Growth and the small-town church

Is it possible for a church to grow in a small town where die people already know as much as they want to know about the church? How can you turn the small-town handicap into church growth?

Loren Seibold was pastor of the Yankton and Hurley, South Dakota, Seventh-day Adventist churches when he wrote this article. He is currently pastor of the Polo Alto, California church.

I grew up attending a 100-member church located in a town of about 300. One evening when I was a teenager, the conference lay ministries leader came to our church to show a film on a simple, direct approach to personal witnessing, with the goal of bringing our friends and neighbors into our church. Following the film, the speaker pressed the congregation to discuss the concepts that had been presented. Richard, one of the church's lay elders, stood to his feet. "Pastor," he said, "we appreciate your coming here to speak to us and show this film. But everyone in this town knows about our church. We've talked to them about what we believe, we've invited them to meetings, and we've even helped them out when they've had problems. Nothing's worked. I don't think we want to spend any more of our time on this topic."

I remember Richard's speech, because it was the first time I heard someone articulate the frustration that we all had felt. In the mission fields, we were told, thousands were being baptized. In metropolitan centers, public and personal evangelism was reaping thousands more. The world was on fire to hear the truth, we were told. Then why, when we had tried so hard, was our church the same size today as it had been 50 years ago?

If you pastor in a small community, then you too know the frustrating realities. Church growth experts say that growth can be expected where people are in transition. But yours is a community where very few people move in or out. In a large city there is a comfortable anonymity that allows freedom to make changes changes like joining a new church. In the small town everyone knows everyone else, and people tend to identify with a particular church, whether or not they actually attend services. Urban areas have large numbers of people who have no religious roots and who may actively seek out a religious community to help them through times of crisis, but few small-town people feel so rootless.

Richard's statement was disturbingly on track. Most of the people in town really did know what that church believed. Information wasn't the problem.

How can the small-town church grow in its seemingly infertile environment? It probably won't happen easily or quickly. The results will rarely be spectacular. But I believe it is possible to create in the small small-town church an atmosphere in which one can at least say that growth is possible, and at best see concrete results.

One of the implicit assumptions about parish ministry is that all churches benefit from about the same kind of care. Small churches are assumed to be big churches in miniature. Small-town churches are thought to be very much like their urban counterparts. Not so. While small churches and big churches have a lot in common, they require quite different approaches to evangelism. Let me suggest some factors that will help the small small-town church pastor as he or she thinks about church growth.

Some like it small

My wife and I were thrilled when in the space of six months three young families joined the church of 50 members that we pastored. The newcomers entered enthusiastically into the life of the church. Before long they were preaching, teaching, filling positions of leadership, and were involved in witnessing activities. It seemed that at long last the church was going someplace. Then one day I was shocked to overhear one of the old-timers grumble to another, "You know, all these new people have just completely ruined our church!"

There is one simple reason that a small church may not wish to grow: if it grows, it will no longer be a small church.

You see, there are some real advantages to having a small church. You know everyone. If you have church leadership, there's no one to threaten your position. Very little happens that is unexpected. It's not very intimidating to stand up in front of a group of 20; it is intimidating to stand before a group of 200.

And what about the new people? "Are the people like us? Will they listen to us? Can we love them and will they love us? as much as everyone here loves one another now? My wife and I built this church with our own money and our own hands. We've seen it through dozens of crises. If new people join this church, will it change so much that we won't feel at home here anymore?"

Your church members are not going to announce to you that they don't want their church to grow. On the contrary, they will often speak approvingly of the concept of church growth. Especially when it's happening in the mission fields. In their hearts they know their own church should be growing too. But the hard truth is that a lot of small churches have become comfortably accustomed to being small.

You'll notice the resistance first in the planning stages of evangelistic activities. You'll hear excuses like "The people here already know what we believe. We're wasting our time." Others may subtly sabotage the meetings by withholding their presence or financial support.

Later you may see a reluctance to accept new people who have joined the church. Church members may feel that the new members have been "dropped" on them too quickly. "We don't really know enough about them yet;" the nominating committee may say. So new members won't be given church jobs or asked to participate in church services or activities. "They need some time to settle in and prove themselves" is the reason given. Some of the established members may magnify what they perceive to be the new members' failures to live up to church standards completely ignoring the fact that the new members are struggling to assimilate some tremendous changes as a result of their conversion, and may in fact be experiencing remarkable spiritual growth. When new members are not accepted into the social or spiritual life of the group, their ties to the church inevitably weaken.

Now, in defense of the small small town church, this exclusive attitude is the hard-learned result of many years of fighting to survive. Surviving is a defen sive attitude. It means not rocking the boat. It means putting up barriers against new people and new ideas. After so many years of survival as a church on their own terms, it is tough for them to incorporate people whose ways of thinking and doing things are unlike their own and may in fact threaten their own.

But the small church must grow. It must grow to fulfill the gospel commission. And it must grow for its own survival. The first priority of the pastor of the small small-town church must be to realize that his church may not make it easy for new people to be accepted into its fellowship. The pastor's hardest job may be to lead the church into growth despite its inelastic attitudes.

Small churches have a way of absorbing all of their pastor's time on the church and its problems. Members learn to bring even minor problems to the pastor. It is hard for pastor and parishioners to become accustomed to minimizing their investment in church problems so the church can begin to think about outreach, but it must be done. Not every church problem ranks higher in importance than the church's evangelistic mission.

Turning weakness to strength

Small churches have strengths and weaknesses, but so do large churches. Many weaknesses can be turned into strengths. While it is true that the close interpersonal ties of the small church may make it difficult for new members to enter, the small church is frequently rich in close, supportive relationships, in a willingness to respond to demonstrated needs, and in a strong family-type support network. It is important that potential members experience the inherent goodness and warmth of the small church early, for it is the church's most attractive quality.

A friend of mine tells about holding a series of evangelistic meetings in his 35-member church. From the very first night it was a catastrophe. "When I drove home," said Tom, "I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry." The pianist was late. The special music was embarrassingly bad. The ushers, two septuagenarians, didn't hear their cues, so instructions were shouted across the room. When the lights were to be extinguished for a slide presentation, all the wrong switches were flipped, and it took several minutes of blinking lights and shouted instruction to get things straightened out. "I finally had to realize that, despite everyone's good intentions, we didn't have the capability to put on a full-scale professional evangelistic effort. We were a small church playing big church. It didn't work, it wasn't graceful, and it wasn't attractive."

Tom improved his series by scaling down his program expectations to what his church could manage. Song service and special music were dropped in favor of taped background music. Offering envelopes and an offering box at the back of the church eliminated the need for ushers. By adopting a seminar format, Tom's formal meeting became a Bible class that demanded fewer expert helpers and tolerated the church's natural informality.

The Bible class format also gave the church a chance to express its natural warmth. Friendships between members and newcomers grew, and potential members began to appreciate the church's close, family-like relationships. By the time new members joined the church, the established members were already acquainted with them. The shock of accepting new people into the family was absorbed by exploiting the church's natural tendency to establish warm relationships when given enough time to develop acquaintance.

Reputation is the key

I once served a church with 20 active members in a town of about 3,000. Almost all of the members were over the age of 65. Yet in that entire year I did not meet a single person in the community who did not know about my church, and very few who did not also know the basic outline of what my church believed.

In a small community the church's evangelistic effectiveness will depend less on information than on its long-term reputation. You can keep very few secrets from the people of your town. The small town is an extended family just as the small church is. The community's relationship to your small church is determined by the same stability and changelessness that characterize all of small-town life: people accept you, know all they want to know about you, and are not particularly inclined to upset the social balance to become any better acquainted with you. "That's your church; this is mine. That's how it's always been, and there's no reason for it to change."

The small church's attitude must reflect the community's awareness of and acceptance of the church. There are some things that pay and some that don't.

What doesn't pay is your taking an attitude of separateness and exclusiveness from your community. That merely widens a gulf that people are inclined not to cross anyway.

It does pay to get your church involved with community programs and activities. Your cooperation and goodwill are very important to the community's acceptance of your church. While small-town people may balk at a theological discussion, they are generally very impressed by a willingness to be of service. Emphasize community help programs such as stop-smoking clinics, stress seminars, caroling, cooperation with a local welfare center or help line, and programs in the local nursing homes and hospital. Become involved in community celebrations and holiday services. Look for small ways to attract positive attention while giving help.

A small church's most effective tool for church growth may be its willingness to help those in need. The tight bonds that make small churches guard them selves against new members don't imply a lack of kindness. Often the news of someone in need will prompt a collection on the spot. By the same token, it is no accident that the Dorcas Society is often the small church's arm that the community knows best and appreciates most.

What doesn't pay is a bad church reputation. You can't keep a church fight a secret from the community for very long. And who wants to join or even visit a church that's fighting? Your church members' reputations also have an impact on church reputation. Members who are perceived by the community as being manipulative, dishonest, or rude can be a total contraceptive against church growth.

Covering the small-town church's sign for and during evangelistic meetings doesn't fool anyone, and makes the evangelist look silly and deceptive. All false advertising builds resentment people won't be back for your next try.

A positive, high community profile is valuable for any church. But it is vital for the small-town church. Nothing paves the way for church growth in the small community like a reputation for kindness, honesty, and helpfulness. With that in mind, your church members need to realize that their words and actions reverberate far beyond the walls of their little church, and may raise or lower their esteem in the eyes of people who desperately need to hear the gospel.

Leadership opportunities

Keith learned in a local ministers' alliance meeting that the pastor who had chaired the community's United Fund drive for about 20 years was retiring and moving away. Years of Ingathering experience made the job a natural for Keith. He volunteered. Although his church had only 40 members and had been almost invisible in the community, people began to realize that Keith's church was interested in the welfare of their town. Keith's United Fund leader ship opened the way for a positive response from the community later when he announced an evangelistic program.

Larry moved into a community of about 2,000 to pastor a church of 30 elderly members. Although he had no children of his own, Larry became aware that the local PTA was seeking educational program materials about drug and alcohol abuse, and he helped them find what they wanted. His involvement with the PTA led to his becoming president of the organization. Because he organized good programs, soon each meeting was filled to capacity. His leadership in PTA led to other opportunities for community involvement. The respect that he earned from the community opened doors to Bible studies that he never thought possible.

Harold and Cindy began their small town pastorate with a series of evangelistic meetings. Not even one outside person attended. Cindy had a hobby of singing to the accompaniment of taped music. She began to sing at the local nursing home services. Others heard her singing, and she began to get invitations to sing at community functions and church services. Some time later Harold and Cindy were able to rent a small hall for a concert. The people came, packing the hall, and Harold reserved some time to give a short gospel sermon. Within a year Harold was secretary of the local ministerial alliance. He was called upon to speak at community Memorial Day services. The local police department and welfare agency called on Harold and Cindy when they had people who needed counseling or material help. The couple's second series of meetings, held in the church, advertised Cindy's special music. There wasn't enough room in the church to hold all who came.

Despite their self-sufficient attitudes, many small communities are desperate for capable leadership and talent. They'll entrust to you jobs that are important to them, for no other reason than that you are willing to do them. They'll appreciate your talent, simply because you care enough to share it with them. And when you prove that you can do the job, or when your talent has brought them a blessing, you earn both their respect and the right to talk to them about spiritual things.

Even average talents and abilities can be viewed as exceptional in small communities. Cindy wasn't a world-class singer, and singing with tapes would have been considered old hat anywhere else. Larry didn't even have children when he became president of the PTA.

Keith's only qualification to lead the United Fund campaign was his Ingathering experience. Each took an average ability and made it into a major asset for the church by seizing the opportunities in a small community.

Many pastors assume that their presence in town and an evangelistic hand bill qualify them for an audience. Rather than meeting the needs of the community, they expect the community to meet the needs of their church. The small town has tight relationships and strong loyalties. You must demonstrate that you are trustworthy and capable in order to earn the trust of those whom you wish to reach.

Small communities do have open doors. Walk through them.

Give it your best

In the midst of a flood of praise for the tremendous growth of the prison ministry he had founded, Charles Colson reflected, "This 'bigger is better' mind set is deadly. Vernon Grounds has wisely warned, 'We are sinfully concerned with bigness with budgets, buses, buildings, and baptisms.'"1

In a world that worships measurable success, it is easy to forget that the church has a number of very important but entirely unmeasurable ministry tasks to do. Christianity Today senior editor V. Gilbert Beers says of his own smallchurch upbringing, "I owe that small, culturally and economically deprived church a debt of gratitude for giving me a basic foundation in Bible and Christian living, and ultimately directing me into the ministry. Despite its size (or lack thereof) and low visibility, it did its job." 2

Bringing about church growth is only one of the jobs of ministry. Granted, your small church needs to grow. But your little church is part of the ministry of the greater church even if it never grows by a single member. V. Gilbert Beers's home church didn't grow. But it managed to produce V. Gilbert Beers, whose- ministry today reaches millions. In fact, small churches may be better suited to giving young people opportunities to develop their talents and faith than are large churches. "Handicapped by a lack of resources," says Beers, "small churches often rise to the challenge and leave big footprints behind them." 3 If in your small church you have diligently and prayerfully done the tasks of ministry that the Lord requires of you, then you may assume that your ministry is leaving those footprints, whatever the immediately measurable results.

An experienced pastor once tempered my evangelistic ambitions with the warning "You are called to be faithful, not successful." Carrying forth the command to "teach all nations" is our responsibility. But the results of our evangelistic endeavors are out of our hands. In the often discouraging task of small-town evangelism, let's remember that the number of baptisms we get is linked to our evangelistic activity by something that is entirely outside of our control: the human will. You may give a convincing presentation of the message; your efforts are made effectual by the influence of the Holy Spirit; but the final determinant of your success is the individual who must decide to accept or reject the message you preach. In his ability to choose for or against the truth, he is even more powerful than his Creator. Thus our success is always more accurately measured by our faithfulness to the process than by the quantity of the product.

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Loren Seibold was pastor of the Yankton and Hurley, South Dakota, Seventh-day Adventist churches when he wrote this article. He is currently pastor of the Polo Alto, California church.

June 1987

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