The Failure of Tree-Climbing Fish and Little Churches | Derek Penwell

The Failure of Tree-Climbing Fish and Little Churches | Derek Penwell.

Derek Penwell

Let me be quick to say, I do not mean to imply that people who talk about church growth are only talking about increases in membership and financial resources. I believe that the most ardent church growth proponents also think it’s important for their members to mature.

Reflection on Tree Climbing Fish and Little Churches

Little Churches always feel guilty for not being big churches. If only this (whatever this is) were different, all would be well and the kingdom would come near unto us.  A common example centers on, “we are aging and need young families or we will die” was the exact issue posed to me once in an interview; meaning what will you do if you come here?

Oh, beloved, be deceived not!  The truth is that generally they don’t really mean the business about attracting young families at all. They are not lying. They are however, immature and unconscious of their deeper motivations thus setting up the minister and themselves for failure and injury.  The uninitiated clergy (young clergy usually staff small churches)  will run out and find those young families only to discover they are like the kid  adolescents holding the bag at the snipe hunt!  They only did exactly what they were asked to do. It is an example of the unforeseen cost of perceived goals. (Behold the house built over the sinkhole.)   Because it would require change:

  • Money spent on first rate nurseries (rooms painted, clean (can’t fake that) and inviting
  • Making the facilities inviting and child friendly
  • Raising tolerance for children in church, resisting the temptation to screen out by clearing disapproving by silent, though visible, resentment to a chiding comment about current child rearing.
  • Providing Sunday schools and formation worth getting up and taking the children (if they like it they will demand to go and since many American households are run by children, folks show up.)
  • All this would mean they would have to share power with new people with new concerns and ideas.

As I shared these points with the search committee they were horrified and my candor torpedoed my candidacy because what their head told them was needed could not over come their need to control and not essentially change.  If I had gone there and taken their stated goal seriously within a year and a half, I would progressed from holding the snipe bag to being the goat at the goat roast and never known really what did me in.

Mr. Penwell is right!  Look at the balance sheet of the congregation.  If there much surplus watch out because there is never enough money when spiritual growth is happening, I mean by that the observable intangible such consistent warmth welcome to strangers.  I know that as a priest that this is true as visitors tell me on their subsequent visits.  When I hear that pretty consistently I know hearts are expanding.  This speaks to the maturing of those sitting in the pews.   More about what maturity means in the coming months. JWS

Meeting Grace Coming and Going


Cover of "The Clowns of God"

Cover of The Clowns of God

Morris West in his novel, The Clowns of God, writes, “Even in ancient times asylum was a mystic word.  It connoted a sacred place, a temple, a shrine, a forest grove where a criminal or a runaway slave would find sanctuary from his pursuers and sleep safe under the guiding force of the resident god.  It was not merely the in gathering which was important.  It was the outgoing, as well: the outgoing of the power, the hope, the life-thrust, which sustained the panting fugitive for the last mile as the hounds bayed closer and closer at his heels. …”

I am struck by the twin movements:

  • The furtive pushing toward sanctuary
  • The outgoing power of hope

The community of faith must be that place where the battered of life can find safety. We do not think of the Church as that sort of place.  Yet this is not just a notion from antiquity.  On

Gargoyle - Durham Cathedral

Gargoyle – Durham Cathedral

my last trip to the United Kingdom I found a vivid example of this at Durham Cathedral. On the great doors of the cathedral is an gargoyle.  If a fugitive reached that gargoyle and grabbed its tongue they were home free.  No authority would dare compromise the holy place.  There is a reason that the space behind the altar-rail is called the sanctuary.

What do we have to do to become a place for those looking for a safe place for their souls.   We have a lot of work to do but we have a lot of grace at our disposal.