We're still here

An illuminating view of the plusses of life and ministry in smaller congregations

Loren Seibold is pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Palo Alto, California.

When I was a boy growing up on the North Dakota prairie, I'd look in every encyclopedia and geography book I could find for a mention of my state. I hoped that someone in the bigger, busier world where things really happened sensed the significant things about us: how we filled our days, the richness of our lives, the texture of our relationships, the satisfaction we felt in our achievements. As I paged through those volumes I'd see, under the headings of other states and countries, pictures of tall, snow-capped mountains (in North Dakota you can see for miles from the most insignificant knoll); tall city skylines (the tallest building in my world was a grain elevator); and oceans (on our farm a cattail-crowded pond was a significant body of water).

When I finally found the section on North Dakota, I was always disappointed. The article was invariably short and included pictures of wheat fields, cows, and a grain elevator, all of which I could see by looking out of my classroom window.

It seemed like every other state had some attraction that merited attention: Disneyland, Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge. North Dakota had cows and wheat. It's the breadbasket of the nation, but so what? Wheat and cows don't make interesting reading. All the interesting things were happening someplace else, where there were more people and more resources than we could lay claim to.

This is how many members of small churches feel: they wonder if anyone out there knows that the heart of God's church is still beating in the thousands of little congregations across this country and around the world.

As I read through professional journals or study new church programs that have tumbled down from somewhere far above me in the church hierarchy, it is evident that even though most churches are small, 1 programs are designed for the fewer that are large. The journals are rich with resources to help the youth minister run a jet-hot youth program. But most churches don't have a youth pas tor or even a skillful, trustworthy, highly motivated layperson with enough time on his or her hands to fashion an active program. There are informative articles on how to set up committees for music and worship, and how to divide your church into small groups. But many congregations are no more than a small group. The articles on innovative leadership are fine, as long as you don't forget that the real leadership often lies with patriarchs and matriarchs of the congregation who are kind enough to allow the pastor to think he or she is running things. Leadership, in that case, often has more to do with love and personal attention than with organizational flowcharts.

Disappearance

"It is ironic," notes Carl S. Dudley, "that the ubiquitous majority of churches (the small congregations) needed to be 'rediscovered' by the minority (the larger congregations)."2 Large Protestant congregations are a relatively recent phenomenon in North America. Even though there had always been a few large "first churches" in downtown areas, by the turn of the century the size of the average congregation was only 150 members. The model of a successful church was a congregation served by one full-time "generalist" pastor.

But the startling growth of some congregations in the rapidly swelling suburbs after World War II led to a new model of what a congregation should strive to be: a top-man aged organization, with abundant financial resources, led not by a generalist, but by a team of specialists. Such congregations are modeled unashamedly on the corporate world and are run by standards of "organizational efficiency." From the denominational headquarters on down, it has become accepted without question that good churches are big churches, and that the kind of clergy positions these big churches provide are the standard of professional success.

As a result, small churches have nearly dis appeared from the serious planning agenda of most denominational offices other than as a thorny problem of finding people and resources to serve them. High-profile models of what a small inner city church should be are few, and models of what would constitute success in a village or rural church are virtually nonexistent. Most programming for ministries targets the larger suburban church, and for good reason: small churches are less likely to possess the people, the means, or the will to respond to the kinds of programs denominational planners generate.

Similarly, even though small church ministry is strikingly different than large church ministry, there are few denominations that recognize a track for small church specialists. If small churches are merely failed big churches, small church pastors are thought of (and sometimes think of them selves) as those who aren't skillful enough to have been promoted to a larger venue.

But most ministry doesn't happen in churches of thousands, with choirs and pipe organs, multiple pastors, full-time secretaries, vast parking lots, and packed sanctuaries. Most of it happens in the thousands of small parishes across the country, where dedicated pastors are marrying and burying, trying to find someone to lead the teens or organize the potluck or sing special music. Never exploding with growth but far from dying, either. Never particularly efficient, and often organized more like a family than a corporation, small congregations dominate Protestant Christianity in number, if not in collective attendance and prestige.

A special ministry

"Small churches," according to Dudley, "are usually portrayed as miniature versions of the larger congregations," when in fact they are psychologically and socially quite different. 3 Dudley was among the first to note that small churches are so unlike large churches that they require an approach to ministry quite different from the corporate one. Rather than giving small churches a condescending pat on the head and a few hints and tips, Dudley paints them as the living skeleton of Christianity. In a world of social change and mobility, he says, they provide strengths that are sadly lacking in many of the more "successful" churches: stability and continuity of relationships.

It is that stability that most often bedevils the ambitious pastor. "They won't let me change anything!" a pastor once complained to me. This pastor was the sixth this church had had in 10 years. Each one had flown into town with the intention of changing every thing and each one had become frustrated at not being able to overturn 100 years of tradition in six months.

Tradition is sometimes the only thing small churches have to hold to. That's especially true in small towns and rural areas, where not just church membership but even the population of the community is dropping. The world all around them is changing; but the church is at least one place that will stay relatively the same. In the church, members can conserve their values and beliefs, their relationships and friendships, and their sense of what is right about their world. The present seeks reference in a sacred past that seems, at least in the soft-touch photos of collective memory, more glorious and successful. It is no accident that small churches pass both their strengths and their social pathologies along from generation to generation, even though the entire group is replaced.

Small churches conserve not just traditional ways, but traditional relationships. Where large churches are composed of many overlapping social groups, small churches are often just one social group in which everyone knows everyone else the good and the bad about them. New people may have a difficult time being assimilated. Someone who has been in the church for 10 years is still a "newcomer." That goes for new pastors, too.

Leadership is also a matter of tradition. I once served in a country church in which one family had for generations supplied the church elders, another had always supplied the Sabbath School teachers, and a third had supplied the treasurers. My first attempt to mix things up a bit crashed in flames in nominating committee.

Small churches are sometimes infuriatingly tenacious.They survive long after it would have been efficient for them to close or merge greatly complicating the task of district pastors and denominational managers.

Conventional church growth wisdom prescribes a flexible organization, responsive to new ideas coming from professional leadership, serving a flexible and open social group. Though this approach has been a source of success in some congregations, it undervalues small churches.

Small churches, while stubbornly con serving the traditions of the past, also con serve such valuable qualities as traditional theology and traditional attitudes. Where Christian love and caring have been the foundation of the church, those qualities, too, are conserved from generation to generation.

The strength of the small church is in human relationships, Dudley explains. "If we define the church by the business of religious institutions budgets, buildings, and bodies the small church comes out on the short end. But the small church appears much stronger when measured by human relationships. If the church is defined by the number of people who know and care about one another by name, then the small church has already grown."4 Often folks spend generations finding ways to absorb even rather eccentric characters into the fabric of the church family. While it is true that they don't accept newcomers quickly, Dudley asserts that, given time, small churches do some thing even more significant: they adopt them into the family. Relationships, once formed, are for a lifetime. "In the small church," Dudley explains, "everyone has a place."5

New pastors are no exception; they too must earn their place in the social fabric. Given enough time (which seldom happens), a pastor can become a trusted part of a small church family rather than a transient and meddlesome outsider. All of this takes a special sensitivity that can never be taught in organizational efficiency training.

The best small church pastor I ever met served a Methodist congregation in the rural Midwest. I rarely saw him exhibit either organization or efficiency, but he never lacked warmth and enthusiasm. He opened doors by being friendly and a good listener. All the town businesspeople knew him; so did the residents of the nursing home. If he'd nothing else to do, he'd wander up and down Main Street meeting people or visiting in the cafe. He attended every Kiwanis Club meeting, and was almost always at the sidelines in the team colors, rooting for the high school basketball team. He became fully and deeply a part of the community and betrayed no ambition to be anywhere else. In his congregation he knew who the traditional leaders were, and he was sensitive to their authority. He waited years before cautiously suggesting changes to them. By that time, they loved and trusted him, and would have followed him anywhere. He was the first true small church expert I ever met, and he was an inspiration.6

Failure and excellence

There is much that is lovely about small church life. In many small churches the cur rents of Christian love run strong and deep. Dedication to the Lord's work is second to none. Children continue to learn about Jesus, discouraged people find strength for another week, thinkers find challenging discussions, lonely people get a hug or a solid handshake, and friends clasp hands. In many small churches you'll find surprisingly excellent preaching and music, thoughtful Sabbath or Sunday school discussions, spiritual lives of remarkable richness, and people passionately active in outreach ministries.

Yet as they compare themselves to what they see as the ideal church the growing, energetic suburban congregation many small churches live under a cloud of failure. Recently I read an article written by a denominational executive recommending that small churches that haven't grown in a decade be closed. They're not showing signs of success, he opined, and are wasting personnel and other resources.

I thought of the little family church in which I grew up in the barely-there hamlet of Cleveland, North Dakota. I recall the folks in my church often feeling somewhat left be hind by the rest of the world. New church members were being added by the hundreds in California and in Africa and in Argentina but not among the farmers of Stutsman County.

Far from growing, the church has lost people decade by decade, just as the community where it is located: some have grown old, some have moved away, some have met untimely deaths, and nearly all the young people have gone elsewhere to seek their fortunes. I can think of very few baptisms into that congregation other than the church's own children or an occasional person marrying into one of the church's families. By all the most frequently mentioned standards, that church has been a failure and should close.

But an evaluation based on growth alone cheats the church of the credit it deserves. Looking back several generations, I can count at least two-score children who grew up in that little church who went on to live lives of Christian service: church school teachers, ministers, denominational presidents and treasurers, literature evangelists, Christian book center managers, college professors, physicians and nurses, directors of church hospitals and nursing homes, and overseas missionaries. Even among those who didn't serve the church professionally, an extraordinary proportion are still faith ful believers and raising their families as faithful believers.

In short, the effect of that little congregation on God's work has been phenomenal! There are emissaries from the Cleveland, North Dakota, Seventh-day Adventist Church across this continent and around the world. That little church has been a success! I often wonder how that congregation, and thousands like it, would react if the comparisons with large church programs that make them feel inferior were replaced with affirmations of their own successes.

Now I am far from the prairies. The church I pastor in California is small too, but instead of looking out on wheat fields and cows, it fronts on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Instead of farmers, I preach to Stanford students and Silicon Valley engineers.

The dynamics here do, in fact, differ from those of the rural churches I once served; education and resources and a surrounding city do make a difference. Yet even here we treasure the rich qualities of small church life: the network of relationships, the respect for tradition, the desire to build trust with one another, the preference for a personal rather than a programmed ministry.

The most important thing I've learned is that we're not at our best when we try to play big church instead of being what we can be: an excellent, intelligent, thoughtful, and active little congregation. I think of my 200- member church as a specialized ministry to our community. We're not Macy's; we're a small, classy boutique. We're not Safeway; we're a little gourmet deli. We know we can't do it all, and so we focus on trying to do what we can do best.

I am convinced that this specialized ministry has a niche. There are enough people who choose small churches in preference to larger churches with more people and pro grams just down the road, that it would be a mistake to insist that every church reach for mega-church status.

We can do much to attend more thought fully to the needs of smaller congregations. More programs won't do it, but more sensitivity and appreciation might. Pastors of small churches, especially those in rural areas, often feel lonely, discouraged, and frustrated in their attempts to put into practice what their seminary professors, professional journals, and denominational leaders suggest they ought to be doing.7 These clergy and the members they serve need frequent and sincere assurance that they are part of God's church, accepted by grace for their best efforts and celebrated for their successes, even if they never grow numerically. Most important, we can begin to regard ministry to small churches as a specialty, not a failure.

Until the day when God pours out on earth an unprecedented measure of the Holy Spirit, there will be small congregations that grow little, if at all. The good news (and there is, indeed, much of the paradox of grace in it) is that we're still here, in thou sands of small congregations, quietly ministering Christ's love to the communities we touch, and God is still at work among us. Whether you read about us in the journals or not, there is a gentle richness in our small church lives, a loving texture to our relation ships, a thoughtful fullness to our days and an excellence to our efforts.

Not all of God's churches are growing in membership. Some are simply growing in grace.

1 63 percent of churches in America have less
than 300 members on their books; 47 percent have
fewer than 200 members. Source: From Belief to
Commitment: The Community Service Activities
and Finances of Religious Congregations in the
United States
, 1993 Ed., (Washington, D.C.:
Independent Sector, 1993). However, it is social structure,
not book membership, that defines the small
church; while a big church is a collection of many
small social cells, a small church operates as a
single social cell.

2 Carl S. Dudley, Making the Small Church
Effective
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), p. 22.

3 Ibid., p. 22.

4 Ibid., p. 47.

5 Ibid.

6 Ironically, it was his success that brought a
reluctant end to the practice of his specialty: after
six years of building an excellent reputation
in his community, he was judged by his bishop
to be a pastor who must, whether he liked it or
not, be promoted to a large suburban church!

7 From time to time I read of denomination
ally sponsored retreats for pastors of large
churches. They face special needs, it's argued, and
need particular encouragement. It occurs to me
that lone pastors of small churches, particularly
those in rural areas, probably need the camaraderie
and support more than any other clergy in
the Christian church, and could most benefit
from an encouraging program focusing on their
unique needs.


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Loren Seibold is pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Palo Alto, California.

September 1997

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