The English speaking College Group at our ethnic church had dwindling steadily from 5 or 6 to zero, and everyone was getting discouraged. It looked rather hopeless, especially as we knew that any college group was often one of the more difficult ones to maintain, unless it was located close to a college campus. And, the college age group in ethnic churches usually presented additional challenges.
Older members of the ethnic church preferred services in their own ethnic language, which naturally “limited their church options”. College age adults were usually predominantly or even only English-speaking, with many alternative options. They were “no longer kids”, and often felt they had now “outgrown” the mother church of their childhood and youth, and even possibly their particular ethnicity. They had gotten used to multi-ethnic Christian fellowships and services in college, a relatively new experience and atmosphere for most of them, and they had probably grown to like it. Having now independence and mobility, they no longer necessarily felt any “allegiance” to their mother ethnic church. Most were certainly more American than Asian, and thus “Asian” church life was at some point even counter-cultural to them.
With all this in mind, knowing the challenges, I prayed about it, and asked the elder-ministers’ group for permission to help restart the “college young adult” program. Partly because I loved to work with young people, and since I had previously helped out with this group. Further, I had always been keenly aware of “critical mass” in each ministry, and sensed that there was some potential resolution if we bore that concept firmly in mind. The logic was that each ministry needed a certain essential “critical” number of participants, and anything less than that was usually liable to fail. In analyzing the college group problem, I felt this could be one major reason for its demise.
在种种困难和挑战中，我向神祷告，请求长老及传道人们给我一个机会重启“大学年轻成人”项目。原因之一是我热爱与年轻人一起事奉，也因为我曾经帮助过这个团体。再来，我向来清楚知道“群众效应临界数”（critical mass） 对各项服事的重要性，觉得我们若能把这个概念发挥就还是有希望的。这个概念是说每一种事工都必须有“临界数量”的同工。一个事工若不能达到那个数量，则多数会以失败告终。我分析了我们大学小组的结束，觉得临界数量应该是一个主要原因。
And, with my highly academic research background, I sort of wanted to also “test this hypothesis”. I began to think of a list of 7 or so people that I could invite for this “research study”. I prayed for each one of the 7, approached each one, usually over coffee or lunch, and gave them a simple proposal. I explained the plan that I would personally commit to recruit a minimum of 7 people, a biblical number anyway. But the key condition was that each person recruited, including me, had to make a solid commitment not to leave the group for at least one year. Critical also meant each one was critical! Rain or shine, they had to commit to come every week, unless they were out of town. I excluded people who were often traveling out of town from this “core group”, since their attendance would be inconsistent.
I was pleasantly surprised when, within a month, I got firm commitments from 7 college folk, and off we went! 7 meant that, in reality if one person was sick or had to travel, we still had at least 6 people, and 6 people “looked like” a real group. When people visited, “looks” were the first critical impression, and quite critical to their decision to return or not. Frankly, 3 or 4 people really did not look like a group at all. And if I were in their shoes, I might not return either!
But 6 or 7 indeed seemed like a real group! And so, newcomers began to return, and actually stayed, which presto, meant our mass actually began to increase. Soon, we were 10 people, even 15 people normally, and 20 people during the summer season, when college kids came back to town.
There was now a “virtuous cycle” of increased numbers promoting more people, rather than a “vicious cycle” of fewer people creating even fewer. The moral of the story is there is often some kind of a “magical” critical mass number, so that anything less, unfortunately, usually means the ultimate disintegration of the group! Of course, we are assuming the teaching part of the group is solid, without which, all bets are off (if we are allowed to bet).
Actually, I had really learned this lesson well while helping the youth group. If there were not around 7-10 people in each grade, I felt the system seemed to start falling apart. Something less, say, 6 people in a grade meant, say, 3 girls and 3 boys. Which meant that if one boy was missing, there were only 2 boys left when any newcomer visited the youth group. If one of the remaining boys was “not likable,” or even “offensive,” there was a brewing disaster. The first or second visit boy might decide quickly on arrival, that he had “no friends,” or even express the teen sentiment, “there’s no one here,” and drop out just like that. Teens are very sensitive, and even though there might be lots of other kids, he’s only counting his immediate same age, same sex friends as “real” kids.
Adults can barely understand this, because they seem to see “lots of kids” in the youth group, and wonder why kids think that there are not enough! If we can maintain 7-10 youth per grade, we are usually much safer, and more importantly, the youth feel much safer. I have always felt we should strive hard for this critical mass to be reached, to have a sensible healthy youth group. So, one of the goals in the group could actually be to specifically recruit to reach a better number. Or explore merging with another church to achieve critical mass.
Of course, smaller numbers are still possible if we forced all the youth simply into one big group, to learn to consider everyone as a friend, so there are options. But then we truly have to work extra hard to make the kids realize that. A strong youth director or minister who teaches very well, and is able to keep their focused attention, can go a long way to overcome that. But it would be exhausting, and might contribute to burn out for him or her.
There is little question that Vacation Bible School, VBS, is one of the liveliest times of the year, but it’s lively only when there is a critical mass of workers. If there are 50 kids, we really need 50 helpers or even 100, it is that important! There are just so many, many, jobs that are needed, going all the way from drivers, craftspeople, food people, teachers, games people, storytellers, to timekeepers and traffic people.
Without all these people, VBS doesn’t run well at all, and it becomes pretty chaotic. But with all these people, with adequate critical mass, suddenly we have a remarkably harmonious, lively and inspirational VBS. So, a key part of the equation is for the coordinator to mobilize, mobilize, cajole, cajole, to find and organize everyone together, for a wonderful time!
Similarly, small churches have great problems when their critical mass of a congregation of about 100 is not reached. When we think about the complexity of a church, there are so many functions that need to be handled, ushers, musicians, chairpersons, Sunday school teachers, childcare givers, preachers, maintenance, outreach, etc. And if there are not enough people, each person holds 3 responsibilities and can easily feel overwhelmed. Beginning a church, with smaller numbers, is definitely not easy, but the hope that within a finite time, numbers might reach about 100, keeps the congregation going.
We experienced this critical mass problem often in our Chinese church, likely mostly because of the Midwestern location. Even with the church of 300 to 500 people, the sub-population that preferentially spoke English was actually quite small. So throughout the 25 years or so of its life, as we tried hard to build up an English speaking congregation, which we named, aspirationally, as the “All Nations Congregation,” it was a constant uphill battle. In spite of the fact that we had solid biblically-minded ministers in sequence, who valiantly tried to sustain and strengthen the congregation, and many volunteer leaders and helpers, it was only barely possible to get the numbers up to the 100 mark.
So as the numbers dropped below that in the recent last few years, it seemed that a vicious cycle did indeed happen, and with spinning down numbers, the English congregation, as I understand it, reverted to an English-speaking fellowship. There are times and seasons for everything, and maybe this noble experiment in the Midwest was destined to be a 25 year phenomenon. From informal feedback, encouragingly, those who “graduated” from this experimental phase remain serving in other, usually “white,” churches and cities, as very small Asian minorities within the all nations Great Commission mandate.
Much larger English speaking Asian/Chinese populations on the West or East Coast, or in major metropolitan areas, provide a much greater potential, I’m sure, for English speaking congregations in Chinese churches to achieve critical mass. An alternative all nations approach might be also to flip the script. A model that I have recently been involved in, during these last few years in Seattle, is a huge 4,000 member so called “white church,” which recently has included an autonomous small new 60 member Chinese congregation within its physical confines. Plus autonomous Hispanic, African, and Asian Indian congregations. I think this approach could be a much more viable multi-ethnic model. Newer immigrants who are comfortable speaking and listening to Chinese, attend the Chinese church. At the same time, the English-speaking, younger ethnic Chinese adults (and youth and children) could in theory merge well with other English speaking young Asians and non-Asians, as part of the larger multi-ethnic English speaking church, as a not-so-minor minority.
100 seems to be a good biblical number. Remember Jesus told the famous story of the good shepherd with 100 sheep. The shepherd was able to recognize that he had lost one sheep at the end of the day, and quickly went out to find it. I can imagine if the flock was a lot larger, his job of recognizing his sheep would be a lot more difficult (unless the Shepherd was actually Jesus!). Even Moses father-in-law, Jethro, suggested dividing the people of Israel into 100’s, for Moses’ sanity and better time management. And we all know of hyper efficient Romans, from the Roman centurion stories in the bible. 100 as an organizational critical number.
Before that number is reached, creative opportunities are available, for example to work with another small church congregation, to share functions, facilities or workers, to achieve critical numbers. Clearly, together there is strength. In the beginning of our church, we met in a “American” church, the Northern Hills Bible Chapel, for 14 years. The church was most generous in providing the space for us without charge; of course, we made contributions in appreciation. This arrangement also allowed us to join their children’s program, especially their vacation bible school. We used their facilities extensively, while adjusting our times to fit theirs, which wasn’t ideal, but did allow us to survive well for the first difficult 14 years. We treasured this wonderful opportunity to work with others from a very different background, and definitely we learned a lot. And, even though we did not conceptualize it that way, we were likely already experimenting with some kind of all nations approach.
I think a key lesson is it’s really important to be humble, to learn to borrow talents where we can. The greater Church of God has lots of talents, and when we tapped those (all nations) talents, it benefitted the entire church. Especially for our developing youth group, it was essential to be able to recruit many non-Asian young men and women to help out as counselors, to achieve critical counselor numbers.
As described in greater detail elsewhere, we made friends with several outstanding churches that had great youth programs, and “borrowed” their talent. These young people themselves were blessed by this usually first experience of working in cross cultural ministry. Thus inspired and encouraged, some even went on to the mission field. Basically, whenever we had holes in our system, we did not feel ashamed or reluctant to recruit from “other” churches, to fill those holes, to reach critical mass level, definitely “critical” for the ministries, as the word implies.
I suppose there is nothing really magical about actual numbers. They are just convenient guides. God can work with any number. In fact, there were only 12 apostles, who started a revolution to now number 2 billion people. So, Jesus felt 12 was critical for His ministry, otherwise He would have recruited more. Or, one David was the right number, against the giant Goliath and his army. As we like to say, one plus God, is huge, and beyond critical. Still, numbers are fun, so ponder on them a bit.