In the balance: Might less be more?

David Thompson

6.5.2022 | Congregational Life

David Thompson, Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness, reflects on some of the felt tensions and fine balances facing congregations as they seek to move towards resuming a more regular pattern to church activities as the disruption caused by the pandemic begins to draw to a close.

The more the merrier?

One of the many things the pandemic has exposed is our obsession with judging everything by numbers. How many were watching online? How many attended the Zoom prayer meeting or Bible study? How many came back to church the Sunday we reopened for worship? How many are coming now? How many aren’t? 

In one way it’s such a natural thing to do to count heads. It is such an obvious measurement to make. So visible, easily quantifiable, physically affirming. The more there are the merrier we are.   

The bigger the better?

Then there is another surface impression we judge things by, scale and size. Somehow a big crowd makes a more positive impact on us than a series of smaller gatherings that might actually number more people. This time our metric is the bigger the better. 

But it’s more than that, isn’t it? For us so often, breadth seems to outweigh depth. Again, this is partly understandable, because it is just an easier thing for the mind’s eye to take in and fix upon.

Might less be more?

As we contemplate what sort of programme of activities to resume as restrictions continue to allow us to do more, we might find that we cannot do all the things we used to do. It is an inescapable fact that everyone in our congregations is two years older than they were if they were around in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. In some cases they aren’t as able to participate as they did before, or to take up the reins of leadership again. Perhaps our congregation has had to shed staff during the pandemic, or someone has moved on and won’t be replaced. Finding we are able to do less feels like loss.

Maybe we are in a season of reassessing what we did before. It’s not that the pandemic has forced us into that, it’s just that when the machine of church life ground to a halt and that hiatus in activity lasted as long as it did, it gave us a once in a lifetime chance to ask why are we doing all this and do we need it all? Asking ourselves might less be more feels a more positive question, but it still has that tinge of risk about it. Are we really sure that stopping something will actually turn out to be a good idea?  

Can less be blessed?

The numbers game seems like a good one to be playing when the sums are all addition and multiplication, but during the pandemic, and since, we have been working with a lot more subtraction and sometimes even the impact of division. That affects so many things. It dampens the mood. It changes the dynamic. It may make our outlook increasingly gloomy. It brings a sense of loss, not to mention the potential impact on finances, maybe even our congregation’s future.

However, it is worth our pausing to consider perhaps as never before, if less can be blessed? Might God be at work as much, maybe even more, when the graphs on the page and numbers on the roll are showing a downward trend? 

Living with lack and littleness

In the story of the feeding of the five thousand recorded in all four gospels, there comes a moment in the story when the disciples quite literally see lack and littleness staring them in the face. 

A huge crowd had grown throughout the day as Jesus had healed and taught. It was very much a more the merrier, bigger the better occasion. Until it began to get dark and everyone began to get hungry. With Jesus challenge to his disciples to give the crowd something to eat, suddenly largeness turned to littleness in their hands, because the disciples realised their lack of resources. All they could rustle up from among the crowd was a mere five loaves and two small fish.

As troubled and doubtful as they were with what they had to offer, Jesus didn’t seem to be overly concerned. Is there a lesson in that for us today as we keenly feel a lack of people, leaders, resources? As a church increasingly pushed to the margins of society, no longer the big player we once were, do we struggle to come to terms with an increasing sense of littleness? Maybe it niggles us more than it bothers Jesus?

How far can this go?

Of course we know what happened next. The disciples bring what they have to Jesus with the question how far can this go among so many? And with a minimum of fuss, Jesus positively takes it and prayerful breaks it and in his hands it goes further than anyone could have imagined, so much so that there was more than enough for everyone.

Influence and imprint

Maybe this familiar story needs to come home to our hearts in faith once again if this is a season of loss, lack or littleness in congregation’s life or our particular organisational activity that has restarted with numbers not what we had hoped for. Jesus sees and knows and accepts what we have to show. We don’t need to be embarrassed by it, or even downhearted by it. We just need to offer and bring it to him.

In doing so we may find it is going a lot further than we thought. Maybe not in increasing numbers, but in influence and imprint in individual lives. Maybe less will be blessed and this will become one of the lasting lessons of the pandemic experience for our church.       

 Rev David Thompson is Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness.

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