The Nature and Characteristics of the Small Membership Church
Bob I. Johnson.
The Nature and Characteristics of the Small Membership Church
Bob I. Johnson (1996; 2004)
Review and Expositor Volume 93 (vnp.93.3.369)
Narrative is a word commonly used today to describe such religious endeavors as preaching and theology. One writer states that narrative theology developed in serious fashion in the USA in the 1970s.1 Furthermore, Dan R. Stiver also reminds us that the primary emphasis in the narrative movement lies in theological discussion: “Involved are the story, the Scriptures; our story, the background framework of our lives; and the autobiography and biographies that form a central part of who we are.”2
This sounds like a small church to me! Where do stories come from if not from the past? People in small-membership churches value the past. In fact, memories are extremely important and strategically placed in the kitchen cabinet of survival food for the small congregation. Narrative is the stuff of the ages for it. Even the 1970s are much too contemporary a place to identify its serious development in the small church.
Denominations are sometime lulled into inadequate ministries with small churches. Denominations in the past have shown a high degree of expectation that all churches would have certain programs and specific organizations. Survival, knowing one another, and maintaining worship are more crucial issues for the small membership church than carrying out all the programmatic ministries suggested by the denomination. So, when the denomination does attempt to give attention to these tenacious little theological, social, and rock-like rascals, they find mixed or minimal response. Often the pastor serves as a dual-career person, who like the Egyptian mummy is “pressed for time.” Also, church members may perceive that the avenues of contact which the denomination seeks to construct with “our little church” are simply “big church” programs which won’t work at Bear Creek, and thus are dead-end streets.
For the purpose of this article, “small church” needs clarification. Small churches are not all Bear Creek, stereotypical non-growing, non-declining single-cell churches. Indeed three kinds of small churches dot the ecclesiastical landscape. One is the infant congregation that is most likely to grow out of its first setting to a medium- or large-sized congregation. The second kind of small church is one that has declined from medium or larger size to the “small” classification. A third is the one we usually think of first, one which steadily draws around fifty or so in attendance on a Sunday morning and doesn’t seem to
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be going anywhere in particular although it’s not about to go away. That third model is the one most directly considered in this article.
Looks can be deceiving. Without this third form of the small-membership church, most denominations would have trouble maintaining their current level of ministry. At least one-fourth of all churches can be classified as small (with around fifty in attendance on any given Sunday morning). Say what you will, these congregations are irreplaceable. They are worth leaving all the big churches and their flurry of activities (who might not miss the Shepherd anyway) to go out and assure the safety of the little ones. The small churches can be vital, valid, and victorious.
Small churches can be biblical, too. Especially helpful in understanding their legitimacy are the concepts developed by Paul Minear in his well-known book, Images of the Church in the New Testament. Some of Minear’s images seem to reflect the “big church” concept: “The People of God,” “The New Creation,” “The Body of Christ.” However, the chapter entitled, “Minor Images of the Church” presents some cozier fits for the smaller-membership congregation.3
The first of those minor images that Minear mentions is “The Salt of the Earth.” That’s manageable for the small church. Salt is so basic to life and to the “small” congregation which first heard and preserved the saying about it, heard the words as addressed to them by the One who had called the church into being.4 The single, caring cell, as the small church has been characterized, can grasp its function as salt. Members know about adding flavor to life, creating and slaking thirst, preserving the good things of life. Other minor images are also worth mentioning to undergird the claim to a biblical heritage by the smaller church. Minear includes “A Letter from Christ,” “The Boat,” “Unleavened Bread,” “One Loaf,” “The Table of the Lord,” “Branches of the Vine,” “Vineyard,” “The Fig Tree,” “The Olive Tree,” as well as others.5
If these creatures of every denomination are often frustrating but never evaporating, what shall we say about them that will instruct those of us who work with them and with students and friends who serve them? It is not enough to curse the darkness that may surround the small-church phenomenon. Somehow we must proceed to light the light that shines clearly upon the purpose of the small-membership church, its nature and characteristics.
This article intends to focus upon those aspects of the small church which are unique to it and to examine the basically healthy small church.
First, consider the nature of caring. Caring is the essence of the small church. If such a congregation should be asked to list its strengths, this writer has found that overwhelmingly members will respond first with some version of being friendly/caring. Admittedly, smaller churches are the right size for the members to know one another personally. Actually the small church is the appropriate size for all things that are essential for being a Christian church.
With all that is said above, the small church does have a unique genius for
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caring for persons, for becoming a genuine Christian covenantal community. Included in this genius is the ability to help people become and remain real people. This aspect is probably more intuitive than intentional. Cruel and hostile small churches are the exception rather than the rule. Small-church caring tends to be more like Mary’s than Martha’s. The priority rests on being together rather than trying to impress one another. The people prefer potluck to banquet. Meetings are as much for catching up and telling stories as they are for conducting business. What some people might consider gossip, small-church folk view as essential data.
People who are not comfortable with bantering and “idle talk” will not be at home in a small church. Caring times are rarely by appointment or as part of a specific agenda. They most likely occur at the post office, on the street corner, in the parking lot, over the phone, or during a pastoral call. Caring occurs after the funeral more often than in planned “sharing” groups. Mary would have been right at home in a small church.
The parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 is ideally a small-church parable. The sheep that gets lost is missed immediately. The flock just won’t be complete without this wanderer. The shepherd will know where this errant sheep is likely to be grazing. Also, if the wandering sheep has received personal caring she/he will soon miss the flock. When the lost is found, rejoicing over the return will take priority over program. We cannot safely assume that the pastor is the shepherd and the laity are the flock. When a small church functions healthily, all will look out for each other. The seeker today may become the sought tomorrow. In a community there is always a rescue squad of people who care.
It has been asked, “In churches where ministers are sought first for administrative and oratorical gifts, who washes the feet of the people?”6 The foot-washing story in John 13 suggests the identity of the care givers and of those who would build community. Larger churches can employ their care givers and often feel this is the route to take. It is probably heresy to suggest that the primary role of the clergy is to exercise a surrogate ministry of caring on behalf of others who should be care givers. Jesus directs the disciples to wash one another’s feet. Sounds like the small church to me!
Next, consider the small-membership church at worship. It’s much like a family reunion. All ages gather, most with some blood relationship or marriage bond. Worship is a time to exchange greetings and regrets, exchange good and bad news, baptize, marry and bury, pray, sing, and listen to preaching.
Small churches, with few exceptions, will house their worship in plain, practical buildings reminiscent of the early Christians who usually worshiped in a member’s home or in a simple room. The “importance of place” principle holds true for the smaller-membership congregation; however, the application of architectural genius is not required to make it a sacred place.
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One important mark of worship in the small congregation is the possibility of making it “the work of the people” to a much greater extent than in the larger church. Persons in a body of fifty worshipers know that their presence and absence are significant to the congregation. Their singing and speaking make a difference. Their money in the offering plate adds up. Indeed a much higher percentage of attenders can have an active part in the worship service if the effort is made to include them. It is realistic to imagine that in a group of fifty worshipers, forty to fifty persons can participate in specific roles during the service. Such high participation would require one or two choirs or other musical groups, but the numbers are realistic.
Carl Dudley has written about the choreography of worship. He points out that the place of worship has “accumulated meaning”7 for those who attend. The way people enter the building, how they participate while they are there, and how they leave when the worship service is completed are all parts of the choreography.
Since worship time is the prime time for any new people to be added to the small church, it is important to note that several people perform crucial tasks when visitors are present. One such person lingers around the edge of things. He or she generally does not hold leadership positions but likes to know everything and everybody and especially enjoys greeting visitors. Since this person functions in this way, he (they are nearly always male) or she may be referred to as a gatekeeper. A congregation also contains patriarchs and matriarchs who are at the center of the congregation. They sit in the center of things. They are veteran members who have lived through the main epochs of the church. By their very presence they carry the identity of the church. They remember when things were different and how the church got to where it is now.
Worship in the early church usually found the group gathered in a home or other simple building. Worship began with the “kiss of peace,” and all the people greeted each other. “Everyone” (often this meant only the men) was encouraged to participate through prayer and other activities, with worship centered around a common meal. In Acts, Luke reminds us that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul (4:32).” It is virtually impossible for a large congregation to worship in this way. Worship is the active response of the congregation to God’s love and the movement toward a loving reciprocal ministry to all in our sphere of being. Therefore, Kierkegaard’s image of worship as drama in which God is the audience, the congregation are the actors, and the minister is the prompter, seems relevant. This sounds like a healthy small church to me!
The third aspect of the smaller-membership church to examine is mission. Characteristically, the small church views mission differently than the larger congregation does. One way of viewing the matter is to recall that the smaller
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church highly values the past and seeks to reproduce it, while the larger congregation of necessity is geared toward the future. The smaller church can survive with its attention to the past while the larger church cannot.
The smaller church, with its group of about fifty participants on Sunday morning, functions more on the person-to-person level than on the station-to-station level. Nearly all smaller churches contribute to world-wide causes through some denominational or para-church channel; however, most of what they do as mission does not show up in the denominational mission statistics by which churches are judged. Mission entails all that the church does beyond its own maintenance to communicate the gospel word of grace and to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ toward all people everywhere. It includes all the ways the church follows Jesus’ resurrection command to Peter to “feed my sheep.”
The small church views its mission as far more than programs it organizes and agencies it helps underwrite. Mission is also what each Christian does to plant and nurture the fruit of the Spirit and discipleship in daily life. At times small churches are criticized for being so good at intimacy and caring for one another that they do not get around to mission. But they must not be viewed as closed to visitors and new participants. The ways in which the congregation and the new persons are brought together are all important.
Smaller churches can and do take their mission seriously. Rather than judging the small church to be the wrong size for effective mission, consider the proposition that it might just be the right size for a style of mission that marked the early church and of much of Christianity today. The book of Acts and the Epistles provide good examples of actions such as special offerings to address special needs. Also, we learn from those writings of leaders and resources being available to assist other churches and persons in need. It sounds like the small church might be all right after all!
Since mission is often understood as what someone else does with your money out there somewhere, small churches often have a rather provincial view of mission. When mission is out there a long way off, the church cannot feel the hunger and see the injustices. It cannot quite grasp the hopelessness. For a small church to have a healthy sense of mission, it must be developed from the basic mindset of the people which is geared toward preserving the past. But for a truly healthy sense of mission the small church has to be willing to move forward from the good things of its past and accept their role in the present and the future. An effective mission response is an extension of who they are, rather than a prescription from the outside which they are to ingest according to a predetermined plan.
The fourth lens through which to view the characteristics of the smaller-membership church is Christian education. While it might be granted that the small church can be viable in some ways, one perceived weakness is education. However, when considering some of the educational characteristics needed for
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growing people to be healthy, loving Christian persons, the small church offers much. For example, a smaller congregation can offer a place that is safe, inviting, and where people feel a part of the whole. They also can provide individual attention and recognition, opportunities to practice one’s learning. Furthermore, one can “learn” close up to those who have walked in the way of Christ for many years. Such a church offers and encourages roots, identity, and commitment.
Arguably churches of all sizes can offer the environment spoken of above, but it is more likely to be organic in a small church’s educational ministry. Larger congregations often have to provide synthetically—through retreats, study, or task groups—what small churches possess inherently. The small church is uniquely capable of adopting people into the community of believers and nurturing them in the faith.
The way of the small church is most often to use the well-worn Sunday school approach. In this approach it appears that people cared most about creating an environment where people could be Christian in community and see the witness of Christian faith in the lives of significant persons. The old Sunday school seemed to know about the need for belonging and such activities as storytelling. The smaller church educational ministry seems to be more interested in faith sharing and role model than in teaching strategies and curricular resources, more interested in being a community concerned with sharing and experiencing biblical faith than with goals of knowing about the Bible.
Thus the smaller church is well suited to graft into the family new people of faith. As a reminder, this is so because every person is or can be known, each person is needed and does make a difference. The small congregation can initiate such persons effectively. Also each person is a part of the localized family of faith, one which is easily recognized. All ages are thrown together because there is no option offered in the small church. The young, as a result, know not only that they are God’s (difficult to grasp) but also that they are the church’s (easier to grasp). The closeness of the young with the old helps the old to know that they have not kept the faith and maintained the community in vain.
The small, rural village of Nazareth was so insignificant that people made fun of the notion that something special might come from there. Even Nathaniel asked in reference to Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” When Jesus’ boyhood is recalled, we are reminded that at the age of twelve he amazed the elders in the Jerusalem temple as he did others in his adult life. Does this speak of an effective religious education ministry at the Nazareth congregation? It surely sounds like a small church to me!
A fifth way of observing the healthy smaller congregation is in the way decisions are made. Decisions are not made by the pastor, committees or due process. Most likely they are made by group consensus. Decision making is less structured and more informal than may be suggested in guidebooks.
Business sessions reflect the holism and the single-cell nature of the smaller
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congregation. Business meetings tend to function as committees of the whole. People bring up topics, and the entire group discusses them before a decision is made. After discussion, rather than before as Robert’s Rules of Order would dictate, someone will make a motion. It is usually seconded quickly and the vote is taken soon. The discussion has already occurred. It may be that one of the members who is for approving the matter of business being discussed will offer to give a certain amount of money toward defraying the cost. Others may follow until often the cost is covered.
Business sessions do not consist of a series of reports from committees. Usually included are the treasurer’s report, the deacons’ report, and then general business. Any pastor (most of the time the pastor serves as the moderator) who tries to operate strictly according to parliamentary rules will soon be badly frustrated.
Decisions to change are slow in coming. They almost have to come in such a way that the church would not characterize what they are doing as “change.” Change is something for the big church! The smaller congregation thinks concretely. They deal with the here and now. No five- or ten-year plan for them. People want to know if money is in the bank for a project, or if people will give the money necessary to pay for it. In many cases the treasurer’s report is read, giving the income and the expenditure for the time period specified. If the report is printed, items will be listed individually rather than related to a budget item.
The laity and not the pastor hold the power of decision in the small church because of the relational nature of things. People do not always trust the pastor, but they can trust each other because of long-standing relationships. They know that pastors come and go rather quickly in the small church. Members, however, have often been a part of the culture of the congregation for a long time and have served to hold the church together in between pastors serving for short tenures.
The small church also makes decisions based on its own calendar, parts of which come from the local school’s calendar, their vocations (farming, for example), church tradition such as Memorial Day, and the annual revival. Basically, they make decisions based on their world as they perceive it.
A sixth focus for considering the nature and characteristics of the smaller-membership church is its ability to serve intergenerationally. Again, everyone knows everyone. Any person in a small church for very long cannot avoid significant contact with the other generations in the church. It is basically a primary group characterized by intimate face-to-face associations and learning. Primary groups are such because they give the person his or her earliest and most complete experience of social unity. Also, they do not change as much as more elaborate relations do.
It is not unusual to find persons of advanced age, such as the eighty- and ninety-year-old folk this writer observes regularly in a small church, talking with the children and youth before and after the worship service. At a youth outing
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on the church lawn, complete with volley-ball and hot dogs, several of the median and older adults will mix themselves into the activities. Children who may be raised by one parent often get attention from other adults who serve as part of the clan to take up the slack caused by the absence of a parent. Also in learning situations, with the exception of the Sunday morning Bible study program, all ages are often placed together out of necessity and custom. Along with the negative factors of such a situation, positive ones exist. The fellowship of the primary group provides spiritual growth. The younger members are able to glean wisdom from the elders. Likewise, the older members can hear and be made glad by the testimonies of the younger generation as they witness their spiritual growth. When done intentionally, intergenerational learning at its best is a natural asset for the small church.
In summary, in the small church individuals and not committees count the most. In everything the small church does, a good bit of time is given to fellowship needs. Relationships are all important. Planning is done for shorter time frames if done at all. In decision making, a participatory democracy functions that is “owned and operated by the laity.” Time operates according to an internal rather than an external clock. In outreach, usually the new members, rather than the old ones, take the initiative in inviting prospective participants/members. Giving of financial resources is mostly based upon people’s perceived needs of the congregation. Decision making is relational. Caring for one another is of utmost concern. Sounds to me like we need the small church.