I’ve been reading a number of articles lately on the continuing demise of the small town small church. I’ve always been interested in this topic and have dedicated much of my pastoral career to such churches. Even now, here at St. John’s, I still work with some of the dynamics of small churches even though, I would argue, we at St. John’s are a transitional church, neither small nor large. We have some things that many small churches do not have, like a daily ministry to the community in the form of a Preschool and a Daycare, and a facility which holds the potential of housing so much more ministry. Yes, North Prairie is still a small town, but the fact that it lives quite literally on the edge of Milwaukee suburbia means it’s probably not Mayberry anymore either. In short, while I still reckon with many factors common to small churches, we at St. John’s are in many ways much farther ahead, and at a better advantage, than the typical small town small church. That advantage is something we need to capitalize on. With the population growth around us, no church in this area should be in decline.
So why are small churches in decline? Like all organizations, the small town-small congregation is challenged by a combination of external and internal factors. External factors are factors common to all small churches. They are often tied to things such as the economy, societal issues, and changes in the culture around the congregation. A classic example of an external factor for many small congregations is the decline of populations in rural areas. This happens to be one external factor that we at St. John’s do not share with other small town/rural congregations.
Internal factors are the much trickier factors. These are the particular “ghosts that haunt the mansion,” so to speak. They are tied to the church’s history, both recent and farther back. That history forms a legacy which often defines the character of a congregation. Many small churches in small towns which are near larger towns bleed members to other larger congregations largely due to a combination of the anonymity of larger congregations and the lack of internal health in the smaller congregation they are leaving. Because the decline in the small congregation has been going on now for more than 50 years, the number one problem is a sort of locked-down “survival mode” that is more concerned about keeping the lights on than engaging a serious ministry. It is about preservation. rather than engagement. It is about maintenance rather than ministry. Sadly, as every year goes by we get more and more examples of how the churches that aim to survive don’t. Survival mode isn’t very attractive to outsiders.
The maintenance mindset shuns or disregards change. The common expression, “We’ve never done it that way before” is the classic dismissal that keeps many small churches from making the changes necessary not only to survive (maintenance) but to thrive (ministry). Nevertheless, “We’ve never done it that way before” has helped to retain good practices as well. As a pastor, I’ve tried over the years not to complain too much about these words when I hear them. Yes, sometimes they are frustrating. Yes, sometimes they are good. It depends on the circumstance.
The words that hurt the church’s ministry the most, however, are words like “We can’t” or “We don’t need…” or quite simply, “No,” when presented with opportunities for increasing the quality and effectiveness of the congregation’s ministry. In financial investing, reward is always tied to risk. It’s just as true in the ministry of the Church. Just building a church like ours in the 19th century involved incredible risk. It involved saying Yes to many things that weren’t paid for up front. It involved making gutsy decisions on faith.
Many of those churches are still here today…but are living on borrowed time. The difference should be apparent if you read the previous paragraph. Our ancestors built a church and ministry on faith; today we are maintaining our congregations in survival-mode, which often requires far less faith than our ancestors showed. The builders said Yes even when they didn’t know where the funds or materials or people were going to come from. Today the small church is slowly being pecked to death by ducks, all quacking their throaty “No’s” as they peck. Sadly, the grandchildren have no idea what strength of faith their grandparents had.
We are in a day and age where the small congregation is characterized more by fear than by faith. Fear is faith’s opposite in the Gospels. When Peter’s fear takes over while walking on the water with Jesus, he starts to drown. Ministry is often like that. Fear of death replaces hope for the future. Lock-down safety replaces reckless ministry. It’s often been said that congregations get the results that reflect their effort. Playing it safe is often tied to fear, and when fear runs the show, the congregation starts to drown.
Sadly, congregations often fail to recognize they are drowning until it’s too late. I am told a story of a congregation that had a very large trust fund that its leaders were “saving for a rainy day.” The pastor suggested tapping the principal on the trust fund in order to make badly needed improvements on the church building, but received opposition all saying “that’s our rainy day fund!” The pastor then pulled out the membership/worship attendance statistics for the past twenty years and asked when the leaders were going to recognize that it’s already raining. Those improvements made a big difference in that church and it enjoyed an increase in overall health as a result. Sure, that trust fund is depleted, but it still ended up being a valuable asset for that church’s ministry. It gave that church the freedom to concentrate on ministry and the payoff happened. Too bad it took so long for the congregation to recognize it.
As long as we have the Gospel, and a fallen world all around us, we have a ministry to carry out. The challenge is not in safeguarding our churches against change. The challenge is in recognizing that change is necessary to reverse these awful trends. It’s about trusting Christ, not merely protecting the bottom line.
It’s easy to say No. We need to learn to love Christ, the world, and our congregations to find the ways to say Yes to the future and to strong, healthy ministry.
God bless all congregations and strengthen them in putting faith above fear.