When I first accepted the call to pastor my present congregation, a friend asked me how long I expected to stay there. When I told him I’d like to retire there, he just laughed. I asked him what was so funny, and he said, “They don’t have critical mass.”
As you may know, “critical mass” is a term normally associated with nuclear fission. But it can be applied to other things as well. The non-nuclear definition of critical mass is, “the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture.”
I immediately understood what he meant. The congregation I was about to embrace had six active members. Most of them were beyond retirement age (and on fixed incomes). The prospects of maintaining a viable congregation there were not good.
They Burn Out or Die Out
For anyone who’s never considered such things, I will tell you that my friend’s insight was accurate from the perspective of most observers. Maintaining a building (two, in this case), caring for a 1½ acre plot of land, providing utilities, paying a pastor, supplying educational and worship materials, and meeting denominational obligations is a large task. And that’s only the financial aspect. On top of that, viable congregations do ministry. Tiny congregations like the one I was about to associate with are often dead ends. They either burn out from the overwhelming struggle or die out from old age.
People like my educated and experienced friend know all this. From their point of view, any workable congregation would need at least fifty to one hundred people or more. In addition, those people would have to give enough to maintain a budget of one to two hundred thousand dollars a year—minimum. Critical mass…
I’ve now been called the pastor of this little flock for almost twenty-three years. At times, we’ve come dangerously close to burning out and even dying out (I’ve had the privilege of presiding over the funerals of most of the original six). Interestingly enough, we’re still here. And unless things change drastically, someday I’ll retire from here.
We’re a Failure
The simple truth is this. We probably don’t have critical mass. By worldly standards, we are a failure. We are even a failure according to the standards of many leaders in the hierarchy of the church.
Here’s the deal. Jesus told us that he is there when two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:18-20). For my money, two people plus Jesus equals critical mass. Frankly, Jesus reaches critical mass all by himself. He merely extends to us the privilege of being a part of what he’s doing. This is true, even for mega-churches.
The lives Jesus has touched through this tiny congregation is immeasurable. The glue that holds congregations like ours together is not willpower. The engine that drives us is not our own human energy. We derive those things from the Holy Spirit of God.
The Lord is our Critical Mass. We would be foolish to think and act otherwise. He is our future.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]