Thoughts on Building Church

Church is a community of people practicing Christianity together.1 In community, there exists an idea of thick vs thin. A thicker community is one that is more connected; its members interact more frequently and share more important ties in their lives. One can imagine a church community as a ball or a planet, ranging from the “thickest” most involved members at the dense core to occasional visitors in the outer atmosphere.

What sustains a church is its thick core. These members generate the gravity that holds it all together. In starting a church, one must first focus on preparing a place and a role for people to be thick members. Ministries that appeal to a wider audience can then overflow from the active community life of committed members. A church that develops a small thick core community can endure, with or without a larger enveloping thin community. In contrast a large thin community with no core will drift apart. In this view, Sunday morning service is an appendage of the church rather than its center.

Some would argue that Sunday morning services are fundamental to drawing people into a church. Once people engage with the community, a fraction of them will engage more deeply to join the active core of church membership. To a businessperson, this approach might sound familiar as a “sales funnel” for drawing prospects in. While leading with Sunday morning can be effective, it is not the only or perhaps best way to draw committed members. You want to attract people looking for fundamental commitment to membership in a community—not to trick casuals into overcommitting their free time for a few months or years.

In many churches, the pastor is desperately isolated and stressed. This is indicative that the pastor is trying to be the only thick member of the community. A dense kernel for the thin church to form around. He is indeed alone, with no peer approaching his level of commitment to the church. Why is it a mystery that he’s lonely and stressed?

Designing roles for more committed members to join in a “thick” church community requires giving them something to do. JPUSA, a Christian commune in Chicago, recommends that new churches be formed around a ministry. They point to the book Community and Growth by Jean Vanier, a French Catholic who founded l’Arche community model, for inspiration. L’Arche communities center on providing dignified lifelong communities for mentally challenged adults.

It’s also necessary to help committed members carve out time in their own schedules. To attract thick members, church involvement must save time to compensate for time it consumes. One way is for churches to apply their efficiencies of scale to help members streamline housework. That is, let a few members cook dinner for the rest when there’s an evening meeting. Host a homework hour for kids while their parents volunteer. Organize group housing for singles or perhaps families to help them organize their lives around the church. Successful strategies for helping people get more involved in church require an accounting for how involvement in church fits into their 24 hours of daytime.

Paying church members for their contributions can be seen in this light, as a strategy to enable commitment. There’s often a shadow price for working in a church – the difference between what one could earn elsewhere vs for working in the church. It’s the amount of money one is giving up – donating – to participate in the community of the church. Paying a church’s custodians, secretaries, or pastors can be understood as a means of sharing the burden of their service with them.

The ideal size of church is a tricky question. “Where two or three are gathered together” in Jesus’ name there’s a church, but organizations tend to want growth to pursue bigger goals and for evangelistic reasons. One factor to consider is fixed and variable costs. If an organization’s costs are purely variable, any size will do. But fixed costs like a full-time pastor’s salary often dictate a minimum size, below which the organization is unstable. Another consideration is social coordination costs, which grow with membership size. Reaching consensus might not be necessary among a church’s “thin” component but is fundamental and difficult for the most invested, “thick” contingent of membership. Living Together in a World Falling Apart, 2009 ed. provides a great reflection on these coordination costs.2

  1. Other definitions of church are valid too…but that’s the working definition for this post. 

  2. The book was originally published in 1974 when its authors were freshly entering community life. In 2009, the authors appended each chapter with their more sober impressions 35 years later. 

Written on September 8, 2022