Loving the small church?

When I was in license-to-preach school, we read a book by Alan Walrath that made the argument that there are churches that are small by nature and need to be led and loved for what they are — small.

Recently, I was reading Jorge Acevedo’s book on church vitality, in which he recounts the story of his church taking over small churches and remaking them in the image of his large and thriving congregation. Small churches, he argues implicitly, are small by circumstance and with the right makeover can grow.

Are these visions complementary? Are they at odds? Do they indicate a different focus or mission?

As a pastor of two small congregations, these questions are on my mind a good deal.


8 thoughts on “Loving the small church?

  1. My impulse is the latter, but I’ve spent the last six years listening to folks like Willimon, (George) Hunter and Acevedo. That folks could live within walking distance of small churches and not be constantly invited baffles me. Every church doesn’t need to be huge, but every healthy church (at the very least those in growing areas) should be growing. God won’t settle with less than everything. Perhaps some faithful churches may remain small by sacrificially sending disciples and resources to do work elsewhere, but there should be reproduction somehow.

    1. Your last point resonates with me as I just used in a sermon. If Christ is alive in us, then he should be growing and reproducing — qualities that all living things share.

      I worry that I do not do my job in fostering this living growth.

  2. I think one has to first ask why a church is small. Is it small because it is way out in the country and everyone who comes has to drive for some distance to get there? Or is it one of many churches of the same denomination in a general location?

    When I started in Kansas back in 1995, churches were in rural areas (I did a three-church charge for five weeks and drove 185 miles round trip each Sunday). Each of those churches would be considered small. Now, it has been sometime since I was out that way but I would think those churches are still there today and very much a part of the community they serve (or at least I hope that is the case).

    Here in New York, there are some 100 United Methodist Churches within 75 miles of my location. Many of them are small and represent a different history. Some of these churches are going to die simply because there is some place easier and perhaps more vital that a person can go to.

    The problem as I see it is that we are trying to make each church in the image of the big churches and we don’t look at where the small churches are and where the people are.

    Some churches are small but could definitely grow because they are in the right area at the right time. Others are never going to grow simply because there aren’t people moving into the area. But that doesn’t mean we write them off; they are most definitely a part of that community and it would hurt the community if we didn’t do anything. I think we have to look at each church, no matter what its size, in terms of where it is and what it is doing in that community. One model will not work in that regard.

  3. As with most issues, I imagine context is key. A small church in a large community, it seems to me, is small because it has ceased to be the church, operating instead for the benefit and at the behest of the existing membership. A small church in a small community can (although it isn’t automatically) be a beautiful expression of Jesus to the world.

    Though I’ve never read Acevedo’s book, having heard him speak I get the impression the small churches his congregation has revitalized (hopefully Jesus has revitalized them through the larger congregation) were not in small communities. They were small because they refused to adapt when their surrounding demographics changed, continuing to do things as they had always been done because that is what they (existing members) liked. That set of circumstances is a far cry from the vital small congregations in rural communities throughout the connection.

    Church growth literature tends to hold up small congregations in comparatively much larger communities as the exemplar. In my experience, all small churches are not the same. Some are small because they have ceased to be the church (true of some large congregations as well). Some are small because that is their context for ministry.

  4. John, I’ve written about what it takes in terms of capacity for a congregation in the US, generally speaking, to be able to do what congregations were and are still designed to do with adequate competence. You can find that here: http://emergingumc.blogspot.com/2013/02/75.html

    As I see it, “small church lovers” and “small church colonizers” may be more or less talking past each other, and talking past what I’m addressing as well. I really can’t find anything “romantic” about an organization that lacks the capacity to fulfill what organizations of its types are intended to do. I also am not convinced that the primary measure of vitality of a congregation in a given place is whether it can grow numerically or not. In my view, nothing, not even “dramatic church growth,” can justify colonialism. I see colonialism as sinful to the core. I am not suggesting that what Jorge’s church is doing is necessarily a species of colonialism– I don’t know whether it is or not. But I have seen such instances at work, and I find them not only to commit the sin of colonialism (an “outside” power imposing its vision and resources to reshape an existing community into its own image) but also the related sin of not taking seriously the gifts and resources of the people already in that community as God’s good work among them, already in progress.

    That said, I do advocate for doing what can be done not to burden Christian communities that lack the resources to function fully as congregations with the expectations and responsibilities that come with being a competent congregation in their context. It’s not “colonialism” for the DS or bishop to help smaller Christian communities let go burdens too big for them, and either claim those capacities they have (and do something else as a group, while connecting as individuals with competent congregations), or combining several smaller groups into a group that has the capacity and the will to function as a congregation, or even connecting them more directly as campuses of a larger congregation that does have the capacity to support that site and the community that has gathered there to function in a fully competent way. It’s just that it may be a “thin line” between “creative collaboration” with a megachurch and an instance of colonialism– and that’s a line we must guard not to cross.

  5. There’s a danger on each end of this spectrum. On one end are those who romanticize the small church as a better way. On the other end are those who condemn small churches as lacking in vision or leadership – especially if it is in a highly populated area – and insist that without continual numerical growth there must be something terribly wrong.

    If we take that thought to its logical conclusion, does that mean that God wants our cities to be filled with only megachurches? That’s what continual growth would lead to, after all. Or could it be that each size of church has a role to play?

    Every community, including large urban and suburban centers, needs to have a mix of house, small, large and (if the community is big enough) megachurches. There’s no evidence to suggest that small churches are inherently more or less healthy or faithful to the gospel than megachurches – or vise versa.

    Each size of church has a role to play. And each has both strengths and weaknesses. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” no matter how big or small that hand may be.

Comments are closed.