Are We Putting Our Small Churches Out of Business?

(And is that ever a good thing?)tiny church

Throughout all denominations in the U.S. there seem to be two tracks of churches (and yes, this is a very simplistic description):

  • There are the large congregations with multiple paid staff members and lots of programs.
  • There are the small congregations with little or no paid staff and few – if any – programs.

Some would consider a “large church” to have over 500 members.  Others would say – if you have 150 members – you are “large.”   Some would consider a “small church to have 50 members or less.  Others would say – if you have 150 members – you are “small.”

If you ask me, size doesn’t always matter in that I’ve been a part of both large churches (with 200-500 in worship) and small churches (20-50 in worship) which both exemplify the joy of Christ and the beauty of community service.  I’ve also worshiped with  large and small congregations who are dying and – sadly – it’s obvious to everyone but the congregation.

Dying large churches have some time on their side.  They could shift their culture and make their ministry about Jesus (if it hasn’t been about Jesus), about serving others (if it’s been about serving themselves), and about healthy discipleship (if their leaders have been unhealthy.)  But shifting a church culture is not for sissies and most of us will not expend the energy.

Dying small churches have less time and less money.  They are especially impacted when their denominations increase their institutional costs.  For example:

  • Most denominational congregations require a fee per member to be paid to the denomination to cover regional and national administrative support.  Many of our denominations will be raising those fees in 2016.
  • Denominations generally require a minimum salary for pastors in addition to pension and medical benefits dues.  Both dues and minimum salary requirements are increasing.

Can our small churches afford to stay open?  Can they afford even a part-time paid pastor?  Do they need a pastor?

Everything depends on whether or not congregations are willing to allow their church to be wholly and completely about God’s mission.  Here’s what I know about church:

  • If our leaders are dysfunctional, self-centered, tired, and spiritually immature, the church will and should close.  Please close sooner than later, and give all your money to a congregation with vision and energy.  It doesn’t matter if you got married in that building long ago or your children went to Sunday School there.  It doesn’t matter if the windows were given by your grandfather or your mother was the organist for fifty years.  Please remember that congregations have seasons and sometimes the most faithful thing to do is close – especially if your church has been more about you and your family than God and God’s family.
  • If our leaders are healthy, mission-focused, energized, and spiritually curious, the church will be fine.  Yes, you might struggle financially, but you get it.  Ministry is not about the building.  It’s about transforming souls and loving broken people.

Increasingly our struggling congregations will (and should) close over the next ten years.  This is not a terrible thing.  It can be a very faithful thing.

Maybe – for the sake of offering a living wage for our pastors and paying the real costs of their medical insurance – we really do need to increase denominational fees and requirements.  It’s not that we want to put struggling churches out of business.   It’s that we want our congregations – of every size – to take seriously our commission to make disciples.  Call me crazy, but if we are indeed doing that, our churches  – of every size – will be just fine.

3 responses to “Are We Putting Our Small Churches Out of Business?

  1. I am going to have to differ here: >>If our leaders are healthy, mission-focused, energized, and spiritually curious, the church will be fine. Yes, you might struggle financially, but you get it. Ministry is not about the building. It’s about transforming souls and loving broken people.<<

    My small church (55 members, 20-30 in worship) is blessed with healthy, mission-focused, energized, and spiritually curious leaders. Not many, but a few. But we could not turn around the weighty ship of the past complacent, "social club" church model before we ran out of money. Yes, there were options: forget about ordained pastoral leadership; unload the costly, outsized building; find mission partners rather than tenants . . . we all know the drill. But that sort of transformation takes time and it takes types of expertise that we are all challenged to develop.

    I think that most of our people will be fine. They have come to understand that the church is not the building, and only two weeks after their heart-wrenching vote to close, some are already beginning to rally in response to the gracious invitations of a neighboring congregation. But the congregation itself will be gone by the end of the year.

    As far as congregations being fine, I believe that that will require a truly connectional denomination as a whole, with Presbyteries willing and capable of exercising long-range foresight and teaching the leadership, business, mission, and spiritual skills for want of which our congregations are drying up.

    Tell Debbie hi. I learned some stuff from her!


  2. Thanks Robin. I can’t wait to learn from Debbie too!

    It sounds like you’ve done good work. You’re right in that your people will be fine, but with a different community. It sad to close the doors of a specific community but the community doesn’t die. It just morphs – if healthy. Thanks again for your comment.


  3. Jan, you are so right. Some churches need to close so that their life support resources can be used for ministry. It always hours to prune my roses, even if they have just a few buds on them. But come spring, they are a lot happier and healthier because I took the clippers to them.


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