Doughnut Churches – a stupid way to be church or a sign of growth?

What happens when you try to build a Christian community (“plant a church” is sooo 80s) that is made up of people who found themselves on the fringes of their former churches? Do you create a tightly-knit community of Christian refugees, who live together and show incredible solidarity in the way that many refugee communities do in this country? Or do you, by accident or design, end up with a “ring doughnut” church, where everyone finds himself or herself on the edge, and there’s no-one in the middle? And anyway, who’s to say one is better than the other?

This reflection is born out of my own experience as part of such a community – revive in Leeds, UK. Revive began as a relatively small group, with the first few meetings in single figures before we grew quite quickly after a couple of years and then declined after we had to move out of a big house into a church hall. It soon became clear that those who had formed revive from a place of alienation from the church were again beginning to feel alienated. We realised that we had formed a doughnut, with a tiny group of people sitting in the hole trying to counter the centrifugal forces at work in the community. The church shrank as some people flew of the edges altogether, and others joined, only to find a hollow shell at the heart of the “family”.

Now we are small again (probably around 30), and people are reassessing their feelings about revive and many are talking about a need for community, even a “rule of life”. Everyone involved is five years older, and this time a bit more willing to sacrifice their independence a bit, but I wonder what we will do differently if we grow again? Here are a few thoughts off the top of my head:

I know others have talked about this, but the issue of numbers definitely comes up. Why do people find themselves at the fringe of a church? There are many reasons, but they often boil down to a few: lack of community, lack of involvement, lack of identification with the central leaders and/or vision. A community up to about 30 can deal very easily with these issues, because everyone can be involved in a hands-on structure with very flat leadership. As soon as it doesn’t matter whether you’re there or not, and when you are part of a community event there are people you don’t know, things begin to change. Perhaps as the circle of community gets bigger the hole in the middle starts to appear and the only way to prevent the hole appearing is to keep small.

Leadership and Vision
James Thwaites has argued this point well. Once a church has a strong leader or a clear vision statement, church members have to decide whether or not to go along with the “line” of the church. Many will see that membership of the church is worth the price of losing autonomy and personal vision, but there will be many who will not. Some people are cast as members of the “awkward squad” because they won’t tow the line; others find themselves cast out for asking the most innocuous questions… This all leads me to ask what models and metaphors of leadership/empowerment we have that can facilitate the kind of communities we are looking for.

I am one of the people in the world that loves to fill out questionnaires, and I often use them in teaching. Invariably when I use personality type questionnaires such as Myers-Briggs, there will be some who object to be pigeonholed. I sometimes enjoy winding these people up by telling them that they don’t questionnaires because of their personality type. It generally doesn’t go down too well… Yet we may have to face the fact that our new forms of church are simply “norming” different personality and spirituality types, and will be liberating for some, enslaving for others1. Some people like to be part of something big, other like to be anonymous. Perhaps we should be careful of suggesting that those who enjoy traditional forms of church are in any way “brainwashed” or “handicapped”.

As I mentioned earlier, this is only a problem if you grow beyond a critical mass – from my own experience and that of others, I’d say that is around 20-30. People are reluctant to “multiply” to use cell church jargon, but staying together seems to destroy the community that so many of us cherish. Any group that sees growth as part of what God has called it to do, but which doesn’t want a top-down autocratic structure, is going to have to deal with this at some point (I think…)

I’ve already got a pictorial metaphor in my opening paragraph, and I can feel a whole maths book of diagrams coming on, but I will try to resist turning God’s people into lines on a page as much as I can. However, here is a way that one might think strategically about growing a doughnut shaped-church. First of all, here is a doughnut church, with a majority of the membership starting to feel disenfranchised and a knackered minority struggling to keep things going:

Here the fringe has been broken up into new communities:

Hopefully these groups might exhibit the powerful community values of a refugee community. Such values were probably there at the beginning, and are now part of the problem, as people feel their absence. But what happens to the centre in this new configuration? Well, maybe one group wants to gather around the idea of serving the other groups. I personally feel called to this role, and so do a few others in revive. We used to be called leaders but I think we’re going to have to come up with a different name. Such a group might see itself at the centre of a network, or it might be that the thing at the centre, bringing some centripetal force to bear on the groups, is a shared set of values, or an event, or a project. Within revive we are moving away from a leadership team and a Sunday meeting being the thing at the centre to which everyone must submit, and replacing it with something a bit like a “rule of life”. Don’t ask me exactly what that means just yet – I’ll get back to you on that.

Of course, the other option would be to have nothing at the centre and to leave it to market forces to see whether people really want to have a common identity at all. Ultimately it may be better for the groups to go their own way geographically, culturally or in other ways. This is verging on a kind of cell church idea, but I think it’s probably more in line with the thinking of Wolfgang Simpson.

There are probably rules of group dynamics that describe what I’m writing about here. If there are, I’d like to hear about them, because I think the phenomenon I’m describing is quite common, particularly among groups that reject an autocratic or “purpose-driven” model of leadership. Many of these groups have also rejected the idea of growth, which I feel is a riskier move. Growth is a sign of a healthy organism, but we have been sold the image of a tree just getting bigger and bigger, whereas within that tree the cells are multiplying at the smallest level.

Personally I love the small – being in a group where everyone knows my name, and they know me well enough to take the mickey out of me, wrestle with me during a boring prayer time, challenge me about my addiction and babysit for me at the drop of a hat. But I also love the large, and judging by the number of small groups that put on alt. worship at Greenbelt, so do many of us. I really don’t want us to give up on the dream of reaching our friends because we don’t know how to break through this strange barrier. I’ve described revive as a doughnut in the past, and heard one or two others express the same image. Maybe we should embrace our inner doughnut and see it as a sign that we need to grow and multiply? Just a thought…

1 Those who have studied Myers-Briggs suggest that an average church will have a huge over-representation of people with S and J in their type indicator (MBTI). This personality type is generally conservative and attracted to order and predictability. Revive is pretty much the opposite, with only two SJs, and far more NTs and NFs, intellectual/reflective and artisan/spiritual types. The biggest challenge is the inclusion of the freewheeling and spontaneous SP type, who enjoys life, but rarely does the same thing twice (unless it is very, very enjoyable…)

Simon is a founder member of Revive in Leeds, UK.
Simon also wrote about the Story of Revive for the December 03 edition of this site.