Yesterday I was talking to someone from my old church, and they were sharing how things were at the moment. In this little church life is never easy, and one tough year follows hot on the heels of another. Since I left at the end of September two people have died and one has left for greener (nominally and in name) pastures. Understandably this is all very demoralising. At the same time their first Advent lunch of the year had been a roaring success with a bakers dozen gathering in a members' home for reflection, prayer and food.
Where I am now we have some sense of excitement - congregations are big, visitors and new people seem to be returning week by week, we have folk asking about formal membership and after a painful, loss-filled summer this church is anticipating good things. Ironically, in roughly the same time time Dibley has lost three members we will have gained three. All of which made we pause to think how and why we count the sizes of churches.
I remember once researching the Dibley membership figures for a century, using old Baptist Union handbooks held at NBLC. Sad, I know, but there you go. In the early 1960s the reported membership halfed, at around the time BUGB had a per capita fee (long gone), not to remove those who had moved or drifted away but because over 100 dead people were removed. It made my laugh at the time, but it also made me think about what this whole counting business is really about.
If we believe that the church is one, then actually a bit of shifting around between 'branches' is ultimately irrelevant, no matter how much it may hurt when someone moves to some where the preacher is better, the music sweeter or the coffee hotter.
If we believe in the communion of saints - or in the parlance of old hymn books the church 'militant and triumphant' - then those have died are still part of the church, even if not the bit we can see.
So here's the thing then: although Dibley's reported membership will go down, and although The Gathering Place (where I am now) may be able to report an increase, overall theologically nothing has changed - everyone who has shuffled around or entered eternity is still part of the Church, so there is some sort of stasis, a steady state. None of that alters the sadness I feel for my friends in Dibley or the excitement I feel about what is emerging up here. The apostle Paul wrote of the church "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it, if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor 12:26); similarly "rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). So it in the Body of Christ in all times and all places, temporal and eternal. It is a mystery but it is also somehow reassuring to know that never, ever, ever, is a church (congregation) alone in its pain and a challenge that no church must never, ever, ever gloat in its greatness. We are all part of one body, one church (and all the other 'ones' of Ephesians 4:4!) and that is mysterious grace indeed.