Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wolfgang Simson: a wedding a week and megachurches of 21

(funny story of photo)

From "Houses That Change the World," p. 26-27:

The invisible line: from organic to organizational:

As any family get-together will teach us, we can accomplish the goal of fellowship without the need to be heavily structured. Families can get along quite well without a master of ceremony, a word of introduction, a special song, a sermon by father and a vote of thanks by mother. These things happen at weddings and other festivals, but not in everyday life. Church, however, is not an artificial performance, it is for everyday life, because it is a way of life.

There is, in each culture, a very important numerical line we can cross: from the organic to the organized, from the informal to the formal, from spontaneous to liturgical. I call this most important line the 20-barrier, because in many cultures 20 is a maximum number where people still feel ”family”, organic and informal, without the need to get formal or organized. Organisms are structured, too, and I am not advocating a total absence of order and structure. But, different to an organized series of meetings which are typically structured from outside, organisms are usually structured from within.

The nature of a meeting defines and therefore limits the size of a meeting. If we cross the ”20-barrier”, the group stops to be organic, and starts to become formal, and even feel the need to follow a set agenda. Effectiveness in relationship and mutual communication goes down, and the need for someone to coach and lead the meeting goes up. As a result, the housechurch looses it’s main original attractions, changes it’s values, and starts to develop totally different dynamics. It often simply stops functioning by itself, spontaneous and lively, lead invisibly and unobtrusively through the inbuilt family mechanisms of fathering and mothering, and needs to be literally ”run”, organized, and visibly lead into a new and organized life form - if there is such a thing.

The original organism is then a thing of the past, still alive, but trapped into a formal structure that chokes it, conditions it, and ultimately could prevent relational and spontaneous fellowship in the name of organized fellowship. Biblical koinonia means fellowship or sharing, giving generously and participating and sharing something with someone. One of the fatal aspects of this line-crossing is that the original organic form of fellowship usually looses it’s internal reproduction potential, and can only be cloned and copied or even literally manufactured and finally mass produced with huge effort from outside that greatly ignores and overrules it’s own inbuilt explosive growth potential. It is a fact of church history that it has always been a swift step from organized religion to institutionalism and fossilization.

Person number 21:
One of the most important decisions in terms of the structure and future of a church anyone can possibly make, therefore, is what you do when person number 21 walks through the door. Structurally, that brings the church into the red phase. You either continue growing upwards and become organized and loose your housechurch-dynamics, and may ultimately hit the 200-barrier, or you divide the housechurch into two or three units and multiply it, thus growing sidewards. You may not even notice a 200-barrier this way.

A wedding a week?

Life in any culture has two aspects, the private and the public, everyday-life and the special events, celebrations of weddings, function and festivals, funerals and traditional happenings. Both aspects of life have their own and valid ways of expression. Everyday life is usually expressed in the family, the basic cell unit of every society and culture. Families are usually very organic, informal, relational and consist of whatever it takes to share lives. Weddings and other functions are extraordinary events, for which everyone duly prepare; they are usually formal, need heavy organization and are often highly structured.

Imagine you would have to attend a wedding each week. It follows the same basic pattern, has even the same bridegroom and bride, and maybe even the food is the same. After some weeks the excitement would considerably wear down. You would know what to expect, and you know what’s going to happen next. It still would remain a nice thing, a beautiful tradition, but it would feel odd to have the same type of festival each week.

We need to be careful not to do this with church. Jesus has shown us a way to live, not only a way to celebrate. Both aspects are necessary, both are good. But everyday life is not like a wedding, as any married couple can tell us. If we allow church to take on only ”celebration structures”, we will start celebrating ”a wedding a week”, and our behavior will soon be far removed from real life and cease to make sense to ordinary people. It would become an artificial weekly event and performance. If church is a God-given way of community life, and if life takes place in the basic unit of a family living in a home, there is nothing more appropriate for the church to be a housechurch, to be the church based in simple, ordinary, everyday homes. Housechurches are not only a way for us humans to express community, they are one of God's means to achieve community.

Small churches may already be far too big:
Creation itself teaches us that nothing healthy grows endlessly, but stops growing at a point and starts multiplying. Bigger is not necessarily better or more beautiful. Could it be that in this perspective - to grow a church bigger - everything is right - expect the direction in which we look? Could it be that the problem is not so much to break the 200-barrier on the way up, but the 20-barrier on the way down? If real church growth spells m-u-l-t-i-p-l-i-c-a-t-i-o-n, then growth may not be upwards at all, but sidewards. Has all that talk about ”big is beautiful” tricked our thinking? If yes, maybe we will have to cut out a Zero in our mindset: an average church would then be just 8, 10 or 12 people; a large church has 15, and a megachurch sports 21.
-Wolfgang Simson


  1. I've felt this for a long time. I don't think that big church is wrong. I know people who thrive in it. I know people who thrive in the repetitive ceremony. For me, though, and I would guess a lot of other people, the hominess, variety, and comfort of a small group are necessary. Humans aren't one size fits all, so I don't think just small or just large is the answer. And that's my thought.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!