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.