Size isn't everything!
Mission in the UK is either in dire straits or remarkably healthy depending on who is being asked, which ethnic group is the subject, the subculture reflected upon and the generation under consideration. Whether the UK Church is growing or in decline, is not an easy question to answer. Most surveys only use the rubric of size to determine successful mission activity and ‘church growth’. The national Mission 21 church planting conference held in Sheffield, estimated that around 40,000 people gather informally in 2,500 tiny gatherings across the UK, in what are now loosely referred to as ‘Emerging Churches’: ‘In the last 5 years more new churches have started in the UK than Starbucks stores.’ The previous generation of ‘New churches’ representing a quarter of a million believers are deemed to be the ‘fastest growing’ part of the UK church over the last 30 years, defying the fall in general Church attendance. ‘Church growth’ has also exploded among the, so-called, ‘ethnic minority’ churches, particularly amongst African and some Caribbean churches. Peter Brierly of Christian Research reports that half of the top ten mega churches in England are Black majority churches, many of which are located within large towns and cities.
So, thank God for the big churches! Only myopic arrogance of the worst kind would fail to recognise that size is clearly one indicator of growth and that the influence of large churches is to be welcomed. Interestingly, in the midst of all this the persistent and prevailing attitude assumes that ethnic minority churches have little more than ‘enthusiasm’ to offer majority church cultures (please don’t get me started!)
However, numbers alone cannot reveal the true success of mission. Dallas Willard famously wrote in his book The Divine Conspiracy, ‘It is now generally acknowledged… that one can be a professing Christian and a church member in good standing without being a disciple.’ The size of a church fails to express its commitment to fostering a Christian lifestyle, sharing the gospel or material and financial giving (which signals the level of ownership of each member to the life and vision of the church). Significantly, size also fails to indicate how many people have discovered their gifts and are actually using them within the church. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus declares to his disciples: God authorised and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the three fold name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day, right up to the end of the age (The Message).
So, although size is one indicator of success in mission, the healthy outcome of the great commission must include a commitment to make disciples for Jesus while becoming disciples of Jesus.