Empty churches or ministering centers?

The case of the slow death of the neighborhood church

Will McCall is pastor of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Case 1. Pastor M has a medium-sized church in a growing community. The church is in the process of constructing a new church building and a school. Associated with this church is a small church in a small town with no population growth. The small church has not grown since its inception. Members of the small church commute a half hour to the big church to take their children to school or Pathfinders. To maintain these two separate church facilities costs tens of thousands of dollars, money that could help in the building of one new church/ school complex.

The Adventist Church has a mentality that is illustrated by a meeting I attended not long after entering the ministry. An official from another conference was showing a map of his state with certain counties blacked out. These represented "dark counties," and he told of an ambitious program to enter these dark counties and see the entire map filled out in white. No one really questioned the wisdom of this approach. It was simply assumed that we should have a church in every county and that we could measure progress simply by filling out pieces of a map.

Besides the fact that some of these counties had far more cattle than people, imagine a company taking this approach to its marketing. Imagine automobile executives telling their shareholders that it was their goal to have a dealership in every county in the country. They probably wouldn't even finish their speech. Common sense indicates that if you want to market cars, you place your distributors a little more scientifically than by paying attention to arbitrary lines on a map. Population, population growth, average income all would enter into your decision. You may have dealerships within a few miles of each other in the same county and vast stretches with none because the market is sparse and unpromising.

In some ways we are left with the vestiges of dark-county evangelism in ways that create administrative nightmares.

Case 2. I know of a three-church district with fewer than 50 members total. In the same conference there are numerous churches with more than twice as many members as this entire district, and yet they do not have a pastor of their own.

How should we design districts and appropriate staff? Many rural districts across the country are really too small to support a pastor, but the distance between churches discourages the consolidating of districts.

Case 3. A small church languishes right across a conference boundary from some relatively prosperous churches. Work in that area could easily be managed by the larger churches, but there is a disincentive to encroach on someone else's turf. There are metropolitan areas in North America that are divided into several conferences, an administrative absurdity worthy of its own study.

Case 4. Pastor V has a three-church district in a rural area with numerous small towns. The people in one small town are determined to have a church of their own. They buy a facility, and a new church is dedicated. People consider it progress because a new church has opened. Yet several things have happened. A three-church district has become a four-church district. The new church has siphoned off members from a small church within easy commuting distance. Instead of one struggling church of 40 something, after several years there are two churches of 20 something.

A congregational mentality

Church growth theories are good. But if we go for them without careful adaptation, we will kill ourselves. Most church growth studies have been done in congregational churches because these are the most rapidly growing churches. The Adventist Church is not a congregational church, and were we to become one, it would, in my opinion, mark the end of the church as we know it. Some see congregational growth as an optimistic possibility. I see it as the splintering of the church into hundreds of different factions, the end of doctrinal unity, and the crippling of our world mission work.

Yet although we are not congregational in structure, we live in a congregational culture. Congregational churches are growing because they are full-service churches offering something for every member of the family. Since the tithe (if they pay tithe) stays in the local church, they can hire their own staff. After their primary pastor is hired, they usually hire a youth pastor and then a minister of music. As the congregation grows they will usually try to get a gymnasium for socials and for their youth.

In the Adventist Church most of the funds leave the local church. Tithe funds support our administration system and subsidize parts of teacher and literature evangelist salaries, besides supporting one of the most successful missionary programs in the world. This means of operation is changing almost on a daily basis. More and more tithe funds are being diverted. Much has been written about the diversion of tithe funds into dissident or fringe groups, but some tithe funds are being diverted in other ways. Some feel that we are administratively top heavy. In an age of computers and rapid communication and travel there is probably much we can do to modernize, streamline, and make our administrative structures more efficient. This is a topic we need more dialogue on. A spirit of selfless godliness needs to move our leadership to do what is best for the church as a whole.

The focus of this article is the waste that occurs on the local level: the level where tithe funds are sometimes diverted to beef up local staffs or simply to keep a dying church's budget afloat. We need to start to look at the "big picture" and become more efficient locally.

Case 5. A church is built upon donated property. Not wanting to "look a gift horse in the mouth" and risk offending the donor, the church builds upon the donated land. Unfortunately, the church is miles out of town and thus hardly recognized in the community. Add the fact that the church is hard to find, and you don't exactly have a prescription for success.

Case 6: People associated with a church in a metropolitan area want to establish a church in a fairly densely populated suburb. Sounds reasonable enough. After renting for a while and being eager to get a church of their own, they purchase a house even farther out of the city. Once again, a church is removed from where most of the people live and thus is no longer identified as part of the community. Virtually all of its members initially came from other Adventist churches in the metropolitan area. They are unequipped for real evangelism because of a lack of community identification.

Divide and conquer

Small churches are not without their advantages. They provide a family-like atmosphere and an opportunity for people who might not otherwise get the opportunity to learn leadership by taking on responsibility.

On the other hand, small churches have many disadvantages. They are seldom able to support adequate youth programs, especially schools. People who are accustomed to small churches often find the larger churches to be "worldly." Meanwhile, their youth are often drawn off into the world because their churches have so little for them. Small church structure provides little opportunity for young singles to fellowship with other Adventists their own age.

Small churches can foster fanaticism. They tend to draw people who might not get an audience in a larger church and who seek out smaller churches that are desperate for teachers and guest speakers. The success of small churches is totally dependent upon the leadership of local volunteers. In the absence of reliable leadership, the "flock" may be picked apart by "wolves." Small churches often do not see a minister every week. It is just not financially possible to staff smaller congregations with their own pastor.

Case 7. An inner-city church started out as an ethnic church but has since become a generic church. Most of its members drive past a larger church to go to their old church: out of loyalty, tradition, because of old grudges, or simply preferring a small church. Meanwhile, they cannot support a school of their own, and the larger church must carry the financial burden for Christian education in the area. The small church is struggling simply to keep its doors open and can't make much of a contribution.

Churches within commuting distance often become jealous and competitive with one another. Needs are seen on a congregational basis rather than in terms of the whole area. To close down a small church and merge it with a larger one seems like death; it is the loss of identity, tradition, and familiar ritual. Yet instead of a quick death, the death is often slow and painful, as youth are lost, members go away, and the church languishes because it no longer has a viable mission.

Can we really afford a church in every neighborhood? We could have "lights" in every neighborhood by simply fostering home churches. Home churches could operate without any budget and hold meetings during the week and even vesper services. If we gathered together in larger area churches and drew members from a reasonable commuting distance, we'd have more money to support our schools, more fellowship for our young people, and a pool of talent that would make it easier to fill offices. We could also have the benefit of more pastoral sermons, even our own pastor. Possibilities for growth would also be enhanced.

There are few truly large urban Adventist churches in North America; that is, few churches seen as unusually large by their communities. Even our large urban churches are often dwarfed by larger churches in the area. At the same time, our small, poorly equipped churches often look bizarre to urban communities. They don't look "normal."

We must not forget that the majority of the population in North America, including middle-class Caucasians, live in densely populated urban areas. We are almost invisible to the majority of people in North America because so many of our large churches are in rural areas, and we have such a small presence in the cities, where most of the people live.


Coming up with solutions is not as easy as identifying the problems, because much of the problem is in our provincial mentality. However, here are some suggestions that could work, though not without some trauma.

1. Rethink our strategies. North America is unique. We cannot use strategies of the developing world here and expect them to work. Evangelists who can win thousands in foreign countries are dismayed that they can hardly win any in this country.

2. Recognize the importance of the pastor. In North America a church is identified with its pastor. We can talk all we want about lay training, but when people think of a church they think of a pastor. With North America's relative sophistication, 50 churches to a pastor simply will not work as it does in some parts of the world. Like it or not, visitors look for the pastor.

3. Accept Adventist uniqueness. Adventists have a unique subculture that requires a high degree of commitment. In some ways we need to adjust to the culture we are trying to reach if we ever hope to have success. In other ways we'll always be bucking the culture, ever learning to present our uniqueness with straightforwardness and confidence.

4. Keep in view the larger picture. We must educate our people to see the larger perspective. Home churches existing as satellites to support a regional church/school complex must be promoted. Our churches must be handicap accessible and representative of our high standards. Antiquated, inaccessible churches are an enormous handicap to church growth. To ensure these high standards we must have financially sound area churches.

5. Let the conference have an overall plan for church growth and church planting. Churches within an easy commuting distance of a larger church should be closed down unless there is ample evidence that the smaller church has real growth potential. This must be done carefully with a master plan formulated by conference committees working together.

6. Careful study should precede church-building projects. Churches should not be built or started at the whim of the members. The people should understand the waste of diverting funds to support a separate facility in a slow growth area and the risk of harming other neighboring churches. Laypersons want churches located for their convenience. They are seldom, if ever, equipped to judge impartially a church's growth potential. Just because we build it doesn't mean people will come to it.

7. Focus on high population areas. Areas of high population density should be looked at closely for church planting or nurture. The apostle Paul started an evangelistic explosion largely because he focused on large urban areas. Positioning our churches should be done scientifically with demographic study, careful thought, and prayer. If "location, location, location" are the three greatest principles of real estate, location will certainly have much to do with our success in positioning churches.

8. Be a part of the community. We should discourage the building of churches that are separate from the communities they are there to serve. Christ went to minister to people where they were. We should be a part of our communities.

What is needed is nothing less than a paradigm shift among our people. We need to cast our nets where the fish are, become actively engaged in our communities, and learn to think big.

The stories in this article are based upon
actual case studies. The names have been
disguised to protect the innocent and keep old

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Will McCall is pastor of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

January 1997

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