Friday, August 10, 2012

The value of corner dairies

Our Diocese is in the midst of a slow and serious conversation about 'parish rationalization.' Various factors are driving the conversation along: (in no particular order of priority) financial health, cost of buildings (insurance premiums, repairs, post-quake replacement), population shifts which are depleting some areas, flowing into other areas, and effects of decline in church participation through many years but now highlighted by the quakes. In objective terms, parish provision of stipended ministry will be easier if we could do away with some buildings (i.e. not rebuild some, repair and then sell some, find ways to share under-utilized buildings). More subjective is to envision what might happen if we worked some of our areas in different ways, whether through greater collaboration between ordained ministers, working two or more parishes in a 'team parishes' approach, or even merging two or more parishes together.

Within such conversations I see a couple of tensions. One is the tension between 'ministry' and 'mission.' Another is the tension between 'corner dairies' and 'supermarket.' Let me explain.

From a ministry perspective, if we have 35 people worshipping in church A which seats 200 people and a kilometre or two up the road is church B with 80 people worshipping which can seat 100 people, it makes sense to raise the question whether 115 people could worship together in the 200 seater church. We are all Anglicans, so why not meet together and enjoy what 115 people can do together in the worship of God. Likely a larger group can provide better music, children and youth ministry and so forth. In reality, Anglican life is more complicated than that: the two churches might be too diverse in 'style' let alone theology to contemplate such a union. But suppose the union happens. What could go wrong?

From a mission perspective what could wrong is this: A and B are in two different suburbs. In each there is opportunity to participate in the mission of God. The presence of each church is contributory to that mission. Focus the worship on church A and sell church B makes it just that bit harder to keep the focus on mission in suburb B. People driving out of suburb B to go to meetings in church A helps the newly shaped parish to thrive, but it may be to the detriment of mission in suburb B. It need not be so, and that is precisely why our conversations are rightly slow and serious, so we get the result right, not only from a ministry perspective but also from a mission perspective.

What about 'corner dairies' and 'supermarkets'? When we shop for groceries, we like supermarkets. Their size means they can stock products in great volume, offer a very wide range of products, and on the biggest selling items, offer low prices, especially compared to a corner dairy. But supermarkets are fewer and further between than corner dairies: we need to get into our cars to go to them to shop. The corner dairy, by contrast, is often in walking distance, and can be very convenient when we want to make a quick purchase of just one product such as a bottle of milk or loaf of bread. Supermarkets when they were established drove a lot of corner dairies out of existence, but many years later we seem to have a settled state of grocery selling: there is room for both supermarkets and corner dairies. Ecclesiologists have observed that churches have been developing in recent years analogous to supermarkets and corner dairies. Some churches have grown very large, partly because they are able to offer more 'products' (a range of services in different styles, ministries to age groups (pre-school, primary school age, secondary school age, etc) and thus draw more and more families, while some churches have become very small, not only because of general decline in churchgoing, but also because families make choices about going to larger churches with Sunday School and youth groups and the like. A tension in our diocesan discussions (as I hear them) is between the supermarket and corner dairy approaches.

Do we have too many 'corner dairy' churches? Would it make sense to fold some of these into a 'supermarket' church? Is there a difference to be drawn between a thriving 'corner dairy' and a struggling 'corner dairy'? If we do not act now to take advantage of the quakes shaking us up as a Diocese will we find that ten or twenty years from now we have even more 'corner dairies' on our hands than currently? The tension between ministry and mission intersects with these questions as (arguably) corner dairies serve local communities in ways in which supermarkets do not. Yet supermarkets, from a mission perspective, have important services to offer to communities (e.g. greater personnel to be sent out to struggling communities).

Needless to say, these questions are daunting. I am not about to answer them. But what I would like to offer as something to think about in respect of such questions is a link to a winsome appeal to the value of smaller parish churches. Cranmer's Curate poses the question, What is the Gospel Value of Parish Churches? Part of his answer is this,

"Not everybody is in a position to commute out of their local community to go to a larger, better-resourced church elsewhere.

For the elderly and the vulnerable in other ways, parish churches in their neighbourhood can provide a Christian community from which they can receive invaluable spiritual and practical support and to which they can contribute by their presence, prayers and gifts.

But surely our whole community would lose out from the loss of the parish church and its ministry. Every person living in our parish needs the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation from the wrath to come; by God’s grace our parish church is in a position to proclaim the Saviour to them through our outreach activities, our occasional offices such as baptisms, thanksgivings and funerals and through our children’s work."

Please read the whole post (which is written in the context of the Church of England). You may like to comment there or here about it, or any other matter raised here.


Andrei said...

The mistake being made by many is to assume that their mission is to fill the Church and the bigger the better - taken to absurd extremes in the so called mega Churches.

But it is the few faithful who week after week, month after month and year after year keep the doors of the church open. And those who feel who suddenly feel the need of the church , often in times of trouble or stress, find the doors open and the worship ongoing in their time of need.

Or perhaps they come just on the Feast days, Christmas and Easter.

But some of it rubs off on them and they may find their ultimate way to salvation.

Bigger is not necessarily better.

Father Ron Smith said...

Andrei. Wonder of wonders, we find convergence on something. Alleluia!

Tim Harris said...

Peter - a helpful post and opens up important questions. I've been doing quite a bit of investigation in this area myself, and will be posting some of the conclusions and proposals on my blogsite in the new future. The general consensus is that the parish model is increasingly less effective (but depends on location) as an organismal unit for ministry, where the local community has less and less of a local identity (such as the village did/does).

The parish model was predicated on a equation village=community=parish (and the church had a clearly recognized and visible social location within that).

The community(-ies) people identify with now is (are) more complex, and less tied to streets and neighborhoods - think Christchurch pre-earthquakes. So the incarnational challenge is to enter into and engage the new dimensions of community that may be more network orientated than neighborhood.

The consensus seems to be that the most effective missional mode to consider is a combination of neighborhood and network.

A few other thoughts:

Our presence as a church does not depend on plant and sites

The majority of church members in the future will be in small church with a community character

Smaller churches are more diverse missionally - they can be more organic and adaptive (more in a 'go to where people are' mode), while bigger churches will invariably function in a 'come to us as we are mode', with a limited capacity to change and adapt.

But we need bigger churches, not on a in-drag church growth model (need people and budget to maintain programs), but on a 'minster' model, serving and supporting ministries beyond itself.

Finally, small churches as 'missional communities' are often lay-led, and the whole financial package that goes with sustaining church plant and clergy stipend packages becomes less of a burden.

Clergy roles will be more of oversight, perhaps over half a dozen missional communities, while having a clearly identified sacramental and communal centre.

Very sketchy comments - I'll explore these more substantively on my blog.


Teri said...

I wonder if the way ahead is not a little bit of both/and...

In the end I don't think there is any substitute for passionate Christians living out faith and doing life in their local communities. It is in these relationships that others have a chance to see the transformative power of the gospel.

What about a model that looked something like this... four small parish churches each grounded in their own localities, maybe meeting in church buildings, or homes, or school halls - but somewhere local. At the same time a larger hub - serving all of these four parishes so that their can be economy of scales. This might include 1 full time admin person (rather than four part time) or one youth worker (rather than four part time or none at all). Youth could worship each Sunday at their own local churches but access one joint youth group. Similarly elderly people might each worship in their own locality but a manna meals ministry might be run out of the central hub with able bodies people from each parish distributing to their own areas.

I wonder whether a model like this wouldn't offer the benefits of the economies of scale while also allowing the local relationships / communities to live out the gospel in their own contexts?

Interested to hear others thoughts...

Tim Harris said...


The type of model you outline is exactly the sort of configuration that is being explored. The missional edge is in the local communities, while much of the energy, support an training is grounded in th hub. 'Both/and' (ancient and contemporary) and 'neighbourhood and network' are key features.

Father Ron Smith said...

As we are reminded in Scripture - "There is nothing new under the son" - in mission maybe anyway.

My final full-time priestly ministry in the North Island of N.Z. - the Parish of the Hibsicus Coast - had four small church centres: St. Chad (next to the vicarage in Orewa), where there was daily Eucharist attended by all parts of the parish; St. Stephen's in Whangaparaoa, where one other mid-week Mass was celebrated, as well as weekly Sunday services; Christchurch, Waiwera, where there was fortinightly Celebration; and Holy trinity, Silverdale; where there was a Mass every alternate Sunday.

These separate church communities - in the one parish with me as Vicar - each had their own parish committee, with various mission activities attached to each. The parish grew out of these different communities into two separate parishes - each with their own Vicar. That's how ministry was done even twenty years ago. so what's actually changed in the new proposal?

All of the ministry was managed by the one Vicar with the occasional help of two retired clergy. It was normal for the vicar to take 3 Sunday Services - with the occasional Taize in between - plus the Daily Mass at Orewa. And we flourished - by the grace of God, and with the help of Christ in the Daily Mass!

Tim Harris said...

Hi Ron,

Many similarities in some of these tried and proven modes. What is different? Partly things like the context - inner urban and suburban, with some of the ministry focus being socal networking rather than neighbourhood. Also the likelihood that the ministry and church community will be less tied to a particular building and site, and located increasingly in a range of community locations.

But as you note, quite a number of similarities with ministries in earlier periods, especially when in pioneering mode (which is returning as the new 'norm'). But the most significant and vital commonality is the grace of God, without which our endeavors will be entirely in vain...

MichaelA said...

Get the right person(s) in there, and the right spirit in them, and I suspect most models will work fantastically well. There are lot of different sizes and shapes of churches in the New Testament.