What’s the BIG ‘big idea’?


by Major Terry Camsey

I had the privilege last summer of visiting Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia. It is one of the largest churches in that continent (if not the largest) and in the world. The worship service was attended by thousands of people of all ages. What a celebratory experience that was…surely just a small taste of what worship must be like in heaven, where we shall see people of all nations, tribes, and tongues standing before the throne. That gathering described in Revelation reflects a fulfillment of the Great Commission which charges Christ’s followers to go and make disciples of all nations. It is, if you like, God’s vision and hope…His BIG “big idea” realized.

It was not uncommon in the early days of the Army to see congregations of thousands coming to music halls, dance halls, etc. to hear the Gospel. It is interesting, too, to see how many of today’s largest churches are pursuing Booth’s strategies but in a contemporary way. Separate “seeker” and “holiness” meetings, for example, each designed for a different audience – “sinners” and “saints.” Where and when did we lose that focus? Or an insistence that the congregation itself get involved in meeting community needs, rather than relying on paid personnel. History records that the soldiery initially carried out much of the early Army’s social work.

Subsequent institutionalization of initial methods and practices had a deleterious effect on the ministry, as they continue to have today. We live today in a society vastly different from that of Booth’s day, in which methods developed for a 19th Century English population can be quite alien to an American one in the 21st Century. It’s as if we – over time – forgot what those methods were designed to achieve, so that the means to the end became themselves the end sought. Have we not for years measured activities and attendance (with the expectation that they should annually increase) rather that the evangelistic fruit of those activities?

Faith Popcorn, respected futurist, suggested (in, I believe, Leadership magazine a year or two ago) that two kinds of churches would be successful in the future. The large church having the ability to offer many program choices… and small “boutique” churches catering to special needs. Some have called these “niche” churches and the Army has experimented with such in a number of territories. The fact is that small churches have little option other than to specialize and target certain groups or needs, since they lack the leadership base to offer more than a few basic programs.

Size of congregation is really not a critical issue, unless we wish (or, for survival purposes, need) to reach those who initially seek anonymity before disclosing their names and permitting more intimate contact. Such groups of people undoubtedly include baby boomers and busters who are seen in disproportionately high numbers in larger churches having 200 or more in worship, and in disproportionately low numbers in small churches. This is a generation that is urgently needed in many churches. Interestingly, the “200 barrier” is well known in church growth circles; this is around the maximum number one full-time pastor can adequately care for without help. Many corps officers, when asked, admit to being able to spend only about 20% of their time on building the congregation, because 80% of their time is taken up on community and social issues. Thus the “200 barrier” for most Army congregations is around 40 ­ 50 people (20%-30% of 200).

No, the size of churches ­ or corps for that matter ­ is of less consequence (apart from the exception suggested above) than the size of the unsaved population in the community the church/corps serves. Metaphorically speaking, it matters little whether there are 100 barns of 50, or 50 barns of 100, so long as there are enough barns to store the harvest to be reaped. One of the problems we possibly face is that of equating “full barns” with “successful” ministry, forgetting that as long as there are unsaved/unchurched people in our community – we cannot afford to consider our work to have been completed.

A thought…the parable of the sower suggests that seed falling on good ground yielded a crop that sprang up and increased, producing some thirty-fold, some sixty and some a hundred. For a corps of fifty that might suggest the possibility of a collaborative effort between God and the sower, capable of yielding a congregation of 1,500 to 5,000! Remember that every mega-church of today started small! It’s a question of faith and works, isn’t it?

Oh! One further point about the Hillsong church…I am told that that it was seeded by a former New Zealand Salvation Army officer whose son is now the senior pastor. Those who remember that officer tell me that he was too much of a “maverick” for the Army!

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