In discussion after the initial post, a friend commented that the statistics on The Presbyterian Church in Canada fell into a type of trap, or at least my use of them did: I neglected to question the assumption of what makes a successful congregation. By looking at the scarcity of women in congregations with over four hundred members or with an annual total revenue over $500 000 to point out the problematic limits of gender equality in actual practice, I perpetuated the idea that bigger and wealthier is better. My friend was not arguing that the gender issue did not exist or was not a problem–he agreed that the statistics were troubling–he just thought that the drift of my argument neglected some other issues.
My friend was right. I did not think to mention the way that women in The PCC might be working to reimagine what a ‘successful’ church might be. The vast majority of congregations across Canada are much smaller than 400+ member ones. A proper statistical analysis would look at the gender equality of church leadership over many more categories.
I also agree that the question of what makes a successful faith community deserves revisiting. Too often we assume that bigger means healthier, that more money means better programs, better worship, etc. I, for one, am a bit humbled to have to be reminded of this. Before studying for my PhD, I was the minister of a very small congregation. This meant that I got to know people pretty well, and that there were a lot of small-group activities with the advantages that brings for developing relationships. It also means that the church really was like an extended family–bringing with that both the joys and the tensions of family life. At times it was wonderful. At times it was the most stressful and draining experience of my life. But overall I believe that size does not necessarily mark success–not for a community which is supposed to be sharing God’s love, attending with care to one another, and working collaboratively to build up justice and peace.
Now this does not change the fact that the statistics mentioned in the last post are troubling. What it might change is the way to go about remedying them. Perhaps, instead of only trying to change the system so that everyone has equal access and fewer groups are left out, the definition of what qualifies as success also needs to be addressed.
So, to start the revisiting of this question, I ask you, readers, what makes a successful faith community?