{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Sacrificing (Even) Our Buildings For God’s Kingdom

Asbury UMC in Chestertown, MD

The longer I serve in a local church, the more I become aware how much our physical spaces – the spaces we use for worship, teaching, fellowship, and service – say a lot about the souls of our congregational life. We may not always pick up on this, especially if we’ve been a member of a church for many years. A place can become home quickly and we grow accustomed to the feelings we gain by being present while missing the details of the space itself. Nonetheless, these spaces become sacred as we share life together in them.

Church buildings have played a big role in the history of American Christianity. Once America was finally settled in the mid to late 1800s, church buildings became the pride of every local church. Without realizing it, we began to shift from a missionary movement (a church always on the move as new land was settled) to a stationed institution with brick and mortar and permanence in a local community. In the 100+ years that followed, buildings became bigger and bigger in order to accommodate more people, growing incomes, and the love and pride that comes with being an active member of a local church.

All of this was going well until somewhere in the mid to late 20th Century when church membership decline became noticeable. Now that we’re in the 21st Century, decline is not only noticeable, it’s painful. And all the while we have these big, aging, beautiful yet hard-to-maintain buildings our faithful mothers and fathers in the faith left behind.

With fewer people occupying our buildings and resources that continue to decline, what’s the faithful thing to do?

Well, we could just double down on our efforts to resurrect the church of the past. We could continue to hope for the good ‘ole days to return and pray that people will once again fill our pews. While we’re at it, we might even pray that Sunday morning become culturally sacred again and that people act as if attending church is the thing any good, upstanding citizen would do with their time.

Or we could prayerfully seek what new place God might be leading us into – even when it might involve our church buildings.

A Modest Proposal

What if we encouraged more churches to give their space away? Yes, you read that correctly. What if God is leading us into a season of downsizing our physical space? And what if such a season will free us to become a church on the move again?

I want to offer three changes that I think could take place if we creatively and strategically downsized or shared our church’s physical spaces:

  1. A shift in Evangelism. The constant upkeep of buildings means we need to focus our energy on ourselves. And a decline in resources for such upkeep means we need new people in our buildings in order for our buildings to get the attention they need. We don’t mean for it to happen, but our evangelism can quietly become an effort to preserve our physical space if we’re not careful. The focus on buildings also leads us to approach evangelism as a way to encourage people to come to us. We spruce up our buildings, pave our parking lots, and keep our grass in pristine condition so that we can tell a newcomer, “Come on in our doors – the water is fine.” Focusing less on our buildings means evangelism becomes more about going out and meeting people where they are. It means we gain the freedom to actually be the church because we’re not quite as focused on preserving a church building.
  2. A shift in Stewardship. I’ve never done this but I’d be willing to bet if you conducted a poll in your local church and asked people the least exciting thing their tithes and offerings pay for, the maintenance of a church building might be close to the top of their list. We love to pay for children and youth. We love to pay for choir music. We love to pay for preachers (so long as they visit us when we’re sick and give a good sermon!). But no one likes to pay the light bill. Paying a water bill doesn’t strangely warm anyone’s heart. Downsizing or creatively sharing physical space can free local churches to not stress so much about paying enormous utilities on a building used very little when you consider the number of hours it remains locked during the week.
  3. A shift in Mission. Too many of our local churches are occupying buildings that are too large and too expensive to maintain. What if, instead of mourning the decline in numbers, churches found creative ways to engage the community with their physical space? What if you took some empty classrooms and invited a community development program to use your space during the week? What if you took an empty office or two and found a startup non-profit trying to help people and you gave them a little office space? What if you took your oversized fellowship hall and let a local AA or NA group meet in it weekly on an evening when the church doesn’t need it? Our physical space and how we use it says a lot about how we view our call to be in mission with the world around us. If we leave our church locked up for most of the week and use our space solely for members to meet, then that says to the community that we are a closed group. It doesn’t matter how many time you want to put on your church sign that “All are welcome here,” the ways you use and let others use your building says, “You better be a member or know the right people if you want to be welcome here.” Opening your big buildings to the community says you care about being a good neighbor.

Andy Stanley asks this question in one of his leadership talks: “What’s the biggest challenge the Church faces, that if it were possible to overcome, it would be a total game-changer?” Stanley says the answer is buildings. We make our buildings too sacred. Change seems impossible when it comes to physical space. Too much emotion gets tied up in buildings. But Stanley also reminds us the kingdom of God is full of bounty – the only problem we face is how that bounty is allocated.

How is God’s kingdom calling you to consider new and creative ways to use your physical space? Is there a ministry in your community that needs a new home? Is there a way to meet some need in your community by giving some space away?

How is God calling us to see our buildings and how we use them as more than just possessions, but rather as gifts we are carefully entrusted to use for the sake of God’s growing kingdom movement?

A Prayer for Pastors and Churches in Transition

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It’s that time of year again for many churches and pastors – time to say goodbye and hello. It’s a bittersweet time of year, really. On the one hand, change is exciting. New pastors mean new ideas. New churches mean new people to develop relationships and share ministry with. On the other hand, change is really hard. Some pastors are leaving great churches filled with many close friends – friends who have shared life’s ups and downs. Some churches are losing pastors who have meant a great deal to them – pastors who have shared life’s ups and downs in a variety of ways.

As a pastor who is not moving this year I want to share a prayer for all pastors and churches who are experiencing transition. I know it’s hard and exciting all at once. Know that none of you are alone. And as John Wesley reminds us, “best of all God is with us.”

Almighty God, You who called the universe into bring, You who formed our inmost being and called us to be your people:

We give you thanks for you constant presence. Through seasons of constancy and even change, you are with us – calling us into deeper waters, calling us together in your spirit of unity, calling us out of ourselves into the world to serve others.

Grant that those pastors bring called into new waters might hold fast to unending love and mercy as a buey – a love that promised to hold onto us even as we go where your Spirit leads us. May the churches that receive them be communities of mercy and grace.

May the churches experiencing loss and change hold fast to the promise that your mission is bigger than any single pastor, local church, or annual conference. Grant that such a promise would bring both comfort and discomfort – comfort in a season of change and discomfort as it drives us all to love you and each other more.

Strengthen us to be your Church in all times and seasons of life – a place where all are truly welcomed and embraced in your love (even new pastors and church members); a place where we find ways you are active among us and calling us to join in your saving work (even in communities that weren’t our top choice to move to); a place where the story of your love and grace and mercy are embodied (even if it comes in shapes and sizes and languages that are new to us). We offer our prayers in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The Why Question We Never Get Around to Asking

Why are these things important? Why do we do things in this particular way? Why does any of this matter?

These are questions I’ve never a church, annual conference, or even The United Methodist Church as a whole ask before. Simon Sinek brilliantly points out that there are three circles of questions leaders must address and each circle (or question) goes deeper than the previous one. Most of us ask the first two questions all the time – What sorts of things are we to be about? How do we do these things? Church leaders know we have a purpose for existence. If you’re a United Methodist, then you definitely know we have a process to tell us how we are to do things (committees, structures, endless rules on procedure, etc.). But what struck me by this talk is the fact that we rarely get around to asking the deepest and most difficult question of all – Why should any of this matter?

At the local church level, most of us could answer the “what” question – What sorts of things are we to do? Some would say, “make disciples.” Others might say, “be the church.” Still others would say, “bring people to Christ” or “preach, teach, and serve.” Most churches would even answer the “how” question – How do we go about doing these important tasks? Maybe some would say, “baptize people and teach them the ways of Jesus.” Another answer might be, “engage people in spiritual disciplines or service.” As United Methodists, we have an entire Book of Discipline that tells us just about every way possible to go about being the church and local churches are expected to abide by these pre-prescribed procedures.

But why is any of this important?

This is the season where United Methodists everywhere gather for annual conferences across the Connection. And I can imagine that most gatherings would do a good job of telling us what our mission is (“to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world). Many are probably trying to get us excited about our mission by sharing ways we can accomplish it (different ways of being active in ministry).

But how many conferences are getting to the question of why this is important?

In his TED Talk, Simon Sinek notes that the circles order reflects the places in our brain where we comprehend what’s going on around us and learn. And it should come as no surprise that the “why” question correlates with the limbic system in the brain. We can talk about “what” and “how” because those questions touch on parts of the brain where language is easy to attach to brain activity. But the limbic system is different. This complex system of the brain deals with things like passion, motivation, impulses – the stuff we know is there but is really hard to put words on.

Maybe Simon Sinek is onto something here for we United Methodists – maybe we never get around to the “why” question because it’s hard to talk about? The only trouble is, by definition, the “what” or “how” of being a Christian motivates no one. In other words, the question of “why” is the only true motivator for new people to care about what the mission of the church is all about. This is the stuff we share in testimony. It’s the stuff that’s hard to put words on (transformation always is). It’s the stuff that brings us to tears and makes our hearts swell.

No one outside of the church cares about mission statements and bumper stickers.

No one outside of the church cares about structures and doing things a certain weird way for no better reason than, “we’ve always done it this way.”

No one cares that we need new members and more money to continue to survive as the church.

No one cares about any of this, that is, until they know WHY we exist in the first place. And by the way, we inside the church could stand to spend a little more time with the “why” question too. If all we do is talk about what we do and how we do it, then the only motivation for being the church is to take care of ourselves and those who agree with us or understand us. That’s a sad, and dare I say it unfaithful, reason to exist.

Why are we called to gather as the church? Maybe that answer begins in the fact that the God who calls us and saves us, says we can’t keep that gift – we have to live the sort of life where we give things like love, mercy, and forgiveness away to others. And as Simon Sinek would remind all good leaders – we have to begin with the “why” before we move on to the “how” or “what.”

So how does your church or conference address the question of “Why”?

Some “Why” Questions that might lead us to change:

  1. Why do we prioritize things like money or members or attendance? Is it because those things point us to something deeper about how we are helping people grow in their faith? Or is it because it looks good on a statistical report or somehow ensures we have a secure future?
  2. Why do we do certain things in a certain way in the local church? Is it because we’ve always done it this way? Does this way of doing things need to change in order to better address the question of why we are followers of Jesus?
  3. For conference leaders: Why do we appoint pastors from one church to the next? Is it because our system says pastors move along a certain trajectory? Or do we attempt to appoint pastors based on things like gifts, graces, and mission areas (not just local church settings)?
  4. For The United Methodist Church as a whole: Why do we do the things we do in the ways we do? Are we really trying to form communities of people who follow in the ways of Jesus? Or are we just trying to protect the only “what” and “how” of being the church we’ve ever known?

On Praying for Revival

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The sentiment around the church today is a longing for some sort of renewal or, to put it in more churchy terms, a revival. As a Southerner born and raised just due east of the buckle of the Bible Belt, revival is a term I’m familiar with. I can remember my home church hosting revivals when I was a kid. It was a time where we had worship beginning on Sunday evenings (because back then we all came back to church on Sunday evenings anyways) and we met for 2-3 evenings in a row. We often brought in guest preachers and maybe even enjoyed some special music as part of our time together. But make no mistake, the purpose of a revival was to spark a sense of renewed fervor and vitality in the spiritual lives of all in attendance.

I’ve recently heard that word, “revival,” repeated again and again at Methodist gatherings and meetings. And it made me wonder: What does the revival (or renewal) we long for in The United Methodist Church look like?

At the heart of revival, of course, is change. The hopes of a revival is to provide space for a spiritual change to occur in someone’s life. But if being Christian teaches us anything, it’s that change must be BOTH internal AND external. In other words, if change is to take hold in our lives, then nothing remains the same.

So if we believe this applies to individuals, and that such a change is essential to live a faithful life, doesn’t it also apply to our churches and systems of being church? In other words, when we pray for revival in the church, do we take to heart the need for change to take hold in EVERY aspect of our lives together, including the very ways we go about being church?

When we pray for revival or renewal in the church, are we willing to hear God’s voice calling us to change, even if it means radically changing the ways we organize, build and use buildings, and relate to each other and the world around us? Organizational management and change consultant, Margaret Wheatley, reminds us, “Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” If you’re an active leader in the church, I think you’d probably agree we’re experiencing a “dark night” as membership and attendance continues to decline. And we can mourn the loss of “the good ‘ol days” when people just magically showed up at our churches and everyone organized their lives around a Sunday that included worship and three meetings, bible studies, or circle gatherings throughout the week or we can offer ourselves to the change God is calling us to even if that means relinquishing those idols of how we’ve been church for so long now. 

What sort of change is God calling your church or district or annual conference to embark on? How are you being called to do things differently for the sake of God’s mission? Margaret Wheatley offers us more wisdom: “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.” 

Maybe God is calling us yet again to articulate a common vision. If you’re a United Methodist, then you’re probably already shouting at your computer screen, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!” Yeah, but how? The creation of a mission statement does not ensure that mission happens, even if people memorize the phrasing. The how question is the true kicker for churches and our denomination – How will we go about being a faithful church to the mission of connecting people to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that lives are changed on an ongoing and continual basis? And maybe the how question also leads us to an important distinction – Are we about the business of living into God’s mission or are we about the business of building and playing church?

A couple things should jump out:

First, in order to go about this mission in a 21st Century world we can NOT use 19th or 20th Century methods. For example, building buildings as a sign of success is something the church has done for centuries. And now as we experience a season of decline, we’re saddled with the burdens of buildings that are way too big and way too expensive to keep up. If a 21st Century world is more migratory less tied to buildings, then why do we insist on continuing to build buildings or do everything in our power to fill the ones we have?

Secondly, the very nature of mission insists that we move – move out of our buildings, move out of our aging ways of doing things, move out of our comfort zones. If mission calls us to move out, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to get people to come in to where we already are? The act of counting weekly attendance and membership might have something to say about the affect worship has on the life of a local church, but it says very little about what people do after they leave the worship service. Why not spend more time connecting with the community around us instead of just supplanting and sequestering people off into our buildings. God is doing amazing things outside of our churches and we really ought to take notice.

I guess maybe I’m trying to ask this: If we pray for the revival of the church, are we praying for a season of change in EVERY sense of the word, or are we just praying for things to go back to the way they once were when we had more butts in seats, dollars in the bank, and people who centered their lives on the well being preserving our buildings and programs? 

Needless to say, that’s a question that I hope will continue to haunt us at every turn.

Making Good Diet Decisions at Easter (For Pastors)

holiday-overeating

2015 began as the year I made some lifestyle changes. I say “lifestyle changes” because I no longer believe in going on diets. Diets are made to be broken. I read an amazing book to start the new year that said a major factor in making good decisions about your diet (and other things in life) come from establishing good habits. So at age 32 and about 15-20 pounds heavier than I want to be (I’m a short guy who carries weight very badly), I decided to just take the leap and make some lifestyle changes. My diet changed in big ways. I eat less. And I exercise a lot more (from 2-3 a month before to 4-5 times a week now).

This was all going great until Holy Week came along. You see, as a pastor this is one of the busiest weeks of the calendar year. You’re working on multiple sermons. Preparing for multiple worship services. All the while you’re trying to keep up with the normal demands of checking on people who are sick, etc.

In other words, my new lifestyle changes met a week where I am very tired, a little stressed, and don’t have enough hours in the day. Since I know I’m not the only pastor who probably struggles with making good dietary decisions during weeks like this, I thought I would share some advice I’ve been reminding myself of all week (and it’s worked…mostly)

  • Eat a good breakfast to start the day. You might want to consider swapping that bowl of cereal or piece of toast for some more protein. Eggs are an excellent source of protein and very good for you. New dietary standards reveal it was a myth that they were bad for your cholesterol. If you don’t currently eat breakfast, then shame on you. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating a good breakfast will help your metabolism all day long.
  • Have healthy snacks on hand. Buy some fruit. Get some almonds. Find something healthy to snack on between meals and especially if things get busy and you know your next meal will be later than normal. If you live in a parsonage within walking distance of your office at church, challenge yourself by leaving your snacks at home and take a 15 minute break to stretch your legs and clear your mind as you walk home to grab your snack. This way you get a little fresh air and some walking in your busy afternoon. And whatever you do, stay out of the fast food drive through line!
  • Drink more water. Studies show drinking a bottle of water can satiate a hunger craving. Sometimes you need to hydrate instead of taking in more food. Plus water will actually help your energy level in the long run. So lay off the diet cokes and sweet tea!
  • Lay off the Easter candy! Many will be present for an Easter Egg Hunt this weekend. Here’s a good rule of thumb about Easter candy – unless you have the metabolism and energy level of an 8 year old, you probably want to avoid it altogether.
  • Go to bed early. Avoid the temptation to stay up late Saturday night trying to perfect your Easter sermon. It’s done by then. And it will be good. Have faith. God will use your words in mighty ways. Getting good sleep all week is a must too. There’s a difference between tired eating and eating for fuel. Tired eating never goes well. You’re looking for something to activate the comfort mechanism in your brain. This is why tired eating is normally full of sugar or heavy in carbs. Plan and prepare ahead so you can get a good night’s rest. You’ll need it all week and weekend long.
  • Manage your Easter lunch plate well. By the time Easter lunch rolls around, you’ll be very susceptible to tired eating. You’ve finished a big day and capped off a busy week. When you go to make that plate, just be aware of what you’re putting on it. For example, if your plate is mostly brown, add some color to it in the form of vegetables. And no, as much as I wish I could change this, mac & cheese is NOT a vegetable. Also be aware of how much you put on your plate. Make sure you can see the bottom of the plate at least a little. There’s no prize for the person who can cover every square inch of their plate.
  • Plan some Easter Sunday afternoon exercise. After you enjoy your Easter lunch and that well-deserved nap, plan some exercise for when you wake up. Resist the urge to loaf around all afternoon. Go for a walk, take a bike ride, go for a run. Get out of the house. Spend some time with your family outside somewhere. An hour or so of exercise will ensure your metabolism stays active. It will also help you feel better on Easter Monday.
  • Have an accountability partner. Find a pastor friend you can call or text over the weekend. Check on each other. Encourage each other. Some pastors in my annual conference did this for an entire year and these guys all lost of a ton of weight. It turns out we make better decisions when we look to friends for that needed encouragement knowing we are not alone in our struggle.

I probably should have posted this earlier in the week. I might have made better decisions as a result. But we’ve got the rest of the weekend. May we experience the miracle of resurrection fully and may we offer our bodies to God as holy temples as we lead others through this weekend.

5 Things the Church Should Stop For Lent

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Lent is the time of year where we look at our lives and do the hard work of being honest about things that might be keeping us from growing deeper in our relationship with God. Now many use it as an excuse to deprive themselves of chocolate or caffeine or dessert. I say that’s fine so long as those things are hindering your faith life. If they’re not and you still want to give them up as an act of endurance for the next 40 days, then fine, at least add something new to your life that will help you grow deeper in your faith journey.

It occurs to me that while the church asks individuals to do this critical and honest work, maybe we should spend some time as the church doing it too. In other words, how can the church practice what it preaches about self-denial and transformation?

Below are 5 things the Church should think about giving up for Lent. Maybe you can read these and add a few of your own:

  1. Stop working people to death. Too often we associate discipleship and service with being busy at the church. Churches should really slow down and think about what it means to people when you ask them to spend 2, 3, or 4 days a week busy in a church building. Maybe it’s time to free people up to serve for the sake of others outside the walls of your building? Maybe it’s time for busy-work ministries to take a break? Maybe we should spend this season in prayer and maybe even in rest in order to actually be with God and one another instead of making those things one more item on a to-do list? Remember the wise advice of the Apostle Paul who said it’s by grace alone that we are saved, not by the busyness of our church programs.
  2. Stop viewing visitors and especially young families as investments for the future of your church. We do it all the time. Someone starts visiting our church and we get excited about the potential of what they can give the church. If it’s a young family, we foam at the mouth with anticipation of how they will bolster the size and vitality of our children and families programs. Stop it. Just stop. It’s selfish to view newcomers to your church as commodities to use for your own purposes. If a family is visiting your church, don’t find ways to make them busy (see above), find ways to connect them with God and other people. If a new person graces the doors of your church, don’t ask what they can give before they get to their seat. Give them time to connect with God. Let God’s Spirit do its work. Remember: while it’s important that people serve and become involved in the local church, it’s double important that churches don’t exploit them for their own gain in the process.
  3. Stop thinking young clergy are the key to bringing in younger members. As a young pastor, this is a real struggle. On the one hand, you can’t help but become the face and voice for “all young people everywhere.” You share a life stage with other young people who might be visiting your church. And you act as a sort of interpreter for those who struggle speaking and understanding the language of young adult. On the other hand, it’s a burden to be expected to become a magnet for other young people. If churches think a young pastor is what will bring in younger people, they’re wrong. It’s the job of the whole church, not just the pastor, to reach out to others and engage them in the life of the church. Give your young pastors a break from this burden. And for God’s sake, give your more mature pastors a break from the guilt of not being a young adult anymore! You might be surprised how young adults can connect with people of all shapes, sizes, and ages if a church is committed to things like hospitality and serving others.
  4. Stop being so inwardly focused. This is a tough one. Any church of any size or age eventually has to deal with this temptation — it’s not all about us. We need to take stock of how many ministries are geared to serve those who are already members of our churches. We need to be critical of how much effort we expend worrying about paying our bills, maintaining our buildings, and serving the needs of those sitting in our pews. That’s not to say we don’t watch over one another in love and care for each other through life’s ups and downs. It simply means part of that care is lovingly reminding each other that we are called to love and serve others, even above ourselves. It’s sort of what Jesus was all about.
  5. Stop being petty. We don’t meant to do it. But sometimes in the wonderful meaning we find in being a part of a church, we become petty. We inevitably put too much meaning in a piece of furniture, a building, a room, the color of the carpet, a certain pew, etc. because these things are symbols of how much a church means to us. That deep love and meaning is a good thing. But being petty, sensitive, or argumentative over these things are not. Sometimes it’s not about winning an argument as much as it’s about reacting the way Jesus might. And that requires we remember Jesus had no place to lay his head, no sacred pew to sit on, and no sacred piece of furniture bought in memory of a family member to guard life Fort Knox.

Bonus: A practice churches could take on during the season of Lent

  • LISTEN! Having been raised in the church and now serving it as a pastor, I can tell you this is something we need more practice at. And it touches on every aspect of church life:
    • Can’t figure out why your attendance in declining? Try listening to people who are sitting in your pews. Better yet, call someone who has become less active or inactive and listen to their story.
    • Wondering how to get more young adults and families to become involved in your church? Sit down with some young people and listen. Maybe you’re asking too much? Maybe you’re not asking enough? Maybe you’re asking all the wrong questions?
    • Are people bored or is it hard to get them to serve in your leadership structure? Listen to some leaders and ask how you might actually be making it hard to serve. As a United Methodist pastor I can testify to the fact that we love our model of leadership sometimes more than our leaders or even the mission those leaders serve. Yes, leaders serve a mission, not a model or structure.
    • Listen to people’s hopes and dreams. Listen to the ways they long to connect with God. Listen to their fears and and joys. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t speak. Resist the urge to jump into telling them how to live or what choices to make or what to believe. Just listen.

What items would you add to this list?

5 Things Small Churches Can Uniquely Offer…Right Now

Asbury UMC in Chestertown, MD

Asbury UMC in Chestertown, MD

Church leadership has long held a bent toward the “bigger is better” mantra of capitalistic America. We franchise new church plants. We structure our institutions to favor the larger churches. The United Methodist Church itself has long been geared toward starting pastors off in smaller churches to get their feet wet in leadership only to move them to bigger (and often higher paying) churches once they prove themselves as capable leaders.

The flip side of the “bigger is always better” way of viewing our churches is the reality that the vast majority of churches in America (and even around the world) are, in fact, small. Historically this has also been the case. Go back and read Paul’s letters to various churches. They weren’t worshiping 1,000+ on Sundays in a concert hall or amphitheater — they small, tightly-knit communities worshiping in homes.

Now I’m not a hater of the larger church — I’ve actually served in two different large, vibrant, downtown churches. I know the strength of larger churches from their ability to support more diverse ministry to the beauty of worshiping with a large, corporate body. But now that I’m serving a smaller church, I want to point out the unique beauty of small churches. Sometimes we need to be reminded that small churches are, in fact, beautiful and they should spend less time dealing with an inferiority complex because they aren’t as large as other churches.

Instead of trying to mimmick what the large churches in your area are doing (only to come up short of their quality because you don’t have the money or resources to duplicate it), here are 5 things I believe small churches can uniquely offer the world right where they are:

  1. Inter-generational Ministry. There is a difference between inter-generational and multi-generational forms of ministry. Just because you have people of different ages gathered in the same space for worship does NOT make it an inter-generational ministry opportunity. Crossing borders between generations takes real effort. And too often larger churches segregate people based on age and stage of life. The small church, however, can’t do that because it’s too small. So instead of bemoaning the fact that you don’t have a youth ministry with 100+ kids in it, think of ways you can put the 5-10 youth you do have in contact with people from a different generation. Numerous statistical studies actually show that an important factor in youth remaining active in the church is the presence of a deep relationship with someone older than them who is not a member of their immediate family. Segregating children and youth into their own space in the life of the church runs the terrible risk of never allowing them to encounter and forge relationships with a diverse group of people. It also sends the subtle message that they are second-class members of your church when they are not primary in the corporate ministry life of the church. Small churches offer a rich and beautiful opportunity to forge these inter-generational relationships because, well, they have to. There aren’t enough people to segregate everyone into their own corners of the church. And thanks be to God for that!
  2. Welcome special needs persons and families with special needs children. One of the quiet struggles churches often don’t recognize is how to incorporate persons with special needs into the life of the church. Small churches offer a unique opportunity to meet this need because they are small enough to warmly welcome and offer the individual attention a family who has a special needs child might need. It’s a daunting thing to take a child with special needs to church for fear of them standing out or somehow disturbing the flow of worship. It’s also very lonely for that child to get lost in the mix of a large, overwhelming children’s program. Small churches can offer love, hospitality, and attention to make a family feel welcome. And the truth is, small churches can offer a worship experience that is vibrant but doesn’t necessarily have the overly-produced feel that worship in a larger church might have. This is actually very welcoming to a newcomer who might feel their presence would alter the flow of worship for others. In other words, special needs can be uniquely and lovingly met and welcomed in a small church.
  3. More people can help lead worship. Since the small church is often less concerned with production led by professional worship leaders, it can incorporate more laity in the leading of worship. Remember: nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the sole worship leader. Liturgy is the work of the people. And faithful worship incorporates the efforts of EVERYONE as together we offer ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving. So find ways to let people pray, read scripture, serve communion, sing, and maybe even occasionally preach in the small church. One thing we’re doing this coming year in the church I’m serving is we are shifting to laity being the primary servers of communion when we celebrate the sacrament. As pastor I will preside, but we’re asking laity to serve the elements. So we’ve had a sign-up to volunteer for this duty. Again, absolutely nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the primary server of the elements. Give people a chance to lead and serve more, you might be surprised how sharing in the work of worship might begin to transform people.
  4. More focus on community outreach. While small churches might bemoan the loss of in-house programs as numbers decline, I say it’s a great blessing. Large churches have to expend a great deal of effort managing and sustaining programs that focus inwardly on the life of the membership. Lots of money is spent on resources of Sunday Schools, youth programs, children’s ministry, etc. It’s really a rat race — just ask any pastor or staff person at a larger church in their most honest moments. Small churches just don’t have the resources to keep up in that race. So why try? There’s a great freedom in not worrying with the inwardly focused programs. You can actually look outwardly on your community and focus time and attention there. How can you open your space to community groups? Can you invite support groups to meet in your building (especially if your small church occupies a large building)? Can you find ways to resource your local community? Can you partner with other small churches or local missional efforts? You see, small church ministry is just ripe for people to finally break out from the inward, program-focused mindset of church and direct their attention to where God is at work outside of the walls of the church more fully.
  5. Offer a family feel to others. Look, families aren’t all warm and fuzzy. They have their dysfunction. And so does a small church because if often operates like a big, extended family. However through all of that dysfunction, one thing is (hopefully) certain: People know they are loved. As our world becomes more global, there is a rise to locally-focused relationships in business, commerce, and relationships. The small church can offer something that might get lost in a large church where people don’t always know one another by name — you can actually be a part of a family. In our worst moments, that family feel leads us to gossip or insulation from others who aren’t a part of our family. In our best moments, it’s an expression of true love extended to anyone searching for a community who will love them enough to never let them go. Family is tough and it’s messy. But it’s also very beautiful. And so is small church ministry.

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