Here is a letter to the editor that I sent to the Presbyterian Outlook in response to another letter. You can read the original that sparked my interest here. I really believe that being a small congregation can be a strategic advantage. The small church is one of God’s strategies for reaching people.
I greatly appreciated O. Benjamin Sparks’ letter to the editor in the August 8 issue of the Outlook, as well as the Pentecost 2011 letter from the Committee on Theological Education that inspired it. Twenty-one years into a small church pastorate, I still find it exciting, challenging and rewarding.
The facility-rich, money-rich, resource-rich, staff-rich and program-rich model is not the only faithful way to “do church.” It is not the only good structure for the work of drawing people into the embrace of Jesus Christ. It is not even the appropriate model for every context, culture, or population group. What if we stopped seeing small size as a problem or a failure and viewed it instead as an opportunity and even a strategic advantage? What if we saw small, strong congregations as one of God’s strategies for reaching people? At the moment, the PC(USA) is rich in small congregations, and just maybe God wants it that way.
Many people will not be reached through models of church that require affluence. What is required is a model that is rich in faith, rich in prayer, rich in relationships, and rich in simplicity, creativity, and flexibility. It is a blessing not to have large facilities and too many things that must be maintained. Trusting God, a small church can move quickly to meet people on a personal level.
Yes, some small congregations are unhealthy and may need to die by closure, but larger congregations can also be unhealthy. Yes, many small churches need transformation, but doesn’t every church need God to transform it? Isn’t every congregation called to be reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit? And this, too, is certain: whatever its size, every congregation is called to lay down its life, take up the cross and follow Jesus.
Initiatives such as “For Such a Time as This,” which pairs small congregations with recent seminary graduates, are a step in the right direction. Imagine what could happen if working through small, strong congregations became one of the PC(USA)’s respected and cherished strategies for reaching people in the name of Jesus. Imagine the greater diversity of people we could reach out to and the greater number of communities the PC(USA) could be active in. Imagine if we developed creative ways to support the faithful indigenous leadership that is in the small churches we already have. Simply inviting small church folk to come to a leadership event here and there is not enough. This is going to require personal, onsite attention in the small church’s home territory, and the best mentors will come from small churches. And imagine what could happen if we started new congregations that will deliberately be small, whose goals may well NOT include owning a building or accumulating wealth. Think of the flexibility they would have in responding to God’s call to mission!
If the PC(USA) hopes to share the good news of Jesus, and if we want to deploy our small congregations in that effort, then we must fulfill our ordination vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. As the COTE letter notes, this includes making imaginative use of our money across the church. And it includes loving our small congregations.
Small churches are a great place to learn to be a pastor, and a great place to learn to be a Christian. Remember that they are also a great place to meet Jesus in the first place.
Photo by Andy Potter, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license