Thursday, July 23, 2009

Small-Church Ministry: A Few Suggestions

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of all churches in the United States have fewer than 100 in attendance at their weekly services. That's 177,000 congregations accounting for 9 million people. Of those congregations, a large number of them fall into the category of the truly small church, which has 40 or fewer members.

Through the years, I have known about and come to appreciate a good number of small congregations of the Churches of Christ. After going back through some notes and reflecting on my experiences, here's a bit of advice I'd share with anyone who's looking to work with a small church:

1. Arrive as a chaplain, not as a successful businessman.

Small churches don't require someone who's good at administration. There just isn't much to administrate. And, what little there is probably already has someone taking care of it. But there's never too much kindness, care, and love. So give them that. Especially if you go to a rural area--the scene for many small churches--you'll want to roll up your sleeves and do some work with your hands. To farm and ranch people, sitting at a desk isn't work. I know, anyone who has studied hard knows better. But people who have always worked with their hands need to see that you aren't afraid to get some dirt on your clothes and break a sweat. If you really work with them, they will listen to you as they never would have otherwise.

2. Remind them of their identity in Christ and of their mission in the world.

Sometimes a church just needs to be reminded that belonging to the Lord and living for Him is what life is all about. Like individuals, churches can get depressed and disoriented. A few years ago, a congregation that had been through a bad time welcomed a new minister. About two years later, one of the members of the congregation remarked, "He didn't try to set us on fire. I think he realized that it had been a long time since we had felt really good about being Christians. So he preached about Jesus and how great it is to know and serve Him. That did a lot to restore our spirit. Now we're a happier, more effective congregation."

3. Discover the very best aspects of the congregation and emphasize them.

In his letters to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation chapters 2-3), Jesus had at least one positive thing to say about each congregation. Every small church has something about it that's good. Identify that, and then tell the people what you've noticed. Build on that strength.

4. Encourage the congregation to do one or two things very well.

Unlike medium-sized and large congregations, the small church can't do many things at once. There simply aren't enough people or resources. However, a small church can and should carry on one or maybe two specific ministries. Help them to do something at which they can really excel. Meals on Wheels, Bible correspondence courses, special care for a missionary family. The possibilities are endless. What the congregation chooses will obviously be related to the previous point.

Just a few thoughts. What would you add or change?


Brian Small said...

Visit in the homes of every one of your parishioners. Pastors of large churches can't do this and so don't know their congregants as well as a pastor of a small church can.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Such an important practice, Brian.

Dusty Chris said...

Great post. I would also encourage a new minister to not come in thinking they are "6 steps ahead" of the church. That will spell utter disaster because it is condescending and usually untrue. A minister should only present that they are about a 1/2 step ahead, that the he can lead them to a place that they can get to. It is condescending and quite arrogant to think you have all the answers and can lead an ultra conservative church to be progressive. If one tries that, the church will actually become more conservative (if that is possible) to fight off the threat of moving forward.