The Place of the small Church in Today’s World
Kenneth O. Gangel
Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1984): pages 55-66
- Sixty percent of all Protestant churches in the United States and Canada have fewer than 200 members each. Two-thirds of those average less than 120 in a Sunday morning worship service. And at least one half of all Protestant congregations in North America can be labeled “small.”Furthermore the population shift over the past decade actually favors the viability of small churches. According to research reported by the United Methodist Church, the towns and countryside’s of this nation added people nearly twice as fast as did the cities from 1970 to 1980, a trend which is expected to continue. The last time nonurban counties outgrew urban ones was more than 160 years ago.
Meanwhile, religious leaders at all points on the theological compass are rethinking the super-church craze of the 1970s. Speaking of the largest Protestant denomination in the world, Danielsen writes, “We praise the Lord for large churches, but the fact of the matter is that churches with over 1,000 in membership make up about 11 percent of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Churches with membership under 300 make up 61.3 percent of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.” In the United Methodist Church congregations with fewer than 200 members represent 64 percent of all the congregations, and in that mainline denomination, 10 percent of the churches have an average attendance of under 20 at the morning worship service, 26 percent average fewer than 35, and 57 percent maintain an average attendance of fewer than 75.
But what is “small” when that tag is applied to churches? Researcher Schaller identifies a figure of 175 worshipers on Sunday morning as an ideal. Allowing for a flexibility factor of 25 either way from that mean, one might say that a church of 150 or fewer worshipers on Sunday morning (or at its principal weekly service) is small. Of course, this is a relative designation since before the days of urbanization, industrialization, and centralization, that size would have been considered more than ample. When viewed against the backdrop of the current infatuation with size, “150” and “small” seem synonymous.
History is on the side of the small church. Bigness is the new kid on the block. Historically, Protestant denominations in the United States have been comparatively small. At the time of the Civil War, the size of the average Protestant church was less than 100 members. A few large churches were in the center of the city, or at the center of the ethnic community. By the turn of the century, the average congregation still had [fewer] than one hundred fifty members.
But Schaller makes an important point when he says that the number of people in attendance is not the issue. He suggests that an entirely different mentality, a distinctive outlook in the small church makes it something other than a scaled-down version of larger congregations in its town or denomination.
To switch analogies, the congregation averaging less than 35 or 40 at worship can be represented by an acorn squash, the church averaging 125 at worship can be depicted by a pumpkin, the congregation averaging 200 at worship might be portrayed by a horse, and the huge church averaging 500 or 600 or more at worship can be symbolized by a fifteen-room house. They are not simply different size specimens from the same genus or species. They are almost as different from one another as a village is unlike a large central city. It is impossible to produce a pumpkin pie by combining three acorn squashes.
As the pastor of a small church (under 1 00), this writer wonders what other metaphors Schaller might have chosen to describe the church of 3,000, 5,000, or 10,000!
Almost 10 years ago Paul Madsen authored a book entitled The Small Church: Valid, Vital, Victorious. Without furrowing the same ground farmed so well by Madsen in that book, the viability of this vast block of “small” churches may again be reviewed.
Is the Small Church Really Valid?
The question, of course, is moot since 60 percent of the churches on the North American continent will not thereby fold up their bulletins and fade away. Perhaps “viability” is a better word than “valid.” Is it viable or even wise for these denominations or local congregations to sustain a ministry which probably does not have the strong possibility of growing to 175 or more within the foreseeable future? After all, more than 50,000 churches in the United States are closed and that specter certainly must haunt a congregation with declining attendance and membership roles in double digits. Yet some distinctive strengths of the small church may not rest in those areas generally advanced by church growth studies and literature. These are areas of extreme importance, however, and may well be closer to the heart of biblical concern than topping last year’s attendance records or beating the church across the town in an annual Sunday school contest.
Strengths of the Small Church
One strength of the small church is its relational emphasis. All churches are or should be macrocosms of the family microcosm. Pushed to its ultimate concern, the family finds its parallel in the universal church, the Heavenly Father, the bridegroom metaphor, and the relationship of believers as spiritual children. Large churches find it necessary to design small-group experiences to capture a relational emphasis which comes naturally in the small church not only by virtue of size but also by perspective. In the large church people are identified and recognized by virtue of office (e.g., “That woman over there is our pianist”) while in a small church almost everyone is known by his or her name, and, it may be added, usually the first name. Stated in sociological terms, the small-church congregation experiences a sense of “primary group” rather than “secondary group.” Of course there are many primary groups in a large church but the congregation as a whole functions as a secondary group. As Ray points out, this is a need-meeting arrangement.
The primary or family group meets three needs people have. First, it gives identity. People have a name and a responsibility. They are recognized when they are there and missed when they are not. Second, it gives people security. They belong and have a voice. They expect the church to be dependable. As one of our members said, “If you need a favor, you don’t feel hesitant to ask because you know someone will be happy to help.” Third, it is what Dudley means by the “caring cell.” People do care about one another.
A second strength of the small church is its decentralized focus. To be sure, small churches led by autocratic pastors may not appear to be decentralized. But autocracy carries with it a bureaucratic climbing impulse that tends to catapult most leaders into larger churches as soon as they can seize an opportunity for upward mobility. Small churches may not be punctual or visibly efficient but they get the job done. Their organizational style tends to be much looser, more informal, more democratic; and it allows for decisions to be made by consensus with a special concern for families and individuals. A planning manual designed for use by churches affiliated with the United Church of Christ promotes an organizational style called “provolution.” The emphasis is on looking ahead and using the group’s energy to design strategies for the future rather than a problem-solving orientation which is much more existential. Provolution focuses on available group resources and the importance of emphasizing strengths.
It is fascinating to note that this decentralized style which the small church tends to develop without a great deal of thought is in line with the wave of the future. Chapter five of John Naisbitt’s best-seller Megatrends emphasizes how late 20th-century society is moving from centralization to decentralization. All this produces in the small church a stronger sense of ownership, loyalty, and faithfulness — and that is a distinct strength.
A third strength of the small church is its resilient persistence. D. Campbell Wyckoff ‘s line about the Sunday school being as “American as crabgrass” can be applied to the small church. It survives disaster after disaster, flies in the face of demographic trends, comes almost to the verge of extinction not once but numerous times, and yet lives on. In the late summer of 1983 this writer was privileged to visit the “homecoming” festivities of the first church he pastored, beginning in 1957. The similarities were mind-boggling. It was almost as though nothing had changed — the building, the grounds, many of the people, the size of the congregation, its outlook, its problems, and its blessings. The congregation, under 50 a quarter of a century ago, is still a congregation under 50. Church growth specialists would have predicted its demise decades ago. Yet the church was founded in 1824! Schaller gives eight reasons for the toughness of the small church: (1) It is not a branch office. (2) It reinforces community. (3) Subsidies increase vulnerability. (4) The socialization factor. (5) The importance of shared experiences. (6) The centrality of worship. (7) The role of the laity. (8) The focal point for loyalty.
When a church’s emphasis is on shared experience rather than multitudinous functions; when preaching is central and life-related; when lay leadership is vital; and when Sunday worship is central in its life, that church is “tough.”
Weaknesses of the Small Church
The small church also has numerous weaknesses, one of which is inadequate resources. This helps explain why small churches are small. According to Madsen five factors persist: an inadequate program, an inadequate field (limited population to draw on), inadequate evangelism, inadequate vision, and inadequate personalities. Inadequacies of the small church are amplified by constant comparison with other large and prosperous congregations nearby. The upright piano does not sound so good after one hears the pipe organ at First Presbyterian; the ladies trio pales by comparison with the 60-voice choir at Faith Baptist; and the struggling, overworked pastor seems at an unfair advantage when stacked up against a 12-member multiple staff team over at Calvary Bible. This is less a problem for the rural church than the urban or suburban church since the points of comparison are magnified in the latter two situations.
One of the resources often found to be inadequate is money. Willimon and Wilson claim that “finances are a perennial problem. The small congregation tends to spend a large proportion of its income (often between one-half and two-thirds) for pastoral services. Even then, it generally shares the pastor with one or more other churches, or employs a part-time minister who also holds a secular job.”
A second weakness may be called an exclusionary atmosphere. Schaller makes a distinction between the fellowship circle and the membership circle. He refers to the dividing line as a wall which protects the insiders from the outsiders. Hansell expands the concept to include three concentric circles inside a square (see the chart). Everything inside the square is membership but “acceptance” does not occur till a parishioner makes it into circle B (this is parallel with Schaller’s membership circle). Point C on the Hansell diagram is comparable to Schafler’s fellowship circle but Hansell adds point D to describe the area where the real power of the church resides. This model does not fit every church. However, the fact that levels of acceptance do exist within the local church emphasizes the exclusionary atmosphere that can come because of long-term leadership dominance by certain membership families.
Another weakness of the small church is pastoral discouragement. In many small churches the pastor is the outsider, a fact often headlined by the common phrase, “We’ve seen pastors come and go here.” Pastoral tenure is generally very short in North American churches — a fact which complicates ministry in a small church, especially when mixed with inadequate resources and the control of a few strong families in an exclusionary atmosphere. Sometimes discouragement comes simply from inappropriate comparison. Besides being difficult and unnecessary for a small rural church to be transformed into a large church, it is probably unwise. The key issue is meeting needs through the Word of God, not a sense of se!f-actualization through successful involvement in the numbers game.
Then too, few things are private in a small community. Everyone knows the pastor’s family, his finances, and his faults. Some men find this transparency difficult to handle and therefore view the small church only as a stepping-stone to a “stronger ministry.” Inadequate congregational identity may lead to inadequate ministerial identity, an uncertain road to discouragement. Pastors of small churches should memorize and frequently recite 1 Corinthians 1:26-30.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
Can the Small Church Be Vital?
In the light of what has already been written this question is rhetorical, but it requires reaffirmation. Yes, the small church can be vital.
The Small Church Can Be Vital in Its Worship
Willimon and Wilson state that “there maybe small churches without a building, without an educational program, without a budget, and without formal organizational structure, but there are no small churches without preaching and worship.” Of course, not all small churches are carrying on satisfactory worship programs but that does not detract from the fact that worship is central in the life and experience of every church. Danielsen identifies “four adjectives that describe effective worship in the small church”: important, indigenous, innovative, and inclusive. The list speaks for itself and serves as a reminder that the enhancement of worship experience is probably a need in most congregations of any size.
The Small Church Can Be Vital in Its Preaching
Willimon and Wilson emphasize that a preacher, perhaps especially in the small church, is to be a “servant of the Word.” They correctly emphasize the significance of variety and relevance in small church preaching and warn that the quality of preaching in the small church must never be judged by showmanship and the size of the crowd.
Preachers on television and in immense city churches may be great rhetoricians; occasionally, they may be great expositors of the Word. But they will never be great servants of the Word, because they lack the pastoral, day-to-day encounters with the total life of God’s people, which is a prerequisite for faithfulness to the Word. . . . In the small church, where the preacher, known by the congregation, stands before a congregation known by the preacher, and where it is apparent that this is a family, gathering before the riches of their Book, and that the word that is spoken is understood to be the contemporary family’s word, great preaching begins.
In order to be vital, the small church must emphasize lay leadership. Few small churches will be multi-staff ministries. Few will have the advantage of high educational levels in the congregation or the involvement of already trained and experienced leadership. The pastor therefore becomes an enabler in contrast to the managerial role of the multi-staff team leader. Such a skilled facilitator, working within the relational patterns of the small church, can cultivate magnificent vines in the vineyard of the Lord if he is willing to labor there for the time it takes to produce the fruit. Of the many reasons why such fruit does not regularly grow in the small church, two are paramount: (1) It takes too much patience and humility to stay with a small church for that many years. (2) Seminaries may not have trained pastors to be enablers.
The Small Church Can Be Vital in Its Education
In the small church the pastor is his own minister of education and therefore becomes the key person in the nurturing program. He is responsible for interpreting the educational ministry, organizing its various facets, and providing inspirational leadership to Sunday school teachers, youth sponsors, visitors, teachers of home Bible classes, and all the work in the educational framework. The enabling relationship is once again most obvious. However, a wise pastor will soon gather around him a small but effective Christian education committee. As disciples these committee members can absorb his enthusiasm for the educational ministry and learn the process of directing and facilitating the work of others.
The genius of successful Christian education ministries in small churches is adaptation, the clarification of what community needs are and how the church proposes to meet them. Carolyn Brown is on the right track when she says:
The point is not to do everything, but to select those forms of Christian education that fit your church, and to do them very well. In doing this, I expect you will find yourselves capable of providing your members with opportunities to grow in their faith that will prove interesting, exciting, and more effective than you ever dreamed possible.
Willimon and Wilson also speak of the educational value of the regular events of church life. “Never forget that pastors are educating each time they lead worship. In fact, for the small church, worship may be (as it always should have been for the church) the primary educational event. Pastors must take care when they lead worship, that they teach the things they really mean to teach!”
The qualities that make up effective education — relational emphasis, verification of needs and objectives, affirmation of the importance of each student as an individual member of the whole, and ownership of programs by the people who lead them — are components which come more easily to the small church than to the large.
The Small Church Can Be Vital in Congregational Life
Though the large church may often and loudly say it is people-oriented, it tends to be centered on programs. But the personality of the small church emerges from the collective experiences and relationships of its members.
The larger congregation knows who it is because of what it does, and it must keep on doing, in order to reassure its existence. The small church has identity because of the experiences that it brings from the past. Its primary satisfactions are in the relationships among people who share experiences in faith. They find identity in their character, not in their activities.
A church without vast buildings and programs virtually is forced to say to visitors and potential members, “We are who we are, the people of God in this place.” The emphasis in such churches can
thus be on their uniqueness and distinctives rather than on the didymous likeness to other congregations.
The Small Church Can Be Vital in Its Evangelism
Two false ideas must be eliminated if the small church is to be vital in evangelism. One is the social role, so often played in rural areas, in which the church serves as a transmitter of culture. This is less a problem for evangelical congregations, of course, but there is still that nagging link with the past that detracts from the mission of the present. A second dangerous notion is survival orientation. Most small churches are far from Maslow’s “self-actualization” need level. Shedding a survival mentality does not mean doubling or tripling in size; rather it is a focus on what God wants to do with a given congregation in a given place at a given time. When these two false concepts are removed, small churches can give themselves more actively to the winning of souls.
Is The Small Church Really Victorious?
Leaders in small church congregations are more likely to be victorious, in the proper spiritual and biblical understanding of that word, if they have taken their eyes off of society’s values and placed them on eternity’s values. Ray calls for Christians to be delivered from “sizism.”
Permeating our consciousness is an assumption that smaller is lesser and bigger is better. In the world of the church, it is the churches with the biggest Sunday School, the biggest mission budget, the biggest membership, the biggest fleet of busses, or the biggest building that get the biggest press and prizes.
A new orientation of perspective, priorities, and power is needed.
Toward A New Perspective
A major step in developing a victorious perspective is to understand what Schaller means when he says “the small church is different.” Of course, small churches can be defined and described statistically, geographically, economically, sociologically, and theologically. But they must also be understood psychologically, particularly with respect to the issue of self-esteem and mission-orientation. A small church should ask itself these questions: “Is there a positive enthusiasm about the ministry of our church? Do we experience a healthy cooperation between pastor and lay leadership? Do our ministers generally exceed a tenure of two or three years? Are we able to articulate our goals and move objectively toward our goals? Are we regularly considering new ministries to reach different groups of people, perhaps those who have been neglected by other churches in the community? Have we broken down the walls between membership and fellowship and mastered the task of assimilating new members?” Positive answers must be given to these and other questions to keep the perspective of the small church genuinely victorious.
Toward New Priorities
A small church cannot do everything it would like to do. Among its various and noble goals, therefore, it must identify specific priorities and work toward those aspects of ministry. The endemic strengths of the small church ought to lead to some understanding of priorities. The essentiality of worship, for example, leads to a strong emphasis on the Sunday morning worship service. The relational nature of the congregation might lead to a strengthening of fellowship groups or body-life emphasis in connection with one of the regular services.
Schaller identifies the priority concerns of small church members as “money, morale, members, and ministerial leadership.” These are priorities expressed in the most general terms. Each congregation must identify for itself what emphases it will adopt in the ministry to which God has called it.
Toward New Power
Here it is important to distinguish between sociological and spiritual values. Some of the thrust of these paragraphs has dealt with cultural and sociological factors since the church is both organization and organism. Indeed many of the advantages of the small church are sociological in nature and dare not be minimized, though they are not found in the more preferable theological domain. Power for ministry, however, comes not from patterns of makeup but rather from the Word and the Spirit. The pastor of a small church dare not “endure” its temporary difficulties on his way to a larger more significant ministry. It is imperative that he serve the Word and the people as though he will minister in that church for the next 50 years. Like Titus on Crete or Timothy in Ephesus, he is a servant sent by God to be His representative to a specific part of the universal body of Christ.
What lies ahead for the small church? The demographics are most encouraging.
From 1820 to the mid-1960s (with the exception of a five-year period in the 1930s during the Great Depression), the basic population migration in the United States has been from rural to urban areas. A long term reversal of this pattern began during the mid- to late 1960s. The dominant migration pattern in the United States (and in most parts of Canada) today is from urban to rural communities.
The demographic trend, when coupled with what Yankelovich has called the “search for self-fulfillment in a world turned upside down,” leads Schaller to conclude that:
. . . the next fifteen years will find thousands of small congregations accomplishing what they always knew they could not do. Some will open a Christian day school. Others will remodel their buildings to accommodate the physically handicapped. Thousands will relocate and construct new meeting houses in order to accommodate newcomers from urban areas.
It appears Madsen was correct — the small church can be valid, vital, and victorious. Its impact, far surpassing the size of a certain congregation or even the collective strength of all small churches, represents one of the great evidences of the faithfulness of God to His people. And the history of small churches in the past augers a positive expectation for the future. Though each one is small, together they have great potential for spiritual impact. Willimon and Wilson describe the reaction of American troops to the German army’s surprise attack at the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.
No one of these little road junction stands could have had a profound effect on the German drive. But hundreds of them, impromptu little battles at nameless bridges and at unknown crossroads, had an effect of slowing enormously the German impetus. . . . these little diehard “one man stands” alone in the snow and fog without communications, would prove enormously effective out of all proportion to their size.
So it is with the small church in today’s world.