One of my math teachers in high school was also the football coach. Mr. Clark liked to liven up the classes with some sort of action, so he showed us part of a horror movie and asked us to estimate the weight of the villain, a giant fly about 12 feet tall. To create this towering insect, the filmmakers had photographed a real housefly and showed the enlarged image standing next to human beings apparently half its height.

“Look at those legs,” Mr. Clark said. “Could those legs hold up a twelve-foot fly?”

The whole figure had been enlarged in exact proportion to the original. If the legs of the little fly were sufficient to support the body, why would it be any different for the big fly?

Suppose a real housefly is a centimeter long, a centimeter tall, and a centimeter wide. Suppose he weighs one gram. Wouldn’t a fly twice as big weigh two grams? In fact, if you double all the dimensions of the fly, you will quadruple the shadow he casts on the picnic table at noon and increase eightfold the amount he weighs. Our giant fly would need thick legs like an elephant in order to stand up, and he wouldn’t be much of an aviator.

When organisms change significantly in size, they must also change in form. That’s just the way the world works, and the rule holds true for social as well as biological organisms. Kenneth Blanchard has shown how the number of possible interactions multiplies as a social system grows in tiny increments. With three people in a room, 11 different configurations of communication are possible: A speaks to B; A speaks to B in the presence of C; and so on. Add a fourth person and the number spikes to 54.

Size transition is a powerful diagnostic concept for church leaders. There are eras in a congregation’s life when attendance grows in steady increments, like walking up a ramp. These are periods of continuous change—times of steady evolution in the same direction. Most of us are skilled at responding to slow, unidirectional change in our lives. With little effort we adjust our sleep patterns to the small daily changes in the amount of daylight. We increase our purchase of coffee and sugar as the number of people at the church’s social hour gradually grows.

Other periods in a congregation’s life might better be described as discontinuous change—the straw that broke the camel’s back. These are the moments when “just a little bit more” pushes the organism across an invisible threshold and causes previously reliable systems to break down. Instead of a ramp, we are facing a step which represents a quantum leap. It’s all or nothing if we want to move forward.

Congregational life during a size transition tends to be confusing and stressful. One pattern of interaction has run its course, but a new one has not yet emerged. Members are constantly bumping into boundary phenomena—experiences that disrupt previously reliable expectations. Leaders have a hard time planning because their tools for predicting and regulating the life of the system are no longer adequate. Stresses like these will confront any church whose external environment is changing rapidly. When a small town becomes engulfed in metropolitan sprawl, for example, its churches will have to adapt to many new realities. Even in a relatively stable environment, however, reaching a size plateau will unsettle the congregation’s life.

The In-Between Church looks at some of the numerical and behavioral clues that indicate if a congregation is bumping its head on the glass ceiling of a size plateau. But first, let’s pause to think about what happens to people of faith when their familiar patterns are disrupted. The biblical books of Exodus and Numbers describe a period of discontinuous change in the life of the people of Israel. This discontinuity was precipitated, perhaps over a period of many years, by very bad news in the environment: the rise of a pharaoh who didn’t remember Joseph’s contribution to Egyptian life and so had no qualms about cruelty to the Hebrew slaves. He demanded more bricks and took away the supplies of straw the workers needed to make them.

This great period of discontinuity in Israel’s life was more immediately precipitated by good news: God’s call to Moses to confront the pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery. Their deliverance from slaughter and their miraculous walk across the seabed became the cornerstone of Israel’s faith and ritual. But God’s promise of a new pattern of life in a new land required that they first endure a period of chaos in the wilderness.

Despite the clear vision of God’s purposes given to Moses, the people were frequently confused, frightened, and angry. The experience of slavery had been oppressive but predictable. Life in the wilderness, on the other hand, was terribly uncertain. Food and water were often in doubt, and they were crossing through the territory of alien peoples. Every new circumstance demanded of them a radical trust in God and a profound cooperation with their leaders.

Is God with us here, in these new circumstances? Is God powerful enough to care for us in today’s unforgiving terrain? Do our leaders hear the voice of God, or only their own private dreams and desires? Do we, together, have sufficient sense of God’s call to maintain our communal bonds, even as we pass through a wild frontier? These are the deep questions your congregation must struggle with in a time of size transition.

Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog

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Adapted from  The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations  by Alice Mann, now available for your digital reader:
Kindle | nook | iBook

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Alice Mann draws on her lengthy experience in helping congregations deal with the hurdles and anxieties of expansion or contraction in size. Often, congregations experiencing size change do not recognize the need to change culture and form as part of the successful adaptation process. Mann details the adjustments in attitude—as well as practice—that are necessary to support successful size change.

Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell

In  Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality , Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country.

The Turnaround Church: Inspiration and Tools for Life-Sustaining Change
by Mary Louise Gifford

Addressing a wide audience, Gifford shows church leaders they have options and reason for hope. People in dying churches will find assurance that they are still a part of the body of Christ. Clergy serving these struggling churches will discover tools and resources to help them guide change. Judicatory leaders will appreciate an inspiring story they can tell about a church that turned around in spite of the odds. The Turnaround Church, while not a prescription for all churches, is a call to make long-lasting, life-sustaining changes.

Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations
by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon

Pathway to Renewal  offers pastors and congregational leaders a framework for understanding and addressing the deep cultural shift facing the people of a congregation during congregational renewal. This book will help leaders make sense of where their congregation could get stuck and guide them in thinking through what needs to be addressed next as a congregation seeks renewal. The realigning of a congregation’s heart and sense of purpose can be a long process, but one that ultimately all congregations must experience in order to fully live out the world-transforming mission that God has given them to do.

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Inside the Large Congregation
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
October 30-November 1, Fransiscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale AZ
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