However, I must admit that I have trouble thinking of any.
'Cause this is the rub: I can't think of anything that a single church community can do which a network of communities working together can't do (though admittedly, such networks would probably move more slowly in many cases). On the other hand, I can think of a bunch of thorny issues that begin to arise when communities get so big that anonymity is possible - which probably happens when they approach 50 or 70 adults; fewer if the leadership responsibility is concentrated in one or two individuals. Once anonymity is possible, the church ceases to be a community of followers of Jesus.
Let me unpack that statement, because it is, admittedly, a bit extreme.
First of all, I believe very strongly in radical welcome as a core component of the gospel. I neither believe, nor desire, that every person who becomes a part of a church fellowship considers herself a "follower of Jesus". I think a test of any kind - doctrinal or practical - as a barrier to belonging within a church community is nothing short of a betrayal of the radical openness of Jesus. So I don't believe that only "followers of Jesus" should be allowed to join a church - but I do believe that anyone joining such a community should have no doubt about what kind of group it is. It's a community of people trying to follow Jesus together. But here's what it's not:
- It's not a community where relationship is optional. It's OK to be an introvert. It's OK to hang back and take relationship at your own pace. But once it's possible to simply fall through the cracks - to neither know or be known and for no-one to realize that - it's not a community. It's more like a neighborhood - or a housing development. There are , no doubt, communities within the neighborhood - groups of people who share real relationship with each other - but the only thing shared by the entire group is not relationship, but mere proximity. Just like in the average housing development in the US today.
- It's not community where following Jesus is optional. It's OK to be just starting on the way. It's OK to not be sure you want to be on that way at all. But it should be clear to everyone that following Jesus is what the community is about. It's not a group with a dual track: one group of people who try to be disciples, and a second group who choose the second, perfectly acceptable alternate track: simply show up once a week and pay for services provided by the first group. Oh, I know that every church says it's about discipleship. But practical reality speaks way louder than words, and the fact is that in communities large enough for folks to "slip through the cracks", it's blatantly obvious to all involved that the "just show up and consume" option is a perfectly valid one, 'cause folks can see plenty of people all around them choosing that option and sticking with it year after year.
- "Church growth" is what it's all about, right? Everybody knows that. The first thing everybody wants to know about a church plant is how it's growing. I think it's a bit of a prestige thing for many church leaders. Obviously it's better to be in charge of a big community than a small one.
- Lots of people seem to think that individual church communities ought to own buildings and shit. And that leaders ought to be able to make a full living and support their families solely from church salaries. There's nothing inherently wrong with those things, but when they are accepted as "givens", they do obligate the community to have enough size (and enough income) to support such major expenses.
- Finally, where would we get enough leaders to help cultivate all these little communities? Lots of people assume that church leaders need to have seminary degrees and ordination to the clergy. How would the systems that regulate those things keep up with demand? The idea of raising up leaders from within the community - folks who are gifted with leadership-oriented spiritual gifts, and who are already doing the work of leadership - is a radical one, I admit.