The following are my own personal observations, backed up in no way by statistics or formal research. Before that gets you too riled up, take a deep breath and remember that this is just a blog post of some guy’s musings.
My thesis is this:
Religious movements grow fastest when the barriers to leadership are lower, while congregations grow best when their leadership is formally and adequately prepared.
Studying church history over the years I have observed that the fastest-growing religious movements were those with few prerequisites for leadership. It seems that most of the time personal charisma and a good imagination are all that’s needed. On the other hand, religious movements with higher standards for their professional leaders tend to grow more slowly, if at all. Note that I’m talking about movements as a whole, not particular religious communities. Congregations with better-prepared leadership in terms of both academics and pastoral care seem to have a better shot at sustainable growth than those that are either lay-led or otherwise guided by less-well-prepared leadership.
Consider, for example, the a cappella Churches of Christ. According to ChurchZip.com, there are currently 14,067 congregations of the non-instrumental Church of Christ variety in the United States. Having graduated from a university of that fellowship and spent some time among those churches as a missionary and minister, I assure you that most of those congregations are not served by someone with even an undergraduate degree in Bible or ministry. These churches spread the most in the 20th century not through the work of professional clergy, but rather through the efforts of individual believers to convert their family, friends, and neighbors. Yes, there were revival preachers (they call revivals ‘Gospel Meetings,’ but the basic concept is the same) and missionaries, but the bulk of the work of evangelism was accomplished through people starting congregations and inviting people to attend and to participate in Bible studies.
If were to randomly chose an a cappella Church of Christ to visit one Sunday, you’d most likely find a very small congregation of less than 50 people. There are big exceptions, of course, but the odds favor you finding your way to a small congregation, as these compose the bulk of the 14,067 Churches of Christ in the United States. If you do manage to find a congregation of 100 or more, take a close look at the minister’s qualifications. I suspect that what you’ll find is a person with at least a Bachelor’s degree in ministry. Generally speaking, the larger the congregation, the higher the level of the minister’s formal education.
Now, it could be argued that larger, more ‘successful’ congregations have better trained ministers because they can afford them. On the other hand, if you look at that church’s history I am pretty confident that you will find the periods of most growth happened under the leadership of trained professionals. That isn’t to say that the parishioners are irrelevant! As I observed above, Churches of Christ tended to sprout up most often for decades through the efforts of believers banding together and pulling in their circle of friends and family. At the same time, we tend to see these congregations hitting a wall once their immediate social network is exhausted. To get over this hump and growing again, someone needs to devote their time exclusively to providing pastoral care and planning events.
Simply put, movements require agility, while community requires stability. There is no guarantee that someone with an MDiv will do better working full-time with a congregation than someone with little or no formal training for ministry, chances are better with the former than the latter. A person who has been thoroughly vetted and who has spent a number of years studying and serving in internships is a safer bet than someone who simply feels inspired to get up and do something.
All that said, of course there are exceptions! I have some in mind myself, so please don’t bore me with the details of ones you could cite.
If what I’ve described above is in fact true (again, I admit that’s an ‘if’), then perhaps that could inform how we manage congregational extension.
In the mid-20th century there was a ‘Fellowship Movement’ within Unitarian Universalism that resulted in numerous lay-led congregations. These remained relatively small for the most part, with the exception of those that eventually found capable leadership. You can read the story of this movement here. I am of the opinion that this movement would have been more successful if it had been structured from the beginning to be lay-led but aiming for professional leadership.
The bottom line of this rather meandering post is that if the UUA, Ethical Culture, or a similar group wants to see growth, people need to be given the tools and encouragement to start new groups, and then those groups need to be provided trained servant-leaders once they hit their first plateau.
More on this in future posts.