The latest edition of the Presbyterian Outlook focused on small churches and began many conversations in doing so. From the Editor’s Outlook article “Small is Beautiful” to Catherine Neelly Burton’s “Pastorless Churches? The future of the PC(USA) is pastorless” to Phil Blackburn’s “The great ends of the (small) church," each article engaged the current and future world of small churches in new and sometimes challenging ways. I am grateful for the focus on small churches and the conversations that have erupted. It has brought attention to the ministry realities that so many of our churches in Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and the PC(USA) face. Regardless of what one thinks about those articles, their suggestions, or their reception, the small church is the predominate experience of the church today.
This reality flies in the face of what we often perceive, however. As I speak with church members and sessions about this changing landscape of ministry, the common refrain is either that “everybody attends X, Y, and Z large, healthy church” or that “a lot of people still go to X, Y, and Z church down the road.” Whether those churches are in our denomination or not, in most of those cases, the “large church” has peaked or plateaued and the church “down the road” is seldom much better off than we are. I illustrate this by asking “how many members do you think they have or how many are in worship?” Inevitably, the guesses are remarkably wrong.
To say that in a different way, Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery has slightly more than 5000 members and 56 churches. Even if we took the usually inflated membership numbers of our churches at face value, the majority of members of our presbytery worship in small congregations and the vast majority of churches would be considered small. Would that have been your guess? Those Presbyterian Outlook articles point to similar dynamics in other places.
This perception that “everybody else is doing better” or that “we are the only ones struggling” must change. Besides being incorrect, it has limited the creative imagination of churches and diminished the impact of their ministries. It focuses on decline and deficits instead of opportunities and assets. This struggle is almost entirely internally focused instead of externally discerning where new ministry possibilities lie.
The form and structure of the small church is another stumbling block at play. While we tend to misunderstand the size of our church and the size of our church compared to others, we fail to understand the needs of our current church as well. A small church does not need the structure or staff of a medium of large church. It may not need to operate as formally or corporately. When that is the only way a church knows to exist, this can be an eye-opening conversation.
I recently met with a church that was struggling financially. Year after year, they were barely making budget and a large giver had just died. Next year would need to look different financially. “Do you need to spend $15,000 to have the lawn service mow? Do you need a business and administrative assistant? At what point do you move from a full-time pastor to part-time?” We have similar conversations around other aspects of the church’s ministry. “Do you need twelve session members or will six suffice? You have done ______ ministry for forty years but few members participate, and it is a huge expense, might God be calling you to do something else today? Do you need to be paying four people to sing in the choir?” From the outside in, these should seem like self-evident questions to ask. From the inside out, if you have never considered yourself anything other than a medium size church, they can be hard to answer.
I want to end on another note: the small church is wonderful. It truly is. It can be intimate, nimble, thoughtful, outward-focused, holy, hyper-local, welcoming, Christ-centered, and more in ways that large churches (often) cannot. Many churches have faced the realities and obstacles described above and turned a corner to something better. Many have been there for a while. Most churches are just a few well thought-out decisions away from joining them. But making those changes can be difficult. The first step may be exactly what we are doing now: draw attention to the small churches we overlook.
Rev. Tim Blodgett