Posts Tagged ‘Small Church’

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...

Image via Wikipedia

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

Image via Wikipedia

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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Easter and Pentecost mark two movements in God’s great work of resurrection.  Here is the story of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a small congregation in Oxford, North Carolina that is experiencing resurrection.  The congregation’s junior warden describes the first phone call he received from their now-vicar as the “craziest Holy Spirit moment.”  How apt!  When God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, you’ve got to expect crazy Holy Spirit moments. 

This story comes from Faith and Leadership, a great web site from Duke Divinity School.  In the sidebar you can click on another article about a model the Episcopal Church is using for leadership in small churches.  Read St. Cyprian’s story and be inspired for Easter and Pentecost!

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Our numbers are not looking good.  My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), lost 510,536 members between 1998 and 2009. Eighty-eight congregations closed in 2009 alone.  My own congregation is mourning the deaths of many dear saints.  We are also watching with sorrowful joy as most of our children move away in order to answer their calling.  I am sure Gideon was utterly dismayed when his army of 32,000 was reduced to 300 in the face of a massive contingent of Midianites, and then utterly amazed at what God did next.  I wonder whether God is using similar tactics with us.  Could God be doing a “Gideon’s Army” kind of thing here and now?

Gideon’s Army

Judges 6-8

Gideon could not believe his ears! Just when he was getting his confidence up, just as he was really beginning to believe this job was do-able, here comes God saying, “Gideon, this army’s too big! We’ve got to cull this herd!”

Who ever heard of anything so foolish? If anything, the Israelite army of 32,000 needed to get bigger. Why? Because the Midianite army boasted 135,000 soldiers, and they were mounted on camels. Their strength was massive!

Just when Gideon was beginning to trust God. God had given sign after sign to show Gideon that God really was with him, and that God really would use him and the Israelite army to stop the Midianite menace. Remember Gideon’s fleece? It is the most famous of the signs God gave him.

Gideon said, “Lord, I need some reassurance that you really are going to deliver Israel by my hand. I need to be sure I’m not just dreaming this up. Tonight I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. Tomorrow morning if the dew is only on the fleece and the ground all around is dry, I’ll know I’ve heard you right.” God acquiesced. It was so.

Gideon’s reply? “Don’t get mad at me, Lord, but I need another sign. Let’s use the fleece again, only this time, let the fleece be dry, and the ground all around be wet.” Once again, God acquiesced. It was so.

Gideon was convinced—mostly. He tested God and was reassured. Somehow the 32,000 Israelite soldiers would be enough to go against the enemy. But hold on: not time to start the war yet. Here comes God with a huge test for Gideon! (more…)

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Painting by James Tissot

In God’s eyes there is no “just a” as in “we’re just a small church.”  When I hear people in small congregations use those two words “just a,” I suspect that a spirit of weakness has hold of them.  Like the bent over woman in the synagogue in Luke 13, small churches often have a hard time looking the world in the face.  Christ the healer is at work doing something about that.  Here’s a sermon I preached on Luke 13:10-21 some years ago.  Notice that the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast immediately follow the healing story. 

“Stand Up Straight!”

This story of Jesus is one of my all time favorites.  And now it is especially poignant because my father is in the same fix as the woman in the story.  He is bent over, and he feels too weak to stand up straight.

The Greek text says that a spirit of weakness had crippled this woman.  For eighteen years it had held her down, so that she couldn’t stand up straight.  Nowadays she would probably receive a diagnosis of scoliosis or osteoporosis. Think of what that means.  Pain.  Spontaneous fractures in her vertebrae.  Think of what being bent all the time did to this woman’s lungs and her other internal organs.  Think of what this woman had to do to her neck to be able to see.  She would have to bend it backwards, like this, or else turn sideways and look at the world from the side.  It took so much effort to look up and see that she spent most of the time looking at the ground.

Even worse, perhaps, than the physical suffering was the emotional suffering.  In Jesus’ day people believed that disability was caused by a demon, and that it was a punishment from God.  Just as they do now, people stared.  They avoided her.  They wondered what in the world this woman had done to deserve such an affliction.  It was a source of shame. (more…)

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