What’s New in Small Congregation Ministry?


What’s New in Small Congregation Ministry?

Popular authors express opposite views regarding small-membership churches. One expert says, “The small church is obsolete; their pastors are hospice directors!” Another expert says, “Small churches are the only place authentic ministry happens!”

Neither opinion is accurate. Small-membership churches can be as healthy and effective as midsize and large churches. Ironically, the journey in that direction often begins when small churches shift away from trying to expand their list of activities and focus instead on increasing the quality of a shorter list of ministries.

The Top Ten for Small Churches

Healthy, effective small-membership churches do ten things with excellence. If these qualities are absent, most other endeavors are superfluous.

1. Caring. That happens through (a) a warm fellowship climate that emphasizes concern for each individual and (b) a pastor with strong people skills who focuses on love, affirmation, shepherding, flexibility, and “caring about individuals” rather than on “leading an institution.”

2. Quality Elementary Sunday School. That is most likely to happen when the church has five Sunday school classes from preschool thorough high school. Otherwise, the congregation retains few young adult families with children who visit the worship services. Some experts pronounce “terminally ill” churches that have no children in the elementary age range in the Sunday school: Regardless of other effective ministries, the church withers away. Reversing that childlessness driven trip toward the ecclesiastical cemetery takes determination and effort. Recovery seldom happens incrementally, one or two children every few months.

Reinventing the Sunday school in childless churches requires massive effort. Church members must spend five months accumulating five times as many “prospect” names as the total number of children they expect to attend the new elementary classes they launch the first Sunday after Labor Day.

Other essentials: (a) Well-equipped nursery for infants and toddlers, with one paid adult staff member present every Sunday. (b) Two adult classes, one of which focuses on age-25-44 young adults.

3. Worship Music. If the congregation fails to meet the spiritual needs of all four adult generations, each decade moves it toward demise. Every Sunday, use all four types: Gospel, which 75 percent of people born before 1927 find inspiring (these hymns were composed from 1870 to 1940). Classic, which 75 percent of people born between 1927 and 1946 find spiritually enriching (these hymns were composed from 1517 to 1870). Early contemporary, which 75 percent of people born between 1945 and 1965 find spiritually inspiring (these hymns were composed between 1960 and 1980). Late contemporary, which 75 percent of people with birth dates after 1964 find spiritually meaningful (those hymns were composed since 1980). Sing all four hymn types uptempo, rather than at a funeral slow pace.

4. Enthusiastic Invitations and Hospitality. Three out of four worship visitors who eventually join your church attended the first time because someone invited them. After they get there, the extroverted body language and conversations of worshippers must say, “We’re glad you’re here!” During the next six days, congregations in which a high percentage of first-time visitors return next Sunday send three friendliness signals: A letter from the pastor mailed on Monday. A brief front door visit to deliver cookies and a church brochure no later than Monday evening. A friendly telephone call from a parishioner the following Saturday morning.

5. Attractive Facilities. Especially important: Up-to-date nursery, foyer, restrooms, and hallway leading to the nursery. Second tier important: The up-to-date elementary classroom furniture does not send young parents a museum message.

6. Annual Stewardship Education. Why does the financial giving in most small churches run $200 to $400 per-worship-attendee-per-year less than in midsize and large churches? Recent research proves that question has only one answer: the absence of an effective annual stewardship campaign. What kind of annual stewardship education programs work well in small congregations? Find one that (a) has a track record in small churches and (b) teaches biblical principles such as the need of the giver to give for his or her spiritual benefit, not just the need of the church to receive so it can pay bills. Examples: Consecration Sunday (Cokesbury: 800/672-1789) and Grow-One Sunday. (Download by clicking on “Digital Store” at www.cokesbury.com) Without an effective annual stewardship campaign, money shortages paint doom and gloom over the small congregation’s opportunities.

7. One to Three New Experiences Each Year. In each case, leaders must refrain from making one of them “The First Annual….” People need both sameness and change. Christians grow in enthusiasm and faith when they hear the old message presented in new ways.

8. First-class Printed Materials. People judge books by their covers and strangers by their clothing and demeanor. If worship bulletins, newsletters, and brochures send a second-rate signal, visitors assume the church is that quality. Several companies provide congregations with a free Pictorial Directory (the companies make a profit by selling pictures to members who use them for Christmas gifts and other purposes). As part of that package, some directory companies provide free or low-cost, color publicity brochures. Two such companies: Olan Mills (800-845-1157) and United Church Directories (800-521-4611).

9. Planning Processes that Facilitate Change without Disrupting Tradition. Example: An annual Saturday or Sunday afternoon planning day, wrapped around or ending with a fellowship meal. Outline: (a) Brief worship. (b) Ask people to write down three things in the church they want to celebrate about the past year and three things they wish had turned out better. (c) After everyone has done that, list those items on newsprint at the front of the room. (d) Sing a song of celebration for the items you feel good about. (e) Offer a prayer of absolution for the disappointments. (f) Ask people to write down three things that they would like to see happen next year. (g) Arrange those items under headings such as property, Sunday school, fellowship, etc. (h) Give those items to the various committees that logically have responsibility for them, and ask the committees to spend two hours working on the items they feel they should try to achieve this year. (i) Report back to the entire group, and send any needed policy decisions to the appropriate governance body. (j) Print the plan in a booklet for use by leaders during the year. (k) The pastor can quote from it all year, giving him or her authority to take action and make changes based on “what our members said they wanted at the Annual Planning Day.” [Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Being Clergy, Staying Human (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute)]

Several-week study/discussion options for leaders: Turn Around Strategies for the Small Church by Ron Crandall (Nashville: Abingdon Press). Help for the Small-Church Pastor by Steve R. Bierly (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House). Bringing Your Church Back to Life: Beyond Survival Mentality by Daniel Buttry (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press). Church Personality Matters! by Herb Miller (St. Louis: Chalice Press).

Effective small churches whose leaders feel God is calling them to offer Christ to larger numbers of people must maneuver through the classic plateau stages:

• At 40 average worship attendance, strengthen the elementary Sunday school and add one adult class.

• At 70 average worship attendance, strengthen the junior and senior high youth ministry on Sunday or Wednesday evening and the annual financial stewardship program.

• At 100 average worship attendance, add more adult groups of every kind and help people get psychologically comfort able with not knowing everyone in the sanctuary and theologically comfortable with the blessings that come with ac complishing Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples.

10. Strong Emphasis on Prayer. Contact First United Methodist Church, Canyon, Texas, for a free list of the numerous procedures they use to strengthen the habit of prayer (telephone 806/ 655-2851, fax 806/655-9630). Another option: Involve numerous people in daily use of the prayer card titled The Secret to Abundant Living (Nashville: The Upper Room, ISBN 0-83580777-0). For the best results, use the card’s points as the outline for a sermon, with a card in each worship bulletin.

The Bottom Line

Research indicates that people say their spiritual growth comes primarily from these causes: worship, music, fellowship, prayer, Bible study, financial stewardship, and service to others. Compare that list to the above “top ten list.” Determined small-church leaders can provide those spiritual growth experiences as effectively as midsize and large churches can.

The Bible is full of ordinary people who went to impossible places and did amazing things because they decided to obey God, even when others said, “You can’t do that.” Joseph the slave boy, go to Egypt and rise to the rank of second in the kingdom? [You can’t do that!]

Moses, part the waters of the Red Sea? [You can’t do that!] David the shepherd boy, defeat Goliath with nothing but a sling and pebbles? [You can’t do that!]

Maybe not, but when they trusted God and took action, they did it anyway. [Brother Andrew, with Verne Becker, The Calling (Nashville: Moorings, 1996, pp. 26-27.] Is God calling you to do what seems impossible in a small membership church? The door may look closed, but it may be closed the way a supermarket door is closed. It stays shut when you remain at a distance. When you take action and move toward it, a magic eye sees you coming and the door opens.

God wants every church of every size to be effective and healthy. On which of the top ten in the list should your church focus? Trust God and take action. God opens doors for people who move toward them in faith.