As a boy growing up on the prairies of North Dakota, I used to look through encyclopedias and geography books for any mention of my state. Under the headings of other states and countries I'd see breathtaking pictures of snow-capped mountains, city skylines, and oceans. Under North Dakota, by contrast, I'd find a very short article and photos of wheat fields, cows, and grain elevators—all things I could see out my classroom window. They just didn't compare to Disneyland, Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many people belonging to small churches feel the same way about the significance of their congregations. They wonder if anyone realizes that the heart of God is still beating in thousands of little congregations in every city, suburb, village, and county in our nation. Does anyone even know they exist?
As I read through clergy journals or review new education programs that tumble down from the denominational and parachurch hierarchy, I find good reason for this self-doubting. Even though most churches are small—roughly half of all churches have fewer than 200 members, and about two-thirds have fewer than 300—most church resources are designed for the bigger churches. Journals for pastors present rich resources to help the youth minister run a jet-hot program. But most churches don't have a youth pastor—or even a skillful, trustworthy, highly motivated layperson. There are articles on how to set up committees for music and worship and how to divide your church into small groups. But many congregations are small groups.
Large Protestant congregations are a relatively recent phenomenon in North America. At the time of the Civil War, the average congregation was 100 members. By the turn of the century, it had risen to 150. A few large downtown "first churches" excepted, the model for church life was a small congregation served by one full-time "generalist" pastor.
But the startling success of some congregations in rapidly swelling suburbs after World War II led to a new model of the congregation: a top-managed organization with abundant financial resources led not by a generalist but by a team of specialists. Such congregations are modeled on the corporate world and are run by standards of "organizational efficiency." From the denominational headquarters on down, the accepted fact is that good churches are big churches, and the kinds of pastoral positions these churches provide are the standard of professional success. As a result, small churches have nearly disappeared from the serious planning agenda of most denominational offices—and for good reason: small churches are less likely to possess the people, the means, or the will to respond to a slate of programs.
Similarly, even though small-church ministry is strikingly different from large-church ministry, there are few denominations that recognize a track for small-church specialists. If, as they are perhaps subconsciously viewed, small churches are merely failed big churches, small-church pastors are thought of (and too often think of themselves) as those who weren't skillful enough to have been promoted.
But small churches are not miniature versions of larger congregations. They are psychologically and socially different, and those differences require their own approach to ministry. In a world of social change and mobility, they provide two strengths that are lacking in many of the "successful" churches: stability and continuity of relationships.
It is that stability that most often bedevils the ambitious pastor. "They won't let me change anything!" a pastor complained to me once. Of course they wouldn't. This pastor was the sixth they had had in ten years. Each one had flown into town with the intention of changing everything—and each had become frustrated when he couldn't overturn 100 years of tradition in six months.
Small churches cling to tradition. While the world all around them is changing, the church remains the one place that stays the same. Here members can conserve their values and beliefs, their relationships and friendships, and their sense of what is right about their world. It is no accident that small churches pass their strengths and their pathologies along from generation to generation, even though the entire group is replaced: generations of departed saints are still present in the hearts of those who remain. I once served in a country church where one family had for generations supplied the church lay elders, another had always supplied teachers, and a third had supplied treasurers. My attempt to mix things up crashed and burned.
Small churches conserve traditional relationships as well. Where large churches are composed of many overlapping social groups, small churches are often just one group in which everyone knows everyone else. Acceptance takes time: someone who has been in the church for ten years may still be a "newcomer." But while it is true that they don't always accept newcomers quickly, explains Carl Dudley, author of Making the Small Church Effective, given time, small churches do something even more significant: they adopt them into the family. New pastors are no exception: given enough time, a pastor can become a trusted part of a church family rather than a transient and meddlesome outsider.
All of this takes a special sensitivity that can never be taught in terms of organizational efficiency. The best small-church pastor I ever met served a little Methodist church in the Midwest. I rarely saw him exhibit either organization or efficiency, but he never lacked warmth and enthusiasm. He opened doors by being friendly and a good listener. All the town businesspeople knew him, as did the residents of the nursing home. If he had nothing else to do, he'd wander about downtown, meeting people. He attended every Kiwanis meeting and was almost always at the sidelines, in school colors, rooting for the high-school sports teams. In his congregation, he knew who the traditional leaders were, and he was sensitive to their authority. He waited years before cautiously suggesting changes. By that time, they loved and accepted him and would have followed him anywhere.
There is much that is godly about small-church life. The currents of Christian love run strong and deep. Dedication to the Lord and his work is second to none. In small churches, children learn about Jesus, discouraged people find strength for another week, thinkers find challenging discussions, lonely people get a hug or a solid handshake, friends clasp hands. In many small churches, you will find surprisingly excellent preaching and music, surprisingly thoughtful discussions, spiritual lives of surprising richness, and people surprisingly active in outreach ministries.
I think of the little church family in which I grew up in the barely there hamlet of Cleveland, North Dakota. The folks in my church felt left behind by the rest of the world. People were being evangelized in California and in Africa and in Argentina—but not among the farmers of Stutsman County. Like the town, the church was shrinking: the elderly died, and nearly all the young people went elsewhere to seek their fortune. I can think of very few baptisms into that congregation other than the church's own children.
Yet looking back three generations, I count at least twoscore children who grew up in that little church who went on to lives of Christian service as church-school teachers, ministers, denominational leaders, college professors, and missionary physicians and nurses. Even among those who didn't serve the church professionally, an extraordinary proportion are still raising their families as faithful believers.
In short, the effect of that little congregation on Christianity has been remarkable, with its emissaries across the land and around the world. I often wonder how that congregation, and thousands like it, would react if the large-church programs that make them feel useless were replaced with affirmations of their successes. Especially in rural areas—but also in metropolitan areas—we must attend more thoughtfully to the needs of smaller congregations and begin to regard ministry to small churches as a specialty, not a failure. More top-generated programs probably won't provide these needs. But more sensitivity and appreciation might.
Loren Seibold is pastor of Worthington (Ohio) Adventist Church. A longer version of this article appeared in Ministry journal (Sept. 1997).
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