Have you ever wondered why Spiritualism has never made the progress it should have done? For one of the major reasons, look to our culture of small churches and our failure to outgrow and rationalise them.
Small churches are often run by dedicated people, doing it, doing it, doing it, week after week, year on year, yet making no real progress, with little vision or idea of how to break out of the cycle.
They are often too close to each other, splitting a potentially effective large congregation into two ineffective ones and presenting a fractured face of Spiritualism to the world – if the world ever cared to notice!
They have no effect whatever on their local communities, no vision and no direction. But large congregations, led with vigour and vision, are the ones on which Spiritualism can build its future and break through to the mainstream community.
The bigger your congregation, the greater your influence in your community. Here are ten things that big churches can do but small churches cannot:
1. Larger churches can give their members a wider programme of activities.
A large congregation has many needs, so can hold many events through the week, confident that they will be supported. In addition to circles and healing, etc, women’s groups, men’s groups, afternoon groups for the elderly, weekly coffee mornings, adult lyceums, family Sunday morning services with concurrent children’s lyceums – the possibilities would only be limited by the imagination, rather than by lack of people.
There is no reason, with the right visionary leadership (and the right strategies) that such churches couldn’t open seven days a week. Smaller ones could only dream of this.
2. Larger churches are better able to revive and promote Spiritualist philosophy.
In an age where we have marginalised our philosophy and trivialised or sensationalised our mediumship, this is so important to our progress. Yet, in any size of congregation, interest in learning the philosophy is confined to a minority – perhaps just ten per cent. In which case a thirty-strong congregation might produce three, whilst a hundred-strong congregation might yield ten. So, in a small church, philosophy groups tend not to happen.
Also, the smaller the church, the less likely there is to be anyone capable of teaching the philosophy. Even if there is a person of such ability, his or her gifts would be badly under-used in a small group. But bring two small congregations together and the chances of a good teacher and a worthwhile body of students are doubled.
3. Larger churches can offer more opportunities for service.
Many members have a strong desire to serve their church, but unless they can get onto the committee, the opportunity to contribute their talents is denied them. This can cause tensions and many good people leave our churches because there is so little opportunity to participate. (In some cases, such people get marginalised by insecure committees who fear the ‘threat’ of able people.)
Yet, in a fully-functioning church, there are many leadership roles to be filled without having to be on the committee. Lay ministries for visiting the sick, mending the fabric, running the healing team, writing the newsletter, keeping in touch with local press, children’s ministry, philosophy ministry, organising the website – the list is endless – all based on the many talents to be found in a large congregation.
Lay ministries – long a feature of the church growth movement – could productively use much of the spare energy in large congregations, which might otherwise spill over into discontent and mischief; again, small churches cannot cater for this.
4. Larger churches can engage in community service.
The great guide Silver Birch stressed that “Service is the coin of the spirit,” but even when we took our philosophy seriously, we were never known for our “good works” in the community. Not that we lack the compassion; it’s just another consequence of our small church culture. A large church has the membership, capacity and energy to do good in the world and enhance its reputation locally. A small one hasn’t.
5. Larger churches are better-financed.
The average SNU church has 43(1) members and income of around £10,000, expenditure of around £8,500, giving a surplus of just £1,500(2). Even an average church is too small and should be aiming at congregations of at least 100. It costs little more to run a large church than to run a small one – but the income can double following a merger, whilst one set of expenses disappears, so the surplus sky-rockets to around £11,000.
This will produce a church that is viable – able to engage in a wider ministry and promote itself – rather than merely solvent, just keeping its head above water. Of course, that increased surplus will not remain. It will be used in the promotion of Spiritualism in the area, making the church effective! The key to financial success is not constant events which merely feed the message culture – but more people! The churches that our predecessors built are simply too small to be profitable in the modern world.
6. Larger churches are better able to attract families.
Young families are our future, yet we just don’t reach them. It is possible, by smart multi-media marketing, to attract them to our churches. An hour-long Sunday morning family service – monthly to begin with – with a Lyceum session run in a separate hall, fits in well with the average young family. (The orthodox have discovered this and we should not ignore it.)
Because the attraction to parents would lie in having their children taught some values, it would not be necessary to offer clairvoyance at the service itself, which could focus on philosophy. This, in turn, would slowly educate a generation of maturing people in our deeper literature – something for which we have no strategy at the moment – which can form our speakers and teachers of the fairly near future.
No doubt most parents would have an interest in mediumship and would find their way to an evening service. Again, small congregations cannot offer this and tend to have elderly congregations, which have less to offer to the future, although much to offer the present. A small church cannot even offer that.
7. Larger – but fewer – churches would improve standards of mediumship.
Experienced Spiritualists are well aware that we are poorly resourced in good mediumship. There are simply too many – mainly small – churches and the supply of competent mediums is spread too thinly.
The 343 churches of the SNU, served by no more than 100 competent mediums, can only translate to a poor general standard, which will not persuade many intelligent seekers to join us. Small churches create too many openings each week for our competent mediums to fill.
So most churches have to use sub-standard mediums – worthy toilers in the vineyard, whose often subtle gifts we have learned to appreciate, but who do not cut the mustard with today’s demanding public. Add in the non-SNU churches and the picture is even bleaker. So we need either to cut the number of churches or wave a magic wand and make all our mediums brilliant! Only one of these is do-able.
8. Larger churches produce better leaders.
Without wishing to offend, if a church is small, the pool of members from whom it can draw its committee is small and the result can be a poor standard of leadership.
This is not an opinion – it’s a stone-cold fact. Skilled secretaries and treasurers pose particular problems. Strong-minded but inexperienced presidents have often emerged prematurely in small churches, due to the shortage of genuine leadership material.
Good leaders may well emerge in small churches, in which case the congregation will grow. But there is little evidence of this happening. Statistically – and in practice – large congregations provide more people capable of good leadership.
9. Larger churches can better meet the challenge of TV mediumship.
There is no doubt that TV mediumship is sending newcomers to our churches with higher expectations of mediumship than we can deliver. Putting the average medium head to head with a TV medium is only going to produce one winner in their eyes. Such people visit us once.
A large church, however, has much more to offer, with its array of activities and participation. Small churches have little to offer beyond the message culture, plus some level of healing ministry. Increasingly, in our fractured society, beyond the search for evidence, seekers are looking for belonging and acceptance. All churches can offer this to a point, but large churches have the resources, varied age groups and scope to do it better.
10. Larger churches can support a credible national body.
Many people take pride in the fact that we have survived for 120 years with just a volunteer parent body, and no professional church leaders. But look how little we have achieved – less than six people in 10,000(3) in England and Wales are Spiritualists!
Is this the best we can do? We have never shown any appetite for properly financing an effective parent body, which is a prerequisite for a world religion. For example, the £5 per member per year that churches pay to the SNU is an insult to our mission and purpose. As I have previously written, even the Boy Scouts – another volunteer-based organisation – pay £25 per member to their association, five times SNU members’ commitment.
That £5 is geared to what our smallest and most impecunious church can afford – which, sadly, is the majority of them. However, the cost of equalling the Boy Scout commitment of £25 per church to the national body would be just £1,720.(4) Impossible for our current average church, but quite affordable from the (say) £11,000 surpluses of a unified church. To those with no vested interest in their status within a small church, this is obvious. Others try not to understand what they do not like.
Of course, the merging of churches is not the only way forward – it is just the most rational and poses many challenges, which are mainly ego-based. The other is to grow organically. There are well-tried ways of doing this but, again, delivering the training to church leaders – and creating relevant courses – takes money and probably more time than volunteers can give. But if a professionalised national body can deliver leadership such as this, it will be worth the capitation fees that larger churches could easily afford. And, incidentally, a unified church would also have to go through this ‘organic’ process.
We have always wanted Spiritualism on the cheap and have been quite satisfied with mere survival, rather than being hungry for real success as a flourishing world movement. But we can change our future.
So, how long are we going to work ourselves to death – to no real purpose – in these success-starved and cash-strapped churches? When are we going to stop playing ‘church’ the way children play ‘house’? And when are we going to start creating large, vibrant, ambitious and effective churches that can transform this movement into something that will be more rewarding, more satisfying, more enjoyable, more effective – and more fun – for all of us? And that can change the world!
Through big churches and change in the areas shown above, we can start to realise, at local level, Spiritualism’s potential to be what Arthur Findlay called “The coming world religion”. Through small churches – and no change – we can only extend the continuous decline of the past twenty years, which most of our number had not even realised was happening.
1. SNU Agenda for 2010.
Full members (14,629) divided by 343 churches = 42.65, rounded to 43.
2. Number of people in 2001 England and Wales census (58,789,194),
divided by those who called themselves Spiritualists (32,404).
Percentage 0.0550 = 6 in 10,000 (rounded up).
3. Latest published figures (2005) from SNU website, uprated by 11.7% inflation to end of 2009 and averaged over 350 churches.
Actual figures: Average income – £9,978;
Expenditure – £8,395; Surplus – £1,583.
4. Current cost of average capitation fee————-(43 x £5) = £215
Current cost for two unified churches—————–(86 x £5) = £430
Cost for unified church at Boy Scout rates———-(£25 x 86) = £2,150
—————————————————————————Difference = £1,720