I visited small churches across Canada this year and noticed a few strategic choices that appear to be significant factors in whether a small church is successful or in terminal decline. (This is not a scientific study – just my observations.) Larger churches and Christian agencies are insulated to a degree from the consequences of making poor strategic choices due to their mass and momentum, but they too will suffer over the longer term. So we can all learn from the consequences of choices that are most easily observable in small churches, and make smart choices that will revitalize our own organizations.
A successful small church might be an oxymoron to some, but I (and I’m sure many others) believe that small churches can be called a success when the church is committed to its mission, its people are growing spiritually and are active in their faith, and it is able to sustain itself financially.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the small churches I visited are in pretty good shape. They can’t compete with the programs and extras that come with larger churches, but in spite of their struggles most are finding ways to be successful, vibrant, and healthy. Others, however, are fighting to stay alive, at least partly due to their choices.
I’ve sprinkled pictures throughout this post of some of the delightful people I met.
The positive lessons
Be a true community
Whether you are a church or a Christian agency, a strong, healthy community is the backbone of a strong, healthy organization. A community reinforces values and ideals, and shares the work that needs to be done. People learn to work or live together and how to apply their faith to their relationships. A healthy community will persevere when individuals might be tempted to give up. Whether a church or a workplace, community is always good.
This is where small churches can excel. Rather than bemoaning what they lack, successful small churches have accepted their size and made the most of it by building strong communities. If they remain open to newcomers, the church has a bright future.
I met several church leadership teams, and was impressed with their obviously close, intimate community and convivial fellowship. The deacons, elders, pastors and lay leaders seemed to really know and care for each other. Even when meeting with a pastor alone, I heard stories of how supportive and helpful their boards are. Given that we at CCCC often hear of the problems of church boards, this was quite refreshing to me.
Larger churches and ministries have to work much harder to develop a true community, but it is worth the work because this is the only way to model what life and relationships look like in the kingdom of God. Many successful large churches rely heavily on small groups so people can develop deep relationships and have a place where it matters that they came.
Gary Portnoy’s theme song for Cheers includes the words, “Be glad, there’s one place in the world where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” He wrote that about a bar! How much better that those words be said about a church or Christian ministry! Christianity is a faith centred on relationships, so make relationship building a core part of your strategy.
Reflect deeply on mission
As long as a ministry is vigorously working on its mission, it has a reason for being and should see God’s support. If its focus shifts from its mission to anything else, especially self-preservation but also running its programs for the sake of the programs, it has lost its reason for being, and possibly God’s support.
Many people said their congregation reflected deeply on its mission and thought about how to be faithful to it given their circumstances. They were willing to explore the mission and let it guide the church rather than relying primarily on a church growth model.
One inner-city church, formerly “bursting at the seams,” has no parking and no programs. They’ve gone back to the mission and decided they will not be program-driven. Instead they will love each other and be a big family for each other, and if someone feels called by God to do something, they are encouraged to go do it.
Until a year ago, the youngest person in this 80 member congregation was about sixty. Then some younger people started coming. As I left the church, a prayer meeting was about to start and several young adults walked in.
Successful small churches put mission before methods, allowing the Spirit to do fresh work. They are mission-minded, not program-directed.
All ministries would do well to ensure that programs don’t wind up taking supremacy over mission. Programs serve the mission.
Small churches have been forced by circumstances to ask the question, “Why should we continue to exist?” By answering that question, they know why they exist, and they keep it front and centre. Mission rules! In larger ministries, ask yourselves “How often do we intentionally discuss our mission, our theory of change, and design our programs with those thoughts in mind?”
Take a risk
Every organization, every ministry, has a natural life cycle, but unlike the human life cycle, you can start the organizational life cycle over again. But it always involves taking risks. Think back to when your ministry was founded. Surely there were some risks taken. People stepped out in faith. They experimented with new methods. You need to keep taking risks like your founders did.
One church had declined from 400 to 65 people, and the average age had risen quite high. The board brought in a pastor with a young family to start the process of reaching a younger demographic. But now they’ve done something even riskier. With no young adults in the church, they’ve hired a young adults pastor! There’s vision! There’s faith!
Another church, with the approval of its denomination, hired a young man as pastor who has no denominational credentials as yet and who has never been pastor of a church. As his first church, he is helping them reach a younger demographic and they are helping him complete his education and credentialing. It appears to be a successful arrangement as the fruit is evident in his sermons and in new people attending the church.
As any organization grows, it tends to lose its entrepreneurial edge that was the source of its growth. The focus inevitably shifts from risk to safety – protecting what has been gained. But while protection is important, if it drives out all risk and kills the willingness to try something new, it has sucked the life out of the organization.
Small churches are taking risks because the risk of organizational death is almost certain if they don’t. In that sense, they have little to lose. But by trying something new, they have hope and they are giving the Spirit something to work with. And they are demonstrating faith based on a careful discernment of what God would have them do.
One person I met is taking more risks at a personal level too. She has a heart for evangelism and is on fire for God! On her own, she has started a Bible study in a nearby retirement home. She reminded me of the importance of encouraging all church members to go out into their own communities and find ways to be the church there. That should be the natural consequence of a church discipling its members – they go out and they do personal ministry wherever God has placed them.
Larger or older ministries must work hard to avoid the fossilization that naturally accompanies growth and aging. Organizational youth and vitality can be recovered if a ministry is willing to risk suffering some form of loss by taking on something new. If your ministry wants to retain its vitality and continue to adapt to a changing world, take a few risks!
The cautionary lessons
Resistance to change
There were some small churches that did not give me much hope for their future because, although they wanted to grow and attract younger people, they were determined to do it without changing anything. I’m reluctant to give details, but one congregation literally had what (in my opinion) was their solution staring them in the face and they refused to consider it because it would have involved a change in worship style.
As I’ve discussed in a previous post, if the leaders who created our organizations years ago were to come back today to start them again, would they start something that looks like the one they started so long ago? Not likely. They would of course take their entrepreneurial creativity and create something that would be successful today. Yet some people are so fixed on preserving what worked fifty years ago that they are actually working against the vision of their ministry’s founder. If your founder were around today, he or she would likely be changing things to suit today’s world. So you should feel free to do the same.
Resignation and passivity
The other choice that I saw made in the small churches that are declining is a choice I’m sure they did not intentionally make. They just fell into it. Some of the board members lamented that their children and grandchildren don’t attend church anymore. And they never asked the question why, but told me that’s just the way things are today. Others felt there was nothing they could do, so there was nothing to try. Defeatism kills!
I don’t believe it is ever God’s desire to see a church close, and yet it happens. I understand why it happens, but should it happen? Would it happen if we proactively looked for alternative ways to be the church? If we believe in the church then we must shake off the lethargy that dulls us into passive acceptance of dwindling prospects. Wake up! Wake up and be the church and people will be attracted!
My prayer is not that every church will be a large church, but that every church will be a successful church.
And just to confound us all…
For those who think that great leadership is the key to growth, I visited a church in Montreal that used to be 250 people and had declined to 55, which is when the pastor resigned. Since then, they have had only supply pastors, and the congregation is now averaging 75-85 per Sunday and steadily growing! They’d still like to find a pastor, but somehow the urgency is not quite so keenly felt.
May God richly bless your ministries!