Posts Tagged ‘Small Church’

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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…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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Publicity photo from the television program Th...

Publicity photo from the television program The Andy Griffith Show. Pictured are Don Knotts (Barney Fife) and Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Andy Griffith Show is a favorite of many in our small congregation.  Recently some of us watched an episode of the show entitled “A Date for Gomer.”  Thelma Lou’s cousin Mary Grace unexpectedly comes for a visit.  The problem is that the Chamber of Commerce Dance is set for Saturday night, and even though she and Barney already have a date to go together, Thelma Lou won’t think of leaving Mary Grace home alone.  She insists that Barney find a date for Mary Grace.  Barney balks.  In appearance, Mary Grace is what many would consider “homely.”  Barney exclaims, “She’s a dog!”

Because Thelma Lou won’t go to the dance without Mary Grace, Barney seeks assistance from Andy, who is already set to go to the dance with Helen.  They decide to ask Gomer to be Mary Grace’s date.  Gomer keeps asking, “What’s she like? Is she pretty?” and they keep insisting, “She’s sweet.  She’s nice.  Real nice.”  Gomer agrees to go.

Our plain, simple small church is homely in the eyes of some.  Second rate.  They seem focused more on what we are not, and what we lack, and it feels as if they don’t appreciate the grace and beauty and blessings hidden in our quiet, humble package.  Sometimes people say the same thing about us that Barney and Andy said about Mary Grace: “The people are sweet.  The people are nice.  They’re real nice.  But…”

I understand younger people’s desire to go where there are larger numbers of young adults and children, and where it is possible to offer more age-specific programs for them.  I understand that they want to be with people their own age.  I understand that they are looking for a place they can enjoy.  But there’s something to be said for the blessings that come when multiple generations worship and live closely as the family of God together.  There is something to be said for making a commitment to understand one another across generations and for struggling to work together as a company of disciples, that spans the ages from cradle to grave–and beyond!   Yes, it takes special effort to work together in this way.  This is definitely the narrower, less popular road.

In the TV episode, Gomer goes into the date with Mary Grace with open eyes.  When the guys arrive at Thelma Lou’s house to pick up the gals, Gomer’s “Hey, Mary Grace!” is warm and sincere.  He smiles and chunks Andy on the arm.  But then Gomer realizes that there is something he’s “got to do,” so he abruptly hurries out.   It later becomes clear what Gomer is up to.  He believes Mary Grace deserves to be “adorned” just like Helen and Thelma Lou, so he searches high and low to find a corsage –he pronounces it “cor-say-ge”–for her.  Adorned with this token of grace, Mary Grace shines.  In Gomer’s eyes, plain, simply-dressed Mary Grace is pretty, and she is definitely someone worth spending time with.  He sees the grace in her, looks on her through gracious eyes, and treats her with grace in his own Gomer Pyle way.

May the Lord raise up Christians of all ages who see deeply through God’s gracious eyes.  May he raise up people of all ages to answer the call to live as intentional, covenant communities together, where Christian nurture flows from one generation to another and back again. May the Lord raise up Christians of all ages who want to follow Jesus and serve him, each other, and a hurting world together, side by side.

I admit it.  This is my prayer. I hope God brings somebody to Morton who hears the call to be an anchor for a young adult generation, someone who envisions a multigenerational family of God, someone who wants to be in the company of us who are older, and someone who wants their children to grow up knowing us older saints well.  Our hearts and our arms long for these young adults and their children.  May God help us who are older to listen to, respect and make room for them.

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magnifying glass showing aberration

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What we want to see and expect to see when we go into a new situation shapes what we do see.  And it can hinder us from seeing what’s actually there.  Small church pastor Kyle Childress reflects on that in a Christian Century article entitled “Oversized Expectations: A Small Congregation Gets Megachurched.” (July 27, 2010 issue.)

It’s painful when visitors seem not to want to give a small congregation a chance.  He describes the kinds of criticism he and his flock hear from visitors.  Here’s a sample: “The big criticism, the one that sticks the knife in and twists it, is: ‘You don’t have a youth (or children’s) program?!  Well, what do you do with your young people?’ The fact that a teenage girl just led the liturgy seems to have been missed.”  Visitors can see that this is a small church when they drive up, and yet they often still bring large church expectations with them.

Here is another scenario many of us have experienced: “I remember a young family that visited one Sunday morning. Several people in our church knew them and had invited them. I was excited. They were new to town, looking for a church, had two small children, and both adults were active with environmental issues, something our congregation is heavily involved in. But when I went to see them in a follow-up visit, they said, “You have a good church, but a person has to work too hard to be a member of your church. We don’t have time to work that hard.” They ended up joining a large church.”

Yes, it’s true.  Life in a small congregation does require a lot from us, but it also offers extraordinary blessings.  To illustrate, Childress describes the ordination service for one of the church’s daughters who had just graduated from seminary.  In her testimony, she described how every time she sings the hymn “How Firm A Foundation,” she thinks of this congregation.  Then, as Baptists practice this rite, the entire congregation laid hands on her, “including her Sunday school teachers, the adults who had gone to youth camps with her when she was the only youth going to camp from our church, and my daughters, whom she had babysat. Many of those present had heard her preach her first sermon when she was 11 years old. Everyone quietly walked by, putting their hands on her head and ordaining her.”

Childress concludes, “It is true that she could have learned “How Firm a Foundation” from a video screen [megachurch style] just as easily as from a hymnal. But my instincts tell me that in that case she would be different. Maybe I’m wrong. All I know is that it took about 20 years for a whole community of people in various ways to nurture and raise her so she might know that hymn in this particular small-church way and become this particular kind of young minister.”  Hear, hear!

What we expect to see and want to see certainly does shape what we do see.  When small church folk visit large congregations, we need to go with the same open mind and heart we want them to bring when they visit us.  Wherever we go, if we’re looking for God, there is a pretty good chance we will see God somewhere.

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Want to hear a word of hope for the New Year?  Check out this hope-filled article from the December 2011 issue of Presbyterians Today about ministry with young adults.  It’s titled “If This Is Church, Bring It On.”

Author Mark Ray notes, “In many ways, young adults are looking for the same things as previous generations, including Spirit-filled worship, authentic community and meaningful service.”

No, it is not crucial to have a guitar and drums in your worship service.  What is needed is to be genuine and authentic and to do what you do well.   He quotes Roger Dermody, Executive Director for Mission of the PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council: “Whether worship is traditional or contemporary, the goal is to avoid having it become “monotone or rote,” he says. “We want to infuse our rich traditions and forms of worship with meaning to touch the hearts and minds of the younger generation.”

Younger generations are looking for genuine, deep relationships, including relationships that cross generational lines.  In small congregations, this often comes naturally.  The article speaks of congregations doing this intentionally.  Call it the “Cheers factor.”  They want to be where “everybody knows your name.”

As for service, Ray advises finding out what ministries young people are passionate about and accompanying them in service.  What’s more, young people are looking for encouraging mentors.  Again, this is intergenerational.

Warm, Spirit-filled worship.  Deep caring relationships across generations.  Service that meets critical needs.  Small churches can do all this.  Mine does, and I’m so grateful.

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Blueprints (01)

Image by cizauskas via Flickr

Here is an article from Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt called Ten Church Models for a New Generation.  She describes creative models for being a vibrant congregation that don’t depend on affluence, big numbers and big buildings to be able to serve God in vital ministries.  She includes links to examples of these kinds kinds of communities so that you can explore further.

Among the models are neomonastic communities, non-profit/church hybrids, congregations that support themselves through a business as some monastic communities do, pastors that support themselves through a business, and congregations that connect with their communities via various kinds of food ministries.

I found some of these models appealing, especially those that view the congregation as a type of monastic community.  What do you think?

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sunday school 3

Rhonda Waters of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal has prepared nine months of simple, flexible, multi-age lesson plans for small congregations, and she has posted them on a site called  Stories on the Way.  They are undated, and plans appropriate for the different seasons of the liturgical year are included.  She includes several lesson plans on each topic.  For example, there are three on the theme of creation.These plans can be used in Sunday School or other educational settings as needed.  Rhonda has made these available for downloading free of charge as a gift from her and from the St. Barnabas Anglican Church in St. Lambert, Quebec and the Anglican Diocese of Montreal.Thank you, Rhonda, and all our Anglican sisters and brothers in Montreal!Here is an overview of the nine-month plan:Creation (as told in Genesis 1)
Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3)
Commandments (Deuteronomy 30:11-19)
New heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65)
The Christmas Story (Gospel mash-up version)
Bonus days (small activities/Kids in Church activities)
Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)
Calling of the Disciples (Matthew 4:18-22)
Peter walks on Water (Matthew 14:22-33)
Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11)
The Last Supper (Matthew 26:20-30) (see also Foot Washing (John 13:3-17)
Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection
Palm Sunday
Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection
(Kids in Church Easter Activity)
Parable of the Sheep (and the Goats) (Matthew 25:31-40)
The Story of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12)
The Story of Pentecost (Kids in Church Activity)
Psalm 139


See this post for another free source of curriculum: Free Online Sunday School Curriculum: faithelement.  Check out the Resource tab for VBS resources.

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Cover of "Charlotte's Web (paper-over-boa...

Cover of Charlotte’s Web (paper-over-board)

Charlotte’s Web is an inspiring story for small congregations.  As the story opens, Fern’s father is on his way to the hoghouse, ax in hand, intending to kill the runt of a newborn litter of pigs.  “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything.  So your father has decided to do away with it,” Fern’s mother explains.

Fern cannot believe what she is hearing.  “Do away with it?” shrieks Fern.  “You mean kill it?  Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

“Don’t yell, Fern,” her mother replies.  “Your father is right.  The pig would probably die anyway.”

If author E.B. White had used a word we sometimes use in the church, he would have written, “He’s not viable.”

As the story unfolds, Fern lovingly nurtures the little pig, now named Wilbur, and he thrives.  Later Wilbur moves to Fern’s Uncle Homer’s barn where he makes new friends.  The most special friend is a gray spider named Charlotte, who comes up with an ingenious plan to get the humans to see Wilbur in a different way.  Whereas the humans see Wilbur as a runt or as future bacon, Charlotte gets them to see that he is “Some Pig,” “Terrific,”  “Radiant,” and “Humble.”  In succession she weaves these words into her web, and the humans get the message.

Scripture makes it clear that God’s vision is quite different from human vision, particularly when it comes to what the world sees as small and weak.  This means that your small congregation is not a runt!  What God sees in you is a community that is “Beloved,” “Beautiful,” “Blessed,” and “Brimming with Potential.”

Our small congregations need friends like Fern and Charlotte who see them through the eyes of God.  With this kind of vision they can thrive!

E.B. White.  Charlotte’s Web.   New York: HarperCollins, 1952.  Illustrations by Garth Williams.

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St Johns Church, Tismans Common. A tiny church...

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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

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Congregation with small Easter candles

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If you ever find yourself wondering whether “uncool,” unpolished, unprofessional, plain, often small, churches truly are precious in God’s sight and whether we truly are useful in God’s plan, check out the comments to Rachel Held Evans’ post “Tell us about your church…” , which is a followup to her post “Blessed Are the Un-cool.”   So many people wrote in about what they love about their congregations, despite all the problems and sins that beset every church.  A few wrote about their longing for a church like the ones described in the comments.  This will lift your heart.

There’s no doubt about it: God is on the move.  God’s Spirit is sweeping across the face of the church, and it’s the Spirit that is the true power of the church.  The Spirit is the true power of every church, not our own reserves of money or other kinds of strength.  God is doing great things through the small and the humble and the uncool who are just trying to be faithful.

It is okay not to be able to “do church” in ways that require great amounts of money and of those other human strengths.   We can quit trying to be bigger and cooler.  We can answer God’s call to us right now in our uncoolness.  So the question is, what kind of leadership do uncool congregations need, and how do we develop it?

May the peace of Christ be with you all!

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