I spent the other week with a group of people all working in small rural parishes while at the same time studying this ministry at a graduate level. It was for me a great opportunity to hear about all of the struggles and joys of this type of ministry. It has got me thinking. The reality is that there are a reletively small number of people in medium and large congregations. Alot of our people are in small congregations. The problem with this is not that there are small congregations, the challenge is how can these congregations see themseles not as struggling but thriving places of discipleship.
The reality is that it is often only small communities that our discipleship can be deepened. In larger churches we have to create this setting through small group ministry. In small congregations the whole congregation can have the richness of a small group. If you think like myself that it is though deepening our discipleship that our chruch can have a future, then our small congregations may in fact hold the future of what our church can be.
Still there are some real challenges that I have heard from people wiser them me. Bishop Mark MacDonald has asked an important question, How do we shape ministry and the chruch so that it can be a chruch people can afford? Prof. Cam Harder asks another question, how do we make sure small congregations do not have the sacraments withheld from them because they have to pay for it? (It is interesting that two of the main challenges are related to structures and their financial consequences – do I sense constantine’s shadow). I would add how do we in our chruch culture lift up and celebrate the gifts of a small congregation?
Perhaps it is time for us to create more means by which we can celebrte and enable small congregation ministry.
This post reflects daily the challenges we face in our synod, a synod which has 2/3 of our congregations with membership under 50 in each. The cost of pastoral ministry is high (averaging $55,000 annually). We’ve increased our education around communion of the assembly and they don’t tell me, but I am pretty sure its with reserved sacrament. Structures and policy can be seen as more important than ministry needs. We need to do more work around our sacramental theology in order for us to release congregations to do so when the norm is that they do not have a pastoral presence. I am not sure the church is ready for this yet but we can always use a push.
Natural Church Development research shows that small congregations are more apt to be growing than their larger counterparts. More striking, among healthy congregations the average increase in “new Christians” is about 30 people/5 year period. This number was more or less the same for all size categories.
Follow the numbers. The average healthy, growing congregation in the category of “under 100 people on Sunday morning” has 51 people in worship. These congregations averaged 32 new Christians over a 5 year period (63% of their attendance!). Jump to the other end of the spectrum (300-400 worshiping attendance) and notice that the average, healthy, growing congregation fostered 25 new Christians/5 year period (7% of their total attendance!).
What’s the good news?
Big and small congregations disciple people to faith!
What’s the best news?
We’ve got a tonne of small congregations. As we build our congregational health we as a denomination of small churches are well situated to evangelize and foster Christians.
[Shwartz, Christian A., Natural Church Development: A guide to eight essential qualities of healthy churches, (Church Smart Resources: IL) 2006, p. 49]
It is funny that the church institution is the true stumbling block. In regards to sacraments, when Christ instituted these did he say only the ordained clergy by such and such a structure may, no, he said, do these…each one of us is called into the ministry of Christ, and as such it is recognizing within these small groups whom has the giftings to step into these roles that we require? It is growing in our own minds the idea of what it means to be a minister.
As for the idea of the building being the albatross around the necks as well as the minister’s salary, why can’t these smaller congregations sell the land or gift the land to the townships to grow a community centre, use hall space there for worship, have the meetings at the local diner, or one another’s homes?
There are so many ways to do church, the challenge before us is not how to deepen discipleship, it is how we can remove the impediments are institution puts on us reaching our communities.
As a retired pastor, my ministry experience lately has focused on Supply preaching in congregations, the majority of which are “small” by your definition. There’s an additional fact that needs to be stated, and that’s the average age of the people in these church communities. Somewhere I read that once this average age is over fifty-five, no real long term renewal is usually possible. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be lively, Christ-like gatherings of the faithful, but I think it does mean they are less likely to attract younger generations. My American Synod went further and recruited lay worship leaders who did offer a ministry of word and sacrament, after a certain level of Synodically approved training. This addressed some of the financial issues. One other implication of being a Church made up of a lot of small congregations is a limitation on our ability to fund not only a local pastoral ministry, but also such worthy church-wide programs as seminaries, Synod staff people, etc. I myself find it hard to say “no” to any request for worship leadership in one of these smaller congregations, since the people there are really great folks.