How the Family Church Grows

How the Family Church Grows
Leadership Magazine

Honest talk about leading change in the smaller congregation. A Leadership Forum

“Churches are getting smaller and larger”—that’s the analysis of some who read church demographics. As the culture shifts, the survivor churches seem to be large, full-service churches, and small, intimate-family churches. Many books and seminars trumpet large churches. Fewer provide help for growing small churches.

Leadership asked three veterans of small churches to give honest and practical answers to questions such as “What does growth mean when it may cause a church to lose what is most precious to it—its family feeling?” The candid discussion came from:

* Kathy Callahan-Howell, who planted and has ministered for twelve years in a small, urban church: Winton Community Free Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
* Gary Farley, a former bi-vocational pastor, who served in the Town and Country department of the Home Mission Board (Southern Baptist) for thirteen years. He is director of the Center for Rural Church Leadership.
* Martin Giese, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and co-director of the Country Shepherds workshop, a training seminar for pastors of rural churches.

How do you define “small church”?

Gary: The small church sees itself as a family. People are connected through ethnicity, vocation, or place. Often there are several generations. People in small churches interact with each other outside of church—at the post office, at the Lions Club, at the turkey shoot, at the Friday-night football game. They drink coffee at the cafe in the morning before they go to work.

Martin: That creates a climate of intimacy and a strong level of accountability that can be uncomfortable. It also makes evangelism difficult. How do you evangelize someone who has watched you go through your teen years—or watched your dad go through his teen years?

Kathy: In my denomination, a church of two hundred is considered big. There’s a denominational factor in defining “small.” I pastor in an urban neighborhood and, in one sense my people have lots of interaction with each other outside of church. But in contrast to Martin’s rural setting, people in small urban churches have huge networks, so evangelism isn’t as hard.

Martin: Many people in a rural setting see themselves as a CEO; they are management, and the pastor is labor.

Gary: Most older churches have developed bell cows—matriarchs and patriarchs who have carried them through difficult times. Then young pastors arrive with a kind of military mindset: “I’m ordained, I’m going to lead, and this old guy needs to get out of my way.”

In a small church, different people can lead parades around different things. Good leaders have the sense to know when they need to be out front and when they need to be in the back. Over time, as people see you’re not there for your aggrandizement, they trust you more.

How do you reconcile your call to lead with the reality that you need to be given permission to lead?

Martin: I knew a pastor in a rural church in western Minnesota. He was delighted when, in the early part of his ministry, all his initiatives were passed in business meetings with no discussion. He was puzzled later when none of the decisions was implemented. He discovered that the real business meeting began after the official meeting adjourned. People would get cups of coffee, meet in the aisles of the church, review all the meeting decisions, and either ratify or nullify them. What was key here was “consensus.” The small church gravitates toward consensus and feels anxious if there isn’t at least a perception of consensus.

What does growth mean for a church with a family identity?

Kathy: The family image still works. In a family there are children. Those children eventually get married and have children. That’s how a family grows.

Gary: Sometimes, though, when small churches grow, they get to a certain size and then fragment.

Martin: The key word is slowly. There’s a limit to how large a group can get and still preserve the family feel. That may be one reason small churches fight so fiercely not to grow. Our church is situated in a rural area, but we use the term rurban, because the area draws a lot of retirees from urban communities. Its membership is half rural and half urban. That tension affects nearly every decision we make, from whether to leave the lights on to how we develop ministry.

Kathy: It’s overwhelming for a smaller church when it suddenly becomes the “in” church—the sermons are good, the music is good, so it’s the happening place to be. People feel invaded. Growth can have a negative effect if the church suddenly receives an influx of people disgruntled from a church split or frustrated with their former church. In our case, we’re seeing slow growth, almost all of it from conversions. With that kind of growth, it’s much easier to envelop new people.

Martin: When a congregation I served grew from around fifty to seventy on a Sunday morning, an elderly lady said, “I don’t know anyone around here anymore.” What she meant was “I no longer can catch up with everyone’s life on a Sunday morning.”

How do you respond to that concern?

Martin: I sat down with many of the older people and said, “A lot of things have happened here through the years, but we’re outgrowing this building. Moving won’t be easy. But you know what? The Lord is answering your prayers by helping this church grow. Isn’t it odd that an answer to prayer would bring some pain, some adjustment?”

Kathy: I accept that some churches need to be small—as long as people are coming to the kingdom, and as long as there is spiritual regeneration. What isn’t healthy is for a church to say, “It’s okay to just be us and never reach out.”

Gary: I used to think that every small church ought to change and become a big suburban church. I don’t believe that anymore. I think some people fit best in a small church.

Sometimes those who fit best are eccentric people who wouldn’t feel accepted in a larger church. Do you ever worry that new people might be turned off by quirky members?

Martin: Sometimes you wonder whether you have enough functional people to do outreach. But I believe that God will bring enough people to accomplish what he wants to do. The elderly woman I mentioned, who said she didn’t know anyone anymore, had a nervous tic and was flighty. I found out that she had one son who had served in Korea and had never come home. For two years she didn’t know where he was. Somehow, in the providence of God, a guy found her and told her he had seen her son starve to death in a Korean prisoner-of-war camp. Yet she wasn’t bitter at God; she loved Jesus.

Kathy: People who have a problem with diversity don’t belong in my church. We have a multiracial church, which we set out to create. I want people to attend our church because they can accept all kinds of people. Our church has a gentleman who functions at a low level. One Sunday he couldn’t find the hymn in the hymnal, so a woman, Sharon, walked up and stood beside him through the entire song, holding the hymnal so he could sing with her. Then she went back to her seat. I was so proud. Those are the people I want in my church.

What other things can a smaller church do well?

Gary: Endure. The life expectancy of a metropolitan church is about fifty years. Contrast that with a rural church whose life expectancy may be centuries. Recently I looked at a list of Southern Baptist churches that were in Kansas City in 1928. Practically none of those churches exist today. Those that have survived do so in name only, usually in a different location.

Kathy: Smaller churches can get a higher percentage of people involved in ministry. I love all the hoopla about finding your gifts, and certainly it’s easier to be energized when you’re working out of your giftedness, but the reality of a small church is that some people are going to have to do stuff they’re not gifted to do.

Pastoring a small church in an age that glorifies bigness can make a minister feel small. What contributes to that feeling?

Martin: A pastor feels small when he feels that his peers in larger churches don’t take him seriously. But even we small-church pastors embrace that ethic. We don’t take one another seriously. Another factor is constant negative self-assessment by our people. They say, “Well, Pastor, we’re not much of a church, and you’re just the pastor for us.” People don’t mean to denigrate their shepherd, but the effect is to shift your focus from what God has called you to do to the struggle of the church.

Gary: Pastors are generalists rather than specialists, and our society pays specialists better. That puts a lot of pressure on a person to know about everything and be good at all things. In addition, I see more and more churches being pastored by bi-vocational leaders. A person in that position can think, “If I were really accomplishing something, my church would be able to support me full-time.” Changing economics only exacerbates this problem.

How can a pastor help raise a church’s self-esteem?

Gary: One way is for the church to do something well and then celebrate it. It may not be great by the standards of First Church, but it’s good for your church. So celebrate a successful vacation Bible school. Build on that sense of accomplishment.

Kathy: A small church has to focus on doing one or two things well. If it tries to spread itself too thin, it won’t do anything well. The attitude of the pastor makes a huge difference. The word that comes to mind is vision. People will catch it. When we started our Free Methodist church, we inherited a few saints from what used to be a United Methodist congregation. That church had died, and several women who joined our church caught the vision for our church plant. Today, they get so excited: “Oh, look at all these new people.” It’s not that they’ll never feel discomfort, but they were able to get on board.

Martin: You celebrate survival. Many pastors with ambition come to a place and say, “What have you people been doing here for forty years?” That’s a mistake. The reality is that, in some settings, survival is an achievement. When we were going through our transition to a new building, I interviewed our custodian on the platform. He was in his eighties. He had hand-dug the basement of the old church with a shovel. When the young people, who were excited about leaving the old building, heard this guy talk about digging the old church basement, they suddenly understood what it was costing him to leave. The newcomers had a new respect for the contributions of the old-timers, and the old-timers felt affirmed and ready to move on.

What does a smaller-church pastor have to change internally, for the church to be able to grow?

Martin: We do ourselves and the kingdom a disservice when we conclude that we’re the leaders when, in actuality, every church has people who are already leaders. Our credibility goes up as we recognize those leaders God has placed in that church. As time passes, those leaders grant us more and more leadership opportunities.

Kathy: As a church planter, I had to change from planter mode to pastor mode. While planting the church, nobody else was making decisions because there wasn’t anybody else. My husband and I made all the decisions. Figuring out when it was time to shift into using other people was hard.

Kathy, what has motivated you to stay at your church for twelve years?

Kathy: Three reasons: One is my family; my husband feels he’s where God wants him to be. Another is a commitment to long-term ministry. We’re just beginning to reap fruit from seeds we’ve been sowing for years. The third is I have outside interests such as writing that help me feel that I’m part of a larger picture.

Martin: During at least three periods when I was at one church, I left claw marks on my walls. Were it not for a sense of call and commitment, I would have cut and run. During those times, I started to learn about my motives for ministry.

“Just be faithful” is the philosophy of many smaller churches. How does a church measure its faithfulness?

Martin: A church needs to be more than “just faithful.” The question is, “Faithful to what?” Churches struggle and die when they persist in being faithful to the wrong things, such as to the program that worked in the late forties. Being faithful isn’t a matter of large or small. We need biblically effective churches in every size range. In the kingdom of God, small and insignificant are two different things. There’s no such thing as an insignificant ministry in the kingdom of God.

The above article, “How the Family Church Grows” was written by Leadership Magazine. The article was excerpted from Leadership, Spring 1998, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Page 111. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”