatever we do in obedience and with the advice and guidance of others rather than acting on our own will. I am convinced that we stand at the beginning of an exciting period in the life of our Coptic Orthodox Church in the West. I believe that the will of God requires us to be more committed and not less, to look more outward and less inward, and to form spiritually healthy and healing congregations were all are known and loved, and the service of all is encouraged and made possible.

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