From my first call to my third (and present), a period spanning the past 10 years, I have been the pastor of small and smaller churches. These are the congregations we’ve fondly named “Wee Kirks,” or “redevelopment congregations.” In some circles, these churches have been condemned – labeled “unhealthy,” “struggling,” “survival, “change or die,” or “troubled” – relegated to the ash heap of cursory collegial and judicatory attention. Further, it is to these settings we have sent the majority of our newly ordained, our about to be retired, our 2nd career women and our “diversity” pastors – any of those who don’t feel called to work through the hierarchies of multi-staff ministry. (Ironic side note: It is within these complex and sometimes deeply entrenched environments, where the need for pastors with lots of energy, a well developed skill set and well-grounded, self-differentiated self-esteem cannot be underestimated, that we expect our least experienced leaders to claim and develop their pastoral identity.)
I have tried to take advantage of any and all available training and have hauled myself (and the occasional curious congregation member) to conferences, workshops, and training events, spending continuing education funds and time in the hopes of hearing about some new or old magic that would make my job easier and provide the needed boost of hope for the congregations in question. Typically this “hope” was presented with the two part goal of breaking apart entrenched behaviors and then reaching more people (a.k.a. getting folks in the doors). Make no mistake. These various and sundry training opportunities did provide exposure to some of the best practices of the day as well as a place to connect with other pastors whose churches were struggling as much as or even more than mine. We did learn some valuable things that helped us make some needed changes. But we also found out that in many cases, our little churches were leading the way in some really breakthrough ministries.
What continues to surprise me is that in all those years, I never once heard anyone teach, proclaim, or in any way own the reality that nobody really knows what to do about the pervasive decline that continues to impact even the overarching systems (a.k.a. mainline denominations) within which we all work. At the judicatory level, the default mode seems to be one of fearful survival rather than courageous visioning. In local congregations, large and small, there is a great deal of hand-wringing and doomsday worrying. And somewhere along the line, it seems that somebody decided that the best course of action is simply to try harder and hunker down to weather the storm. Maybe we’d call some things by a new name, maybe make some budget cuts (or a lot of budget cuts), maybe we’d reorganize the national judicatory structures, we might even try make a few tentative attempts at “emergent” or “missional” ways of being (however those are defined). Apart from those occasional departures, few people really seem to want to talk about, let alone engage the kind of reengineering or organizational reimagining that would require a completely different way of being and doing.
Maybe it’s time to pay attention to the small church. Maybe it’s time to send folks out to learn about what these tenacious congregations are doing, instead of sending them to see if they’re “worth saving.” Scattered all across the country and pervasive in every denomination, these so-called dying churches actually have much wisdom to offer. But it won’t be in the form of big splashy programmatic changes which have drawn hundreds and refilled the pews (or the treasury). These churches haven’t magically grown, added staff and expanded their facilities. Though some of them have been “dying” for 100 years, food pantries, ESL classes, VBS, after school programs, community-wide potlucks, hospital visits and worship services bring life to the micro-culture of the congregation. These are the faithful efforts of an energized core who day by day courageously chip away at the status quo in their own context. For decades, little by little, these faithful leaders have made the changes they needed to make in order to keep on sharing the gospel wherever they are.
While these micro-movements, may or may not be successful insofar as success is determined by current denominational indicators, the tenacious audacity and venturseome faith of the local leaders and their people that makes it possible for them to embrace their reality. Whether by necessity or by design, these congregations have learned to recognize, celebrate and most of the time, make good use of the gifts they have on hand while not bemoaning (too much) what they lack. They have learned to lean on the hope that is within them as they, albeit with some grief and grumbling, become more and more able to nimbly move into the next moment in which God calls them to do and to be in a different way.
What would our denominations look like if we shifted to this small church paradigm? That’s a post for another day.