Archive for the ‘Small Church Resources’ Category

Why does it seem that so few people want to give a small church a chance?  David Fitch suggests some answers in his blogpost “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big?” 

'New Life Church in Colorado Springs 2' photo (c) 2009, David Shankbone - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Fitch says that bigger is often seen as a sign of God’s presence, that a celebrity pastor is a known quantity, and that “Big church is less messy,”  i.e. in a big church you can easily come and go, take it or leave it.  It caters to the search for the “convenient.”  He also suggests what small local missional communities to overcome these habitual ways of looking at church.

Here’s a sample: “Of course, missional communities should not try to “compete” with this. Nonetheless, I think our gatherings must be intentional about displaying that God is present in this gathering and He is mightily at work in this body of people. It just looks different and (can I say this?) it is more real (less clouded by celebrity and special effects). Missional leaders should keep the gathering simple and be intentional about leading us into an authentic encounter with the living Christ from which we are sent into the world.”

Check Fitch’s post out and see what you think.

'Country Church' photo (c) 2012, dublin molly - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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Julia and Chester singing

Photograph by Lindsey Williams

Hymns Without Words is an online source of free, high quality, easily downloadable mp3 recordings for congregational singing.   All the hymns are arranged and performed by Richard Irwin, who is  Director of Music for the Parish of Holy Cross Chiseldon, UK.  There are a number of different instrumental combinations.  Almost all the hymns are in the public domain and lyrics are included on the hymn’s page.   If you have the proper copyright licenses, you can access others that are under copyright for use in worship services only by emailing Mr. Irwin.

Here is “Holy, Holy, Holy” performed on the organ, and “Morning Is Broken” performed on the piano.

He also has produced two CDs, “Hymns Without Words,” volumes 1 and 2,  that include some copyrighted tunes, such as “Bind Us Together.”  You can access them on amazon.com by clicking here.  You will see that he has also produced a collection of carols.

I highly recommend this site!

Here is a roundup of my posts about the many free and low-cost music resources available:

Hymnpod.com: downloadable piano accompaniments.

Smallchurchmusic.com: downloadable mp3 files.

Worship Service Resources: a CD collection.  Downloadable mp3 files also available.

See also this review of three CD collections: Hymns for Church, the Hymn Project, and the CD Hymnal.

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…and proud of it!

Do you ever wonder where the folks are who are enthusiastic about small church ministry?  I find myself wondering how many of us there are and where they are.  Here’s a blog that’s a gathering place and a source of encouragement for small church enthusiasts.  It’s called New Small Church, and its creator is Karl Vaters, a longtime small church pastor in California.

Here’s some of what led Karl to launch this venture: “I’ve read all the pastoral ministry books and attended all the seminars, just like you. And I’ve found great help from many of them. But, after a while, I started getting frustrated with the books and seminars because all the “can’t miss” principles for growing my church … did miss.

“My church stayed small.

“But it was (and is) a good church. And I was (and hopefully still am) a good pastor. So I started asking myself some questions about Small Church ministry.

  • “Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?”
  • “Why can’t I find help to understand how to do that?”
  • “Why does it feel like I’m on my own, learning by trial-and-error most of the time?”

He went on to write a book entitled The Grasshopper Myth.  The blog builds on the book and is a way to make it a conversation and not just a monologue.  I read the book and recommend it.  This author is deeply respectful of congregations of every size and of those who serve there.  What’s the “grasshopper” in the title all about?  Check out Numbers 13:32-33.  You can order the book on the site, or access it from amazon.com.

Click on the website name above to explore.  And here’s a post Karl wrote that was published recently on Qideas: Why Small Churches Are the Next Big Thing.

Many thanks, Karl!

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'Cotton Harvest' photo (c) 2009, Kimberly Vardeman - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/In God’s big scheme of things, getting smaller as a church might not necessarily be bad news, even though it’s no fun.  It may be a necessary step on the way to new life.

Recently I read the story of what Clarence Jordan, founder of the Koinonia Community, once experienced more than fifty years ago during the segregation era when he went to preach a revival at a church in South Carolina.  When he got there, he found a well-blended congregation of several hundred black people and white people worshiping together. Jordan was amazed.  After the worship service, he asked the church’s pastor how this had come about.

The pastor described how, when he started, the church had about twenty people.  When the congregation couldn’t find another preacher, this layman volunteered to preach.  He said, “I got up the next Sunday, opened my Bible and I put my finger on the verse that says, ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.’ I commenced to preachin’ on that. I told them how Jesus makes all kinds of people one. When I finished that service, them deacons wanted to talk to me in private. They told me they didn’t want to hear that kind of preachin’ no more.”

The old man went on to describe how he continued to preach along these lines, and the church shrank down to four people.  He said, “I preached that church down to four people.  And I found out that sometimes revival happens not when people come in to the church, but when people go out of the church. If people were going to stand in the way of the moving of the Spirit of God, it’s better they go somewhere else. And after that, we decided that we wuz going to build the church on people who were actually serious about following Jesus. And that’s when it started to grow.”

Hmm.  Will we trust God to build our congregations on a few people who are serious about following Jesus, or will we seek to quiet our anxiety with larger numbers of spiritual spectators?

There’s a coda to Jordan’s story: After the service that night, Jordan rode home with a young member of the church who drove 70 miles each way every Sunday to worship with that congregation.    This member was a professor of English literature at the University of South Carolina.  Jordan asked, “Why do you go to a church that has that old hillbilly preacher? You have a Ph.D. from Yale. And he can’t even utter a single grammatically correct sentence.”

The professor answered, “Sir, I go to that church because that preacher preaches the gospel and this church lives it.” (From The Cotton Patch Evidence: The story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (1942-1970).)

Lord, help us to preach your gospel, and help our churches to live it!


This story reminds me of the story of Gideon’s army in Judges.  See my sermon on that text:  “Onward, Christian Soldiers?”

See also this post: “Called to get smaller???” 

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English: NorthRidge megachurch, 49555 North Te...

English: NorthRidge megachurch, 49555 North Territorial Road, Plymouth, Michigan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Mattson has written a post that’s a helpful challenge and encouragement to congregations of every size.  It’s called The Megachurch vs. Minichurch: Do Popularity and Growth Really Matter?  It is posted on the Sojourners Community blog.  He cautions against making judgments about any church based on its size and statistics.

He also speaks to a struggle that I live with: how can pastors and church leaders care lovingly and faithfully for the saints who have been faithful to the congregation for many, many years, and conserve what is beautiful and needed, while also helping the congregation follow God into the future and reach new people in Jesus’ name?  Mattson notes the harm that leaders can do when they chase numbers and frantically try to implement change too fast.  The old Girl Scout song says, “Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver and the other’s gold.”  How can we cherish both so that old and new can be one family together?

Here’s how the post concludes:

'Tiny old church' photo (c) 2009, B. Carlson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“There are thousands of small faith communities doing it right by striving to make the world a better place by passionately following Christ’s example. These churches understand that Christ-centered community trumps the value of popularity.

“So which is better: large communities or small ones? Neither! Numbers, attendance, and popularity should never be used as indicators of spirituality. Expansion should never be pursued at the expense of righteousness.

“In a society obsessed with consumerism, we have mistakenly used growth charts, predictive modeling, quarterly forecasts, stats, and numbers as indicators for success. Instead, we should be striving for the fruits of the Spirit. Thousands of Christians can get together yet accomplish nothing, while tiny pockets of believers can be transforming lives — and vice versa. We need to start recalibrating our goals towards Christ’s commission to serve, sacrifice, and love instead of treating the church like a Fortune 500 company.

“Before assuming numerical growth or decline is a sign of God’s favor or judgment, prayerfully consider how you can use your faith to help the poor, shelter the homeless, generously give to those in need, comfort the hurting, protect the vulnerable, and selflessly make sacrifices for the benefit of others. Focus on achieving the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5), passionately loving God (Mark: 12:30) and serving the world around you (Mark 12:31). If these Christ-centered values aren’t eagerly embraced and acted upon, then the numbers are worthless.”

This seems to me to be good advice for churches of all sizes.  And, as a small church pastor, I do appreciate his recognition of the great faithfulness that even the tiniest communities can show.  It’s about passionately following Christ’s example, serving, sacrificing and loving so that people can experience his transforming love.  And as the stories of the one found sheep and the one found coin remind us, there is great rejoicing in heaven when even one is saved.

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A Different Church Building

A Different Church Building (Photo credit: justshootingmemories)

Congregational Seasons, a blog that tells stories of renewal and revitalization in Episcopal congregations recently published this guest blog, “Recasting Your Church’s Building Assets for Congregational Viability” by Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Spaces, http://www.sacredplaces.org/, an organization that helps congregations utilize their buildings as an asset to the broader community.  It’s all about using your building’s gifts, such as good acoustics, a well-equipped kitchen, or a shareable fellowship hall, as a way to bring blessing to the community around the church.  In turn, that brings blessings to the church, such as fresh engagement with new people.

Here’s an excerpt showing two examples, one from an urban setting, and one from a rural setting:

“In an urban setting, St. Martin’s, a mission church in Chicago, would face closing without new ways to raise funds and use space effectively.  The parish took part in New Dollars [a program of partners for sacred spaces], which helped parishioners organize, map out priorities and space uses and think more about their mission and purpose – within the diocese and the context of a struggling west side neighborhood.  The church is hosting more arts and music activities now, and is thinking about how it can take better advantage of its position on a charming plaza, complete with fountain, in front of the church. Thanks to Partner’s encouragement, the parish is placing a church table in the plaza for a community block party this summer, to bring visibility and new visitors to the church.

“Recognizing that many rural churches are small and could close without help, the Diocese of Vermont retained Partners to offer New Dollars training to several parishes, among them the Church of Our Saviour in Kilington. The church learned how to map its internal assets, as well as assets in the larger community. Recognizing its super acoustics, the parish is now hosting concerts sponsored by the local library when the weather is inclement.  Given its location in the countryside, it worked with the town government on a scenic byways initiative, bringing more visitors to the church.  These steps have brought new energy and visibility to the parish and have attracted new funding that has underwritten the replacement of the parish house roof.”

Food for thought and prayer…

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I grew up on a farm in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and in a small rural church. I’m proud to serve in another small rural church.  Recently I re-read an article by Baptist pastor Gary Farley entitled “Jesus Was a Country Preacher,” and though it’s been around a while, it’s still good food for thought for those of us who serve in country congregations.  Click on the title to read it.

I also recently listened to the audiobook edition of country singer Clay Walker’s new book Jesus Was A Country Boy, an extended reflection on the themes he explores in a song by the same title.  Walker meditates on many of the stories of Jesus and points out a correlation between the teachings of Jesus and the values Walker learned growing up in the country, such as generosity and simplicity.  Despite a minor theological quibble in a couple of places, I enjoyed Walker’s meditations and can see them as fodder for devotionals and sermons on the texts he looks at.  He also briefly mentions the ministry of rural congregations and urges people to get involved in their projects, such as food pantries to feed the hungry.  I’m thinking about writing to him to ask him to share some more thoughts about that.  I wonder if he goes to a country church when he’s home on his farm.

Here’s a youtube video of his song:

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'888' photo (c) 2008, S.³ - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I received a thoughtful and poignant response to my recent post “And God certainly made small churches, too.”  The writer wonders about small congregations that are getting smaller and fading away.

There’s no question that the losses hurt deeply.  We miss our saints that have moved on to the Church Triumphant, and those that have moved away or left for some other reason.  It is painfully disappointing when others take our hospitality, but show no interest in the beautiful worship service that means so much to us, or in the other things we offer, or in becoming members of the covenant community with us.

It strikes me that this gives us a new understanding of what Jesus himself experienced when the crowds lost interest in him.  In John 6 he said to the few that were left, “do you also wish to leave?”  As the cross drew near, even they left him, though they later returned.

Death is certain even for the very best people, but it does not negate all that was faithful and beautiful in their well-lived lives.  I think the same is true in a congregation’s life.  Death in some form is certain for every congregation, but even death by complete closure does not negate all that was beautiful and faithful in the congregation’s life.

Just like individual believers, congregations belong to God in life, and in death, and in the life to come.  Resurrection can be a reality even when a congregation closes.  I heard a story earlier this week about a congregation that closed, and whose assets became powerful seed money for a new ministry that is blessing many.  And closing doesn’t have to mean completely disbanding.  The closing church can become a new kind of church.

Every congregation is called to die and rise with Christ.  Death can mean letting go of something that has been in order to receive what God is creating now.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our disappointment when people don’t come to worship as we want them to in order to reach them in another way—perhaps somewhere beyond the building.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our anger when they don’t respond and do what we think they should do.  It may mean rethinking what the purpose of a church is.  Perhaps it will mean letting the idea of getting more people into the church pews recede in order to focus more on introducing people to Christ somewhere out in the world.

What’s more, God is still calling people to form committed, covenant communities like the ones I described in the earlier post.  God is still creating new small churches.  Some are brand new and don’t look very much like the organized church that we have experienced and cherished.  Often they don’t have a building, and they meet in a home or a public place.  One new Presbyterian congregation that I learned about runs a coffee shop in a strip mall and meets there.

Some new small congregations are nested inside of larger congregations, or they share a building with another small church.  In New Hope Presbytery, Durham Presbyterian Church and Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel share a building.  New churches are being born in the midst of and alongside of old ones.

In John 3 Nicodemus asks whether a person can be born again after growing old.  The answer is “yes,” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  By the power of the resurrection, old congregations can be born again.  But it won’t be without pain and struggle and many tears, and it calls for ever deeper trust in the One who has walked the way of suffering on the way to new life.

When life as they knew it in Jerusalem was ending, and God’s people were about to be deported to Babylon, God spoke through Jeremiah, saying, “I know the plans I have for you.  They are plans for good and not plans for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” Jeremiah 29:11.  These plans did not become clear for a long time, and they did not mean escape from pain and death.  These plans were fulfilled when a new generation “came home” to Jerusalem.

God knows the plans God has for our congregations, plans for our good, to give us a future and a hope.  And God promises to stay right with us while God is working those plans out.  In our living and dying and rising again, Christ will be honored and glorified.

Resources related to churches dying and rising:

Gail Irwin writes a blog that explores questions related to the life, death and resurrection of congregations, including those who close.  It is called “From Death to Life: Churches Facing Resurrection.” (freelancepastor.wordpress.com)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a movement aimed at launching 1001 new worshiping communities in the next decade.  Find out more at this website: onethousandone.org.    Many of these are or will be small.  See profiles of some of the new communities that are starting.

See Peter Bush’s book In Dying We Are Born from Alban.  You can read an excerpt of the book here.

There is also a helpful article that appeared in Weavings magazine called, “When the House of God Falls Vacant.”  (Volume VII, No. 1, January-February 1992.)  The theme of the issue is Failure, and it can be ordered from the Upper Room at http://weavings.upperroom.org/back-issues/

See my post “Every Church MUST Die,” which is a reprint of a sermon from my archives.

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Did you notice the tiny church at the beginning of the Dodge Ram Super Bowl commercial about farmers?  The building is a chapel, really, and it has a picket fence around it.   The church is what you see as Paul Harvey begins to intone, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

I wonder whether a small congregation still gathers there, and who the rural community is that this congregation supports and cares for. Later in the commercial there’s another image of a farmer at prayer inside the plain, wood-paneled sanctuary of a small church.  And towards the end we see a farm family praying together before a meal

I wonder how many viewers noticed these images, and whether they stirred memories of a once loved little church in the wildwood.  Perhaps they thought momentarily of a church that they have left behind.  I wonder how many noticed and thought, as I did, of a small congregation that they love very much now.

It struck me that many of the qualities that Paul Harvey celebrates in farmers are also much in evidence in strong small churches: dedication, faithfulness, humility, tenderness, tenacity, perseverance even through pain, commitment to the community, and the ability to be creative and make do with what you have.  You can read the whole text of his speech, including several sentences that the commercial leaves out, here.

Harvey’s refrain, “So God made a farmer” is going around in my head as, “So God made a small church.”  I don’t in any way want to denigrate large churches.  God made them, too, and God is accomplishing much through them.  But I am focusing on the wonders God can do in small communities of people who trust him.  I am imagining an array of images of life in small faith communities, with a voice speaking words like these over them:

And God said, “I need a community of people who are so committed to one another that it is a sacred covenant.  They know each other deeply and love each other anyway.  Old and young and in-between interact regularly and naturally across generations.  Out of love, they sing songs and eat foods and do activities that an older or younger generation likes, even if it’s not their own favorite.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I’m looking for people who will get up in the middle of the night, get dressed and go to the aid of a member who lives alone and who is suddenly ill, people who will be family to each other, kin by love even if they’re not kin by blood.  I need people committed to prayer, people who will faithfully pray for decade after decade for the same people and the same problems, and who will pray and send cards to others that they don’t even know who are hurting.  I’m looking for people who can quickly and nimbly form teams to respond concretely to needs.  People who agree to disagree, and who stick together even though they hold very different viewpoints on difficult issues, who vote blue and red on Tuesday and worship together on Sunday.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who are ready at all times to care for whatever children show up at church, ready with Bible stories, ready to take wee ones to the nursery. People who will put children’s Bibles, soft toys and art supplies in the pews, and who are ready to become spiritual grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins to other people’s children. People who will go sports events and school events to support other children they’re trying to befriend and reach.  And when all these children grow up, wherever they go they will know their cloud of witnesses is surrounding them with love and prayer.”    So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who will welcome and appreciate a soloist’s song, even if it’s not perfect, and invite children and youth to serve alongside adults and welcome their input.  I want to create a community where people who don’t fit in elsewhere in the world can fit in, where a young person with developmental disabilities can regularly serve as an usher, hand out bulletins and take up the collection.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who know that neither personal life nor congregational life consists in the abundance of possessions—and they live that way, with simplicity.  I’m looking for people who don’t need large, expensive facilities and costly materials to nurture faith, who mentor one another in faith through caring relationships, creative people who can do Christian education on a shoestring.  I’m going to call together a community that will put their trust in me instead of in their numbers and bank accounts and personal strengths.”  So God made a small church.

You get the idea.

Friends, such small churches already exist, and always have since Jesus first called a few folks together.   And as we seek to reach others with the gospel, more small churches like this will be born, and they can thrive.

And guess what.  Small churches like these can even exist inside large churches!

Click here to read “Yes, God certainly did make farmers,” another post I wrote in response to this commercial.

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Church, Maui, Hawaii

Church, Maui, Hawaii (Photo credit: aimforawesome)

Imagining the Small Church by long-time small church pastor Steve Willis is an important new book for small churches and for the church at large.  Here is my mini-review that appears on the back cover:

“Are you weary of books aimed at ‘fixing’ the small church? Read this book instead. With deep respect, Steve Willis shows how healthy small churches simply and lovingly embody God’s upside-down wisdom. Long experience at the periphery gives us much to teach the larger church that now finds itself pushed to the sidelines of culture. Read, imagine—and hope!”

You can read my full review in The Presbyterian Outlook here.

Read an excerpt here, and another excerpt here on the Alban Institute website.

Small church friends, read this book and be uplifted and challenged.  Large church friends, read this book and be challenged and uplifted.

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