New Life for Tired Churches
What do you call a church with thirty members?
In most denominations today, a church with only thirty or forty members is often considered a candidate for closure. At the very least, you can be confident that the topic has been discussed, either within the church itself or by others in the denominational structure. However, if you had asked the same question a hundred years ago, the answer would have been very different. Back then, a church with thirty or forty members would have been considered a good start.
Why the difference? It is all a matter of perspective and identity.
From our 21st century, North American point of view, we measure success with numbers. How many members do you have? How many have you gained this year? How many have you lost? Then we tend to compare those numbers with the standards set by other congregations. Our measure of a successful church is one that is increasing in membership and consistently has more income than expenses. Congregations that experience consistent declines in these categories are a source of concern, regardless of the type or quality of ministry that they practice. We feel comfortable with this corporate model of assessment, because it is the same model that we use to assess the other aspects of our lives.
Many small and rural churches suffer from an identity crisis based on their perceived place in the comparative pecking order. As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings. In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors. Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel. But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?
Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community. It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself? These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline. Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is coming to an end.
Vital churches, regardless of size, discover additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ. While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community. Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words. A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.
Mission studies are common within most denominations, but unfortunately they most frequently occur when the church is in the process of seeking new pastoral leadership. Too often that means that the study is seen as another hurdle that needs to be overcome so that we can get on with the process of finding the right person. As a result, they often reaffirm the most common practices of a congregation and seldom lead to new ways of thinking or new directions for ministry. Therefore it is important for congregations seeking new vitality to think intentionally about their identity at a different time, when finding a pastor is not the primary concern.
Every small and rural church should ask this question - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?
If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself. But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin. Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity. And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.
Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be. The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can 30 people do well in this place to bring glory to God?"
What does this look like in real life? A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community. In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us. In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or sponsoring a food stand at the county fair with prices that enable even the poorest of families to enjoy a meal. Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner. On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised.
Even churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?
Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church. Because numbers only tell a part of the story. The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this place.
What do you call a church with only thirty members? If it is committed to serving Christ, regardless of its limitations, then I call it a success!