Diminishing numbers. When should assemblies merge? What are the problems?
The facts have to be faced; the assemblies of the Lords people in the UK are in decline. In the 1950s there were 1,800 assemblies with an estimated total membership of 100,000. Today (2009) there is little more than half that number with a national aggregate of no more than 40,000.
The local assembly
But what constitutes a local church? It is well-known that the word "church" in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia which is made up of a preposition ek, meaning "out of", and a verb kaleo, which means "to call" or "to summons"; thus a church (or assembly) is "a called-out company".
Local assemblies are composed of baptised believers (Acts 2.41). The assembly is entered by reception (e.g. Acts 9.26-29) which has been preceded by salvation and baptism. Of primary importance to the subject are the words of the Lord Jesus Himself: "For where two or three are gathered together in (unto JND) my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18.20). It should, however, be stated that these words are often taken out of their context. Nevertheless they do teach that an assembly is the place where the Lord Jesus is pleased to presence Himself; we speak of it as being "the place of His name". Meeting in His name will involve the character of that name. We can only recognise His presence in the midst of His gathered people if we are conforming to His character.
Such a company, meeting according to the pattern laid down in the New Testament, does not take to itself a denominational title. Each local assembly is autonomous; it is not answerable to some central body or organisation, but only to the Lord Himself.
Some assemblies of the Lords people have become very small in number, sometimes down to single figures. There are several possible reasons for this. With the ageing population of a given assembly, and souls not being saved, baptised, and added to the company, numbers will inevitably fall. Some assemblies, especially in Greater London, are located in areas where the price of housing is so high that young couples, purely because of financial considerations, are forced to move away. In some rural areas job opportunities are limited and young people are having to seek employment elsewhere. A significant number of young people are leaving their home assemblies in order to study at University; rarely do such return to their former locality to obtain employment.
There are, sadly, other reasons for diminishing numbers. Instead of other believers being attracted to the truth of assembly gathering by our doctrine and our demeanour, many of those once in fellowship have moved out to join the denominations. A local assembly which is Scriptural will require much effort and acceptance of responsibility on the part of its members. This will possibly deter others from joining an assembly, since the spirit of the age is the tendency not to want any kind of responsibility or commitment, but rather to be entertained and to let others do the work. There needs to be a genuine persuasion regarding the truth of the local assembly. One of the weaknesses of several assemblies is that there are those in fellowship out of convenience and not out of a personal conviction; this will indirectly lead to the number in fellowship gradually being reduced.
Should an assembly, few in number, continue to function?
There are certain questions which need to be addressed when a local assembly becomes few in number.
a) Is there a plurality of elders? Not, is there a plurality of "men brethren"? If the Scriptural pattern is to be followed, there should be brethren (in the plural) manifesting the features that should be seen in overseers.
b) Is there a range of spiritual gifts within the assembly? An "ideal" assembly of reasonable size should be self-sustaining, not, of course, in the sense of not depending upon the Holy Spirits operation, but rather of not being always dependent upon "importing" gift from elsewhere. Incidentally, the present writer considers that one of the weaknesses of assembly testimony today is the lack of consecutive, systematic Bible teaching.
c) Is there an effective gospel outreach from the assembly? In one sense this is linked with b). Could it be said, "For from you sounded out the word of the Lord" (1 Thess 1.8)?
d) Are there younger men in the assembly who would be competent to take on responsibility in the future?
e) From a practical point of view, are the few believers in fellowship able to provide financially for the maintenance of the building in which they meet, for fuel bills, for travelling expenses for visiting speakers, as well as supporting the work of the Lord?
Would it be unreasonable to suggest that the impression is sometimes gained that some assemblies, small numerically, are quite content to "soldier on", irrespective of the lack of effectiveness of the testimony, seemingly not wishing "the nest to be shaken"?
The possible merging of two assemblies
Let us suppose that two assemblies of the Lords people, each few in number, are considering the possibility of merging. A distinction should be made between two companies merging, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, one very small assembly, appreciating that it cannot continue to function, approaching a second company and requesting to be received into fellowship. We shall consider the first of these possible scenarios.
Issues to be considered
Among important matters to be considered early in the discussions as to a possible merger are: Will the combined numbers form a viable testimony that can be maintained for the foreseeable future? Is there a fair age range among the proposed combined company? If all concerned have attained the "threescore years and ten" (Ps 90.10), then it might not be wise to go ahead with the merger.
A decision would have to be made in which of the two meeting places the combined company would gather. (From a human standpoint, this in itself might have implications, since, for example, it might not be easy for a brother moving from the second Hall to assume the role of "assembly correspondent".) The location should be within easy reach of each member of the two former assemblies. The condition of both of the Halls would have to be taken into account. It would, of course, be unwise to forfeit the use of a well-appointed building at the expense of meeting together in a property requiring a large sum of money to be spent on it in order to make it presentable.
Then again, is one of the two halls located nearer to the community, thus offering the assembly more potential opportunities for outreach? Is one of the assemblies still carrying out a childrens work? In which case, would a move to the Hall of the other assembly mean that the work could not be continued? Decisions would be required with regard to the disposal of the meeting room no longer being used. Are there any limitations imposed upon the subsequent use of the building in the title deeds of the property? e.g. that it must be used only for "religious purposes".
There are important spiritual considerations to be taken into account. Are the two assemblies governed by the same principles? There are some companies of the Lords people which have adopted a more liberal view with regard to assembly principles. The whole issue regarding the place of women in the assembly has become divisive. Some companies have taken the view that it is not necessary for a woman to have her head covered in the assembly gatherings and that a woman may even take part publicly in the prayer meeting. It is impossible to work together even with genuine believers in the Lord Jesus unless all are governed by the same principles.
Are there any issues of fundamental doctrine at stake? Such matters should be given careful consideration before any formal merger takes place. If such differences were to come to light after a merger took place, it could possibly lead to a division in the assembly.
Seeking the mind of the Lord
The present writer has endeavoured to be quite pragmatic in considering this subject. However, as in all matters relating to assembly life and, indeed, the personal lives of individual believers, the mind of the Lord must be sought. The merging of two assemblies in this way is no light matter. Guidance must be obtained through prayer and through the reading of the Scriptures. Motives must be examined.
If, after taking all these matters into consideration, it is decided that such a merger should take place, it would be good, if the Lord be not come, to be able to look back after a few years and to see clearly that such a move was of God and that the combined testimony had prospered.