Big Decisions for Our Small Churches

The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday Small Church Mosaicmornings, according to the 2015 National Congregations Study.  (The median church size is the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger.)

I have great affection for several churches with less than 50 members/regular participants. I’m thinking of one with 25 members.  Another has 11 members.  Yet another has 32. What will those congregations look like in five years?  Here are some options:

  • Live Until We Die – The congregation could keep going until they can no longer pay their utility bills, not to mention afford any semblance of professional  leadership.  The inability to afford regular pastoral leadership means that – while the church might continue to offer the most basic features of community life together (weekly worship, emergency pastoral care) –  it’s virtually impossible for a church to expand its mission with part time pastoral attention.  Without intentional neighborhood outreach, discipleship training, and leadership development, a church will eventually die.  Life expectancy is directly determined by the size of the church endowment (to keep paying those utility bills.)
  • Live With Volunteer Leadership – Maybe our congregations cannot afford full time leadership, but our volunteer leaders are strong and spiritually mature.  Or maybe we have a theological commitment to embrace First Century ministry in that we’ve decided that we’ll have no paid leaders.  Everyone will serve according to her/his gifts and abilities.  The problem here is that after working a 40-50 hour week in their secular jobs, they will have little energy to offer their church the level of commitment needed to thrive.  Many of our members are so utterly busy and weary that we are grateful for anyone who can commit to “two hours every Tuesday” or “an hour once a month.”   Unless the congregation is comprised of many healthy retired members or independently wealthy younger members, this ministry cannot be sustained indefinitely.  Life expectancy is directly determined by the availability and willingness of members to devote many hours of healthy leadership – in addition to having balanced home and work lives.
  • Live with an Idealistic Pastor  – Maybe the congregation is blessed with an energetic pastor who works full-time but is paid part-time, in hopes that the church will grow to the point of being able to afford to pay more in the future.  Filled with vision and the Spirit, this pastor make personal sacrifices  – perhaps to the point of martyrdom and exhaustion.  But life expectancy is determined by the willingness of the congregation to make their own financial and personal sacrifices.  The congregation will also have to make cultural sacrifices (e.g. giving up the way things have always been if new people join the church.)

Most of our churches under 50 members will probably close in the next five years or less, but there is nothing shameful about this.

In their earlier history, some of congregations transformed their communities. In some cases, once thriving churches were always social clubs and it was never about Jesus.  They were doomed to shutter one day. Other churches could not survive issues beyond their control (a fire, a flood, an economic downturn.)

But none of this means that The Church of Jesus Christ is done.  It’s simply shifting.  Either we also shift or we make way for something new.

What decisions are the small churches in your lives making in these shifting times?  I’m especially looking for good news stories.

4 responses to “Big Decisions for Our Small Churches

  1. Pingback: Big Decisions for Our Small Churches | THINKING...

  2. Is there a different future for the 50 member church that used to be much larger than the 50 member church that has been around that size for 150 years.


    • I ask because the 150 yr old “Church on the Prairie” types have almost always had different types of pastoral leadership. Rarely if ever have they had solo installed pastors. Yoked parishes, seminary students who lived in manse and commuted to school, the part time AP at County Seat Church served Prairie as well, semi retired pastors living in manse, Sunday supply preachers while the elders and probably more importantly the Women’s group kept everything running.

      Do the “Praries” have anything to teach the rest of us in 2015?


  3. Here we go, the unsolicited recommendation, and you probably know of this one already … Ray may well have some good stories to pass on to you, either in this text or via e-mail. I get the sense he’d be only too happy to share.

    Small Churches: Real Possibilities for Hard Times
    David A. Ray, Maine Authors Publishing, Rockland ME

    This is more a handbook than a text, dealing with every issue and theme from worship to money to self-esteem, and all the more stronger for that. It’s a tremendous resource for treating small churches (defined as under 100 worshippers) as small and gifted, rather than not-big and deficient. Ray has been thinking, writing, and consulting about small churches for over 30 years as a pastor, and has taught in seminaries and worked in judicatories. Mike Caldwelll turned me on to his books back at Andover Newton when Mike was serving a small church in northern Mass., and they served me well as I found my way among the moose and the pine trees in Maine. The big obvious-but-overlooked learning that I took away from him is that small churches are fellowship-centered, not program-centered. All the traditional marks of ecclesial life – teaching, mission, worship – thus take on a coloration not often found in textbooks or seminary classrooms. Discipling, for instance, looks much more like finding a stranger a seat at the family table than like incorporating individuals into an organization. (One blurb is from my old mentor Hal Harrison, former Associate Conference Minister, Vermont Conference, UCC – a huge plus!) Ray is no Pollyanna, but he has seen stuff work. Read, and feel hopeful about small churches!

    Thanks for indulging me, Auxiliary Bishop Edmiston 😉


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