small church


Brandon O’Brian has a book out describing how a church can be effective by choosing to be small, and adjusting how they do church into that context, measuring success by effectiveness not size.

your church–whatever size–has everything it needs to be used in extraordinary ways for the Kingdom of God. You don’t need more resources or more volunteers; you just need the imagination to see how God has equipped you uniquely to carry the gospel to your neighbors.

OBrien says there are lessons for large churches as well.  The habits of fostering intergenerational dialogue, of working together in small groups, of focusing on projects where a mass of people would overwhelm the ministry.  It changes how you plan.

The key lesson, though, is to affirm to congregations that small is not bad, if  you are small for the right reason.  Rural churches, size constrained churches, targeted community churches.  God can use churches of all size if they are operating his way.

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Thanks to Ed Stetzer, for including an interview with Brandon O’Brian on his website.

Eph 3:2 offers an intriguing benediction about the power of our God “who is able to do immeasurably more than you can think or imagine.”  What a great God!  More than you can understand. 

So what do I do with that knowledge?  Do I sit and marvel for a while, and then go back to trying to balance the checkbook, pay a few more bills, and wonder how I’m gonna pay for my kid’s college?  Maybe I take it at face value and expect an outpouring sufficient to make bills?

The Bible is full of stories of how God provided enough to live on.  Manna in the wilderness sufficient for the day; and although it would go bad at sundown any other day, for the Sabbath, it would last two days, so the people would not have to break the requirement to not work on that day.  Elijah in the desert, given food and water sufficient to make the long journey.  The widow and her son that Elijah stayed with during the famine, who’s one last loaf of bread was enough to last the year.  The one days’ oil in the Maccabee’s lantern that burned for 8, which is the background for Hanukah.  And on and on.

But the passage says “more”.  Consider Jesus’ feeding of the “5 thousand.”  Five loaves and two fish were enough for the five thousand men…and the women and children … with enough left over for a basket for each disciple to teach about God’s overflowing provision.

But I come back to the passage.  “More than I can imagine.”    Elijah told the woman to get every pot and jar she could find, and the oil continued until there were no more empty pots:  God provided until her imagination ran out.  How do I get more than my needs?  I suggest you dream bigger.  Consider Plato’s cave.  They who had never left the shelter of the cave had no concept of a wider world.

What about your congregation?  Are you feeling limited by finances, limited workers, or other resources?  Pray.  And dream big.

I’ve been thinking through what it means to be church, what size is appropriate, and what forms are most useful for particular peoples.  This came in part from a lecture by David Garrison on Church Planting Movements, where an essential form of church can be constructed and rapidly reproduced (sometimes several generations a week).  The following weekend, Rabbi Sam Nadler, President of Word of Messiah Ministries, came to give training on planting a Messianic congregation.  Christmas eve, I an Episcopal midnight mass.  Neither of these models match what I see in my current congregation of 2700.*  Even the home congregation’s Christmas eve vespers service was atypical of them.

While shopping this week, I picked up Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship.  Since it was Kimball and on the topic “emerging” I knew it would be different from my current experience.  I’ve only skimmed the book, but here’s what’s already working minmy brain:  What is the difference between big box church and what can be reproduced in smaller churches with very little budget?

By Big Box, I mean the megachurches that do everything, especially those that do everything for the attender.  There are some very large congregations that act like nimble smaller churches. 

For example, Central Christian Church (Henderson, NV) is quite large – the 3000-seat auditorium is filled 3 of its 5 services, and nearly so for the other 2.  They have 2 satellite campuses, and one of those has multiple services.  Yet they seem to spawn ministry easily to match needs.  They use ordinary people int he congregation to spawn new acts of service and study.

But more common is the auditorium church, with Disneyland parking lots to hold the thousands that come to their arena seats and watch the jumbotron of half a dozen professional singers and a well-paid preacher give just enough Gospel to make them feel good.  They pay a nominal admission fee (not quite the tithe) and go home, feeling good that they’ve met their minimum weekly requirement.

Kimball likens this to taking the car to the minimart service station – get a full tank of gas & a cup of coffee, and then on your way until next week.  You’ll come in periodically for the oil change (seminar) or periodic maintenance (conference).  But that’s all the level of participation that’s required.

I’ll take that analogy one step up, to the full-service Super Big Box (WalMart, KMart, Meyers, etc.)  There’s a gas station, true, but also a restaurant, coffee bar, bank , eyewear, electronics, books, food, etc.  It’s a one-stop experience.  In the variety of churches, I’ve seen snack bars open the public, Starbucks franchises, bookstores, DiscoveryZone kids’ playspaces, music schools, etc.  I applaud these services, and have used each at least once. (The Starbucks had a dollar-a-cup self-service honor station! Would that work outside the church?)

The question I will explore in the coming days is what alternatives are available to the Bix Box, and what Big Box practices are good and reproducable.  (Let’s not discount their value simply in reaction to the excesses of a few.)

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*Note:  I’m not the pastor, but an active layman in that congregation, and a worker to strengthen other congregations.

I’ve been considering when a strugglng church becomes too small to effectively turn around. Not that God can’t do miracles when only “two or three” are gathered, but there should be a general rule of thumb for when a church comes into being and when it should be laid to rest.

This is a concern because the average size for a church in North America is 75 attending. It is less in some other countries – or even this country – where the house church is the model; you are limited to how many people can fit in your living room or garage.

But in general, have the churches are less than 20 families, and many are a lot smaller: 35, 25, 15.

Which brings me to my question. How small can a church get before it’s not economically viable to keep it open?

With a congregational style church, part of the answer depends on whether the pastor and staff are full-time, part-time or unpaid. If your congregation is 5 families, making about $35k a year each, a tithe of the gross only nets the church $18 grand. What pastor can support a family on that?

If the church is in a denomination where the diocese or synod pays the salary, the congregation can get smaller, because someone else is frontloading the expenses to maintain a presence in that neighborhood. But that also means the local congregation is at the whim of someone else on whether to keep the building open or not. (I remember the furror when a local Catholic diocese tried to close an underperforming facility. Ten times the number that ever attended protested the closure of “their” church, the one they wanted standing when they needed to be married or buried!)

What I’ve been considering is the concept of a minyan. In Jewish practice, the minimum for a synagogue is 10 men. Similarly, in Islam, it takes 10 men at prayers to sustain the mosque. Jesus had his 12, but “one was a devil” and another a betrayer.

With 10 men, that’s probably 30 people: the men, their wives, one or two children for half of them, plus a few widows. Perhaps you can get as small as 10 family units, counting the Singles / single parents and widows, meaning about 15 adults.

In my opinion, if the church gets below 15 and stays below 15 for several weeks, it’s time to consider closing the church. God can still raise up dry bones, but only if the leadership is committed to nurturing the new growth.

I had occasion to use the space of a large church in the area.  It was tedious, to the point of pain.  The bureaucracy added way too much stress on the ministry team and hindered the spread of the Good News.

The startup congregation I’m working with heard that a noted singer in our denomination was to be in the area, and had a few days between performances.  Although we only had 10 weeks to put it together, we decided to try.  But getting a room on a Tuesday night in August was harder than it appeared at first glance.

We normally meet in a church of 2800.  But the adminstration of that size congregation means multiple layers of approvals, some of whom were out of town during key meetings, meaning a delay in channeling the room request to senior leadership.  (A number of other venues we tried either wanted a $400 fee for 4 hours or would not consider us using their space at all.)

At barely one month out, we secured a room, but just as publicity was going out (the minimum lead time for advertising is usually 4 weeks), the host church decided they didn’t want their name on anything that hadn’t gone through the in-house graphic designer.  That approval came out less than a week prior to the concert, changing the background picture and a slight change to the wording.

If we had had our own space, our congregation of 50 could have decided in early June, advertised in July and probably exceeded the 70 that came.

Leaders of small churches can usually meet  more spontaneously, make decisions with less coordination, and respond to needs much more quickly.

Large churches have more resources.  (We wanted a room to hold more than 100 and parking for 50, something not available to a house church!)  They can mobilize for special events.  But small churches can see and respond to needs more quickly.

And ministry is measured in speed to action, not intention to convene a committee.

I watched a great video on “10 stupid things that keep churches from growing” with Geoff Surratt.  It includes many of the same simple ideas I identified in Chapter 7 of Hope for Struggling Churches.  However, in our visual culture, it sometimes helps to hear someone talk about it.

Geoff Surratt on THE SHOW from Todd Rhoades on Vimeo.

Geoff Surratt on THE SHOW

What do you think?  Is he right?

What is the strength of your church?  What is its mission?  Who are the target audience?  Are you focused enough to check progress, or are you scattering random seed to the wind?  You have to plant the right seed in the right soil to gain the expected harvest.  Anything less will be a disappointment.

The “National Survey of Megachurch Attenders” has been released by Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org) and Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/). Officially called “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches,” it says that megachurches (over 2000 attending consistently) are more likely to attract younger, unmarried, better educated and more affluent.  It also says they attract based on paid staff (pastor and worship team), and have higher rates of uninvolved attenders.

45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church, and 40 percent are not engaged in a small group, the mainstay of megachurch programming.

By contrast, the small church is focused around family or community / neighborhood.  Your task, in leading a church through a turnaround, is to know what God has called your church to do and to whom you are to minister.  Start by assessing the community needs and the available resources already available within the congregation.

For example, if your neighborhood has widows or single mothers of young children, and your congregation has mechanics or handymen, you could provide

  • free labor
  • training for minor/routine repairs
  • advice on picking a professional

All 3 are valid expressions of love and concern, and get you into the community.  True, megachurches could do it better, but the survey suggests they won’t.  That’s for you.

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1.  http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch_attender_pressrelease.html

2.  www.leadnet.org/megachurch

3.  http://hirr.hartsem.edu

One of the problems facing struggling churches is the feeling of not knowing what else to do.  You wish someone would come help, but there’s no money for a consultant and no time or money for attending conferences.  And even if you go, it’s just you.  How do you remember enough to carry the same vision & excitement back to you church leaders?

One of the joys of the current internet is the amount of teaching that’s available online,  much of it for free.  One site I recently discovered is from the Southern Baptists in Maryland.  The BCMD equip site is full of really good short courses – videoed workshops – that are geared to the small churches in that region.

For example, tonite I learned that putting on a play or special program can be done without a lot of money.  Five dollar costumes that don’t look like bath robes.  Wooden boxes to add visual interest as portable staging.  Where to find scripts and music that won’t break the bank.

Youtube is another place to find teaching.  Browse the bookstore for church growth / church health authors and then search for them on youtube.  Chances are, someone has posted one of their conference lectures there.

I’ve also started listening to chapel lectures from seminaries and Christian colleges.  It’s inspiring to hear how pastors and teachers are working out their faith in small churches, and I pick up ideas and have my preconceived notions challenged.  Or affirmed.  David Bycroft spoke at Ozark Christian College about being a formerly small church that held auto shows and tractor pulls and family festivals to attract people to come hear the Gospel.

The resources are there.  If you can’t find one, drop me a note and I’ll help you find some.

In his seminal work Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky talks in part about overcoming objections to becoming active to create change.  The book is all about becoming a community organizer to create social or political change in general, such as union organizing or fighting City Hall.  It is a “must read” for fledgling politicians on how to build a grass-roots effort to back their cause or candidacy.

Note:  Rules for Radicals is at times quite vulgar in word use.  It was not written for use in churches, and while there is much to learn from the book, the reader must be ready to skip over some of the worst 4-letter words available.

Alinsky says one of the biggest obstacles to effective organizing is individual and group rationalization for what they do or do not do.  It is a reaction by many to a perceived accusation by the organizer, wondering why they haven’t taken action to correct so obvious an offense to their personhood.  They will often times be embarrassed they haven’t taken action themselves before and will justify their inaction by rationalizing why it could not have been done before.

The job of the organizer is to discover and uncover these rationalizations, to call them out and challenge their validity.  Usually they exist as vague notions without solid reasoning, like a thin hoar frost that disappears as soon as the sun shines the first warming rays.

As pastoral leader seeking to change your congregation, you must likewise look for the rationalizations of why your people are not acting like the people of God.  It might start with abandoning your own rationalizations of why you can’t grow, in favor of a missional mindset that says you  can do “all things” by the power of “Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly more than you could have thought or imagined.”

Then challenge the people to look to what could occur, instead of why it hasn’t happened yet.

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Alinsky, Saul.  Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (NY: Random House/Vintage Books, 1971, reprint 1989), pp108-112

I heard again tonite a podcast I downloaded from Ozark Christian College from David Bycroft on “Celebrating the Small Church.”  He pastors a church of 700 in a Kansas town of 250, and at the time of the sermon was praying for 3000.  Briefly, here’s some of what he said:

First, know again that the impossible is possible with God.   You can build a congregation that reaches the lost.  In Bycroft’s terms, the average church takes a sports car and each week turns the ignition and “shifts into neutral,” agreeing to do exactly what was done the week before, getting the same lack of result they’ve gotten every other week.  Instead, Bycroft urged his listeners to be extraordinary by tapping into the power of God .

Second, know that it will take some work.  It will take personal prayer on your part.  You will need to teaching your people HOW to pray effectively. And you need to do what you do with intention, being a church that works hard at being God’s church.

Third, get help if you need it.  If you need to learn more, or need encouragement from seasoned pastors, remember that there are LOTS of free podcasts out there.  OCC is but one of the Christian schools that records their chapel services and makes t he sermons available for free download.  Start here.

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