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.