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Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-first Century
By Carl S. Dudley
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Perspectives on the Small Church
What is a small church? Numerical definitions can be misleading, since they obscure the unique character of social dynamics in small churches.
If we think of a continuum of churches that range from small to medium to large, then small churches should be congregations with the lowest one-third of members (or attendance). But there is something quite mysterious and irrational about the working definition of a small church. More than one church executive has explained with a straight face, "Two-thirds of our churches are small." When I ask if that means "two-thirds are below average," they say, "Yes," and then smile at their own impossible math— how can two-thirds be below average?
In practice, the "small church" is too often defined as deficient. Too often the term means that the congregation does not have resources to achieve a standard goal. Those congregations with fewer members are usually less able to generate the human, material, and financial resources to retain an ordained resident pastor and support a full program of church activities. Reduced to a single word, money becomes a frequent criterion in defining the small church. In my opinion, this is not a helpful definition, but it is a very common one.
In describing the Episcopal Church, the Reverend James E. Lowrey has used such a practical definition: since 125 pledging units, or at least 250 average communicants, are necessary to generate the resources for a minimum church program, the small church may be defined as those congregations with 250 or fewer communicant members. On this basis, Lowrey continues, "Forty-three percent of the clergy are serving 18 percent of the people in 62 percent of the parishes in a situation which is programmed for failure." This profile is typical of mainline Protestant churches.
Lyle E. Schaller has maintained that average Sunday attendance is a much more accurate index of basic church membership. He recommends that Protestant churches averaging fewer than forty-five members a Sunday should be classified as small. Congregations above that figure should take heart that they are not small when compared with others. However, Schaller also notes that the "ideal size" for a congregation with one pastor would be about 175 average Sunday attendance. Anything less would have to be considered less than ideal. (Schaller places the figure at 150 average Sunday attendance for a two-church parish, at 125 for a three-church parish.) The break-even number between 45 and 175 average Sunday attendance would depend upon the capacity of the congregation to raise money, and the expectations of the pastor and congregation for adequacy of program activities.
"Small church" is defined on a sliding scale. Within each denominational family, the definition of a small church is based on the expectations of its members. A Mennonite congregation of 75 adult members, for example, would be considered a strong church, while the same number of communicants in a Presbyterian church would rarely be able to attract a clergyperson, or keep a building open for worship and programs. At the most basic level, financial stability is the bottom line for both denominations. Definitions of size depend on access to the funding that each congregation feels is "essential," beyond survival, to provide effective ministry.
The attitudes of the leadership and membership have a determinative effect upon the possibilities for a particular church. "When our perception of reality falls below what really is,... we will tend to make modest plans.... The lower our self-esteem, the more likely it is that we will concentrate on 'our problems' and on institutional survival rather than on the potentialities for ministry." Since most Protestant churches are financially struggling, we sometimes hear the mathematical confusion; as one executive told me, "The majority of our churches are below average, but they are everywhere."
Small churches are found in every kind of community—city, suburb, and rural village; they are rich and poor and exist in every kind of cultural background. The rural small church is the unmoved image of serenity in the midst of mobile America: in summer, the crossroads church under the spreading shade tree; and in winter, at the heart of the Christmas season, surrounded by driven snow and issuing a warm "Season's Greetings!" Small churches are equally ubiquitous in the urban areas. Including the storefront churches with their many tongues and languages, small churches embrace more people in the congested cities than in the scattered witness of our rural areas. Even in affluent suburban neighborhoods, small churches can be found. They are the "new start congregations" that never grew. They are the small, intentional fellowships, issue-oriented, and without walls. Small churches have taken root everywhere.
They remain, even while everything else is changing. Small churches are tenacious. Some would call them tough. They do not give up when faced with impossible problems. Neither do they experience rapid shifts of membership. Over the years, some may grow and others decline. But they are peculiarly resistant to programmed intervention from outside sources. Million-dollar programs for membership recruitment leave them relatively unaffected. In membership participation, the majority of small churches have not varied 10 percent in any given decade.
At the same time, they will not die. Often financially starved, frequently without a pastor, sometimes deprived of denominational contact or intentionally independent from outside connections, the small congregation will persevere. Many members will resist the rational proposals to "save our church" through moving, merging, yoking, or teaming. The members have faith that they can hold on "somehow." In the words of one frustrated denominational executive, "Small churches are the toughest: they won't grow and they won't go away."
Although the majority of churches are small, the majority of church members belong to larger congregations. Not everyone is attracted to small churches. They may be ubiquitous and tenacious, but they are not universally appealing. Most church members have chosen to associate with larger congregations that provide a full-time, resident pastor, a congregation-owned building, and a variety of programs based on age and interests.
Various mainline denominations differ in the size of their average congregation (from less than one hundred to more than two hundred), but in each, the statistical distribution of members remains roughly the same: 15 percent of the largest churches reach 50 percent of the membership; 50 percent of the smallest churches serve 15 percent of the members. Yet the distribution of clergy serving these two groups is about equally divided: about as many pastors work with the largest 15 percent of churches (with half the denominational membership) as work with the smallest 50 percent of congregations (with less than one-fifth of the denominational membership). In addition to professionally trained and ordained clergy, the larger congregations usually have several employed persons on the church staff, including musicians, educators, secretaries, and maintenance personnel. Based on their resources and organization, larger churches often pride themselves on a "full program, with something for every member of the family."
Further, larger congregations of Anglo-Americans are more frequently located in residential neighborhoods of metropolitan areas, or in growing suburban communities. Their members typically are well-educated, management-oriented, and live in single-family homes. They are the consumers for the program materials and church publications. The church literature that they receive does not ignore the small church. It simply filters "smallness" through concepts and values that are acceptable (or at least understandable) to the market of large church members who buy the literature. Small churches are usually portrayed as miniature versions of the larger congregations. The uniqueness of the small church is ignored or unknown.
In the late twentieth century, the small church was rediscovered by the religious publishers and even the secular media. It is ironic that the oldest, most universal, and largest number of churches needed to be "rediscovered" by the denominational leaders and the press. This rediscovery can be understood in the light of the growth concerns that have dominated the agenda of most denominational organizations. With the pent-up population exploding into new subdivisions following World War II, the church responded with a commitment to expand and a theology of church growth. The Civil Rights Movement ignited a drive for rights for racial groups, people with disabilities, women, and gays and lesbians that challenged the social conscience of the churches. Growth and change became two dominant themes of mainline churches.
As growth and change dominate the church agenda, the small church seems out of sync. Against the denominational mandates to grow, most small churches remained at about the same number of members. In the battles of social conscience principles, most small churches placed a priority on personal relationships. In the dramatic encounters of our times, small churches often did not fit denominational agendas. And they are unlikely to engage in sudden growth, nor are they likely to shake the social order. But they will remain. Small churches will continue to be the quiet majority of Protestant congregations, marching to a different drummer.
History is on the side of the small church. The large church is the new kid on the block. Historically, Protestant denominations in the United States have depended on small churches. At the time of the Civil War, the size of the average Protestant church was less than one hundred members. A few large churches were in the center of the city, or at the center of the ethnic community. By the end of that century, the average congregation still had less than one hundred fifty members. Through the nineteenth century, most of the frontier clergy received at least part of their income from secular employment. The church was primarily a neighborhood experience, locally supported and locally financed.
Two organizational changes early in the twentieth century have affected the small church. First, small churches have seen the rise and decline of denominational structures that organized resources, developed programs, projected strategies, and claimed the allegiance of the participating congregations. Small churches, once nurtured through networks of personal relationships, had to learn how to work with organizational committees and staff. Second, a few congregations that have grown into very large megachurches dominate the media landscape. These large congregations—typically located in the suburbs near an arterial highway—have eclipsed the Old First Church that once was the denominational flagship at the center of the larger cities or towns in the area.
Despite the dominating shadow of megachurches, they represent less than 1 percent of the congregations in the United States. The vast majority of congregations desire a more modest goal— to have a full program of worship, education, and fellowship based on their own financial resources and to be served by at least one professionally trained, full-time pastor as a generalist (not a specialist) who could meet the wide range of congregational needs. But the expanding market for program materials especially tailored for larger congregations emphasized a new need: the specialist, who brought particular skills to a team of paid leaders. Specialist clergy served in denominational staff and larger congregations that had greater financial resources. They set new standards above what the small congregation might provide. The lowest salary on a staff of specialists is invariably higher than the average income for a small church pastor of the same denominational family.
Organizational efficiency, often equated with bigness, dominates the self-image of many church members as well. In some denominations, the primary new employment opportunities occur in specialties for larger congregations such as institutional chaplain, pastoral counselor, and program staff. These positions become pacesetters for professional success, and a standard by which to set new rates for clergy compensation.
In the face of these changes, the small church is not only tenacious and ubiquitous, but also out of step. It does not fit the organizational model for management efficiency. It does not conform to the program expectations of "something for everyone." It does not provide expanding resources for professional compensation. It is not a "success."
Unfortunately, denominational leaders have contact with small churches only when the small churches have problems. Church committees and consultants with experience in larger congregations are asked advice about the maladies of being small. They appear in time of crisis, like medical specialists who have never known the patient. They are experts in such topics as finance and membership growth. They come from larger churches and bring programs that have worked before, in other places. It is a compassionate deed, an act of charity. Sometimes the medicine works. Usually the change is not lasting, and the residue is mutual frustration.
In offering this book to the reader, I run the same risks of analysis, unsuitable recommendations, and mutual frustration. Because I have seen the pragmatism of leadership and the resilience of small-church members, I doubt if these few thoughts will abuse anyone, and I trust they will prove useful to some. I have made assumptions in the development of this material:
First, enough has been said about the limitations and weaknesses of the small church in comparison with larger organizations. I will try to describe the small church in its own integrity and beliefs. I will not knowingly avoid problem areas, but I will try to see them in context, and not in comparison, with other churches.
Second, I will stick as closely as possible to the questions and the insights offered by pastors and people of small congregations, and church leaders who have worked with them over the years. Clearly, I have my personal biases and blindness. I wish that I were more conscious of these limitations, but for that point I must depend upon the good will of the reader and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Third, my organization of the material is based on a perspective that I believe is both theologically supported and sociologically evident. I believe that small churches are intrinsically different from larger organizations. They have many of the same concerns: money, buildings, personnel, outreach. But people who choose small churches approach their problems differently. The small church is not an organization; it is an association that generates and lives by its social capital.
Fourth, I have chosen to follow one particular approach to the exclusion of many alternatives. I have tried to let the theological and sociological implications unfold as the book progresses. This approach has the double risk of ignoring important areas for consideration, and overstating certain perspectives on the areas considered. For my oversights on the one hand, and my advocacy on the other, I warn the reader to beware. I recognize that "ideal types" are unreal, and they never exist in practice. At the same time, I have consciously chosen to present a consistent approach, citing many examples, with the hope that those who see and understand this perspective will take the germ of an idea or insight and let it grow very differently from anything that I had conceived or anticipated.
Excerpted from Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-first Century by Carl S. Dudley. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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