Right. Here we are, at the end of this little journey, and it’s a list. What better and more... cough... marketable way to end this little book than with a list?
Seriously, though, we’ve journeyed from huge to small, looked at the kinds of small, and listened to voices of little churches, one after another, smaller and smaller. There’ve been lessons there in each of them, and hopefully learning that you’ll find helpful in your own life within a small community.
During the research for this project, there’ve been a few key learnings that have leapt out, rules for planting and maintaining your own fruitful small community.
Here are seven:
- Not Hating Themselves
It seems remarkably simple, amazingly so. In order for a small church to be fruitful and sweet, it needs to have hope about itself and its place in the world.
If a church does not have a joyous sense of its place in the indwelling Kingdom of God, it’s not going to go anywhere. It might stick around, stubborn as a cuss, refusing to die or do anything else besides cling to existence. But it will not be the sort of place you want to spend any time.
Of all of the blights that can prevent a small church from being fruitful and joyous, negative self-understanding is the most noxious and dangerous. And yet, throughout the literature written by those who study the small church, a deep sense of malaise in family and tribal-sized churches is almost inescapable:
..the phrase “small church” invariably produces the following responses: limited human resources, faithful remnant, handful, too few doing too much, dependence on denomination, petty bickering, lack of privacy, money worries, inexperienced and entry level clergy, limited programs, physical plant millstones, building upkeep difficulties, and many more.
Of course, all of that is “real.” Those are genuine challenges, ones that small communities have to consider as they try to find their way in the world. To some degree or another, every small community we’ve examined has reflected some of these issues. But if “realism” strangles out hope, the real Kingdom possibilities within countless small gatherings will be lost. As John Koessler put it:
Realism without a sense of calling will lead to a defeatist mentality. Our perspective of the church’s ministry will change radically when we recognize that instead of being expected to do the impossible, we have been called to accomplish the mission for which God has also uniquely equipped us.
Small congregations have to recognize that they all share two key and vital characteristics. First, they are fundamentally different from larger churches. And second, they are perfect. They are exactly the right size to be and do all that God created congregations to be and do.
They are not organizational errors to be corrected. They are not stunted, or in any way inadequate. They exist because they are the intentional choices of human beings who put a priority on human relationships in the practice of their faith.
Life in a small community that is filled with hope, joy, and a sense of mutual purpose can be just as abundant--if not more so--than life in a larger corporate church.
- Emphasizing and Developing Relationships
In every form of small church, it is the character and nature of the relationships that matters. Human beings in strawberry churches are not woven together by programs and organizational charts. They are connected organically, through a web of mutual relationship. A small church is one cell, “..a body of the whole, connected by mutual concern, with each knowing and in relationship with all the others.”
This is immensely difficult for pastors and leaders to embrace, because it’s such a radically countercultural position. But in every book seriously examining the dynamics of small faith communities, be they denominational, independent, monastic, cell churches, or house churches, the feedback is the same. What matters isn’t the quality of the programs. What matters is the quality of the people and their relationships with one another.
This is because the small church is fundamentally not an organization; it is an association that generates and lives by its social capital.
In the face of the demographic atomization we encounter in our culture, in which every age group and category is separated out from all of the others, the scale and the nature of small congregations allows each person to be known individually and loved uniquely.
What this looks like in practice is remarkably simple, part of the pattern of human life that comes from healthy friendships and caring families. Strawberry churches share the stories and joys of life with one another. They stand with people in times of crisis, insuring that no-one suffers alone and that the whole community cares when one suffers. They play together. Let me say that again: they play together. The simple celebrations of life are shared, and the pleasure in doing things that human beings like doing together are part of the life of the community.
They are part of the same community, living closely enough together that they encounter one another as part of their day-to-day existence. They struggle sometimes, but have developed enough of a mutual sense of trust that they can be in conflict without it shattering the assumptions of their togetherness. They see their material resources as not simply their own, but as something that can be shared together towards a mutual end.
- Focus on Doing and Empowering Folks to “Do.”
Small tribal or family sized churches are relational entities. They function as an organism rather than an organization. That means that the congregation’s power base will most likely be determined by position in the clan or in the cluster of families rather than by elected office.
In such communities, the power rests most strongly with lay leadership. If the church is going to be healthy, it needs to be clear that individuals are free to experiment, explore, and do new things within a the circle of trusting relationship. Permission giving and a willingness to be flexible are absolutely key to the health and sweetness of the small church.
If authority is tightly held by a few, then the vibrancy and promise of the small community is compromised. The great strength of the small, if you’ll recall from the chapter on theology, is that small can be tremendously agile. When little churches harden into limpet-like inflexibility, they put themselves at risk. They are David, suited up in armor four sizes too large. It does not end well.
This focus on empowerment and permission-giving is particularly important for pastors in small congregations. Beyond making the critical error of assuming they’re in charge because of their “formal authority,” pastoral leadership can also potentially stifle the life of the church by assuming that their role is to do absolutely everything.
As Mark Francisco challenged himself in Church Without Walls:
In this situation, by trusting, training, and releasing people for ministry, more was accomplished than if I hoarded the responsibility and tried to accomplish everything myself. Pride and arrogance keeps pastors from releasing people to do ministry. This should never be.
Instead, the role of the leader--formal or informal--in the small church is that of companion. The leader is a helpful friend, someone who walks with another person, supporting them and helping them grow and learn through the celebrations and challenges of life. Leaders in small communities are partners and friends. “We’re in this thing together,” they say, and they mean it.
Ideally, that “walking together” creates a trust dynamic within the community that will allow them to explore new possibilities without fear of failure. So there’s failure? So what? Just pick up, learn, and try again, knowing that those around you still love and care for you.
As Lois Barret described in her excellent book on the dynamics of a microchurch network in Lancaster, PA:
It is one of the advantages of the house church that it can be more fully supportive of those who take risks for the sake of Christ’s mission. I have seen a few large churches take such risks, but the larger the church, the more difficult it is to come to unity of mind. More often, it is the small church which is willing to take gospel risks. One reason for this may be that with fewer people it simply takes less time to come to a decision. But I think another reason is that people in a small church know and trust each other better.
There’s a significant “trust” component to the establishing of trust in a small community, which in many ways itself reflects the strange dynamics of faith. It is something that cannot be managed, cannot be programmed, cannot be created through even our most well-planned interventions.
In wondering at the mystery of community, neo-Monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove saw the whole thing through the lense of a garden, as do so many who choose to live in intentionally smaller gatherings:
The crazy thing about a garden is that you’re always working but there’s nothing you can do to make it grow. In the end every garden is a miracle. Which is to say, it is a gift wrapped in a mystery. Best I can figure, community is like a garden. Somehow there’s always work to be done--dishes to wash, meetings to go to, prayers to pray, meetings to go to, laundry to wash, meetings to go to, meals to prepare...and more meetings to go to. After you’ve sat through a few hundred meetings and heard people say more or less the same things over and again, you are tempted to think, “I know what this community needs. If they would just listen to me, we could get on with more important things.” But it never works. Because, as with a garden, you can’t make a community grow. All you can do is tend to a culture of grace and truth by listening to every voice, loving people who frustrate you, telling the truth as best as you can.
Growing trust and grace in a strawberry church is just like that.
- Permeable Boundaries, Deep Roots
Without connection to the soil, strawberries die. They can live for a while just by themselves, bare roots exposed to the air. If you ever order plants, that’s how they’ll ship them to you.
But without roots woven up in the earth, drawing in water and nutrients, those plants will eventually wither and die. Healthy small congregations need to be connected to their communities, rooted in and a part of the soil in which they find themselves.
To thrive and be fruitful, the small church cannot fold in on itself. That “bunker mentality” is perhaps the surest sign that a community is going to wither and die. To be healthy spiritually, a community has to reflect the interdependence of those who comprise it with the “soil” in which they dwell. That means attending to and being connected to the place where they are planted.
Corporate churches or huge programmatically driven congregations are not like this. They can exist as free-standing entities, fed from far away sources. They are their own synthetic ecosystem. Small communities, to be healthy, must have deeply permeable boundaries between themselves and the particular place in which they find themselves. They have to lay in roots deep, and be willing to connect strongly with the place in which they find themselves.
This form of connecting can be very difficult for smaller communities. Anxieties about resources can cause them to circle the wagons. The shadow-side of tribal identity can create distrust of everyone “outside.” This connectedness is both necessary and, as those who study the small church discover, a rare thing.
Of the five case studies looking at congregational life in this book, each of the four small churches in question were intentional about their connection to the “land”...or the community...around them. All were very open and intentional about inviting in those around them, and about not delimiting their life as a faith gathering to just those already “inside.”
This willingness to both care for those within while maintaining a welcoming attitude towards those “outside” is vital. Congregational researcher Carl Dudley articulated that as follows:
A healthy church will care about the members of the congregation, and respond to their needs. A healthy church will care about the turf, the place, the larger community where God has called it to be. In the act of healing, a healthy church will share its place with those in need. A healthy church will have an identity that is carried in the rhythm and pace of the congregation’s life together...a small church will be healthy first, before it can become effective.
Where communities are stable, effective churches within those communities are the ones that bring community into themselves. If they’ve got a building, great. But if they don’t? If they’re so small that having a building itself is no longer a necessary part of their lives together? Then it is the commitment of the church members themselves to bring community into their own lives. However they approach it, it is that permeability that matters.
- Welcoming and not Grasping
Strawberries are all about welcome. It’s how they survive.
I am reminded of this whenever I watch chipmunks sneak their way through the chickenwire fences I’ve put up around my strawberry patches to protect them from...well...chipmunks. Those little varmints sneak the strawberries out of the enclosure I’ve so carefully. They sit there on their haunches, looking smug, nibbling away at the sweet berry I’ve so carefully grown. They ingest it and the seeds, and then scamper off to...um…”process and deposit” those seeds elsewhere.
And though that frustrates me as a gardener, it is also the reason that strawberries exist. Their sweetness arose as an invitation for chipmunks and squirrels and birds, which take the berries and spread the growth.
Strawberries, humble and small as they are, are generous things.
One of the ways small communities can remain healthy and sweet is in approaching everyone who comes through their doors not as a means to an end, but as children of God with their own gifts and graces. It is easy, painfully so, to place yearnings for growth or anxieties about the future on each and every new arrival.
But the goal of a fruitful community is not to be anxious about what others can offer. It is to provide to others, and in so doing give them a better life. Though we might want to fence things in, to hold tightly on to everyone and control what they do, that is not the way of strawberries...or of the Spirit.
But what about our future, or our needs? It’s a basic organizational question. When Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Saviour, was asked about the future of the church, he replied:
I have never had a helpful answer to that question. Have no idea. I do not know what the judgments of God are or what will be the breakthroughs of God’s power.” Then he stopped for a long pause and added, “I do not need the church to have a visible or successful future in order for me to feel safe as a person. I’m glad to leave it to God’s sovereignty. It is his church--not mine.
That does not mean that little churches have nothing to offer those who come through their doors, or that congregations should just throw up their hands and assume that God’ll do everything for us. Within the boundaries of the connectedness that is such a fundamental feature of the small congregation, Gordon Cosby identified three key ways that intimate communities can engage and develop the gifts of those who participate in them.
First, they should assume that anyone who participates in their community life is there because they have freely chosen to be there. The choice of adults to engage in community, particularly a small one, is driven first and foremost by volition. Meaning: they want to be there. This is not a commitment that is undertaken because of social pressure, or coercion, or a sense of material expectation or reward.
You participate in an intimate community because you feel God calling you to be a part of that gathering.
That’s not true for all small churches. Little groups, particularly “family” sized churches, can become insular and controlling. They can manifest all of the unhealthy dynamics of a dysfunctional family.
But those aren’t strawberry churches, and they’re not fruitful.
Second, everyone within a healthy small community needs to release their desire to control others. If the assumption is that all have gathered freely, then that freedom must be respected and worked towards. Patterns of aggression, emotional or spiritual manipulation, or any of the ways human beings seek their own power within organizations? Those need to be set aside.
Cosby describes this as maintaining an attitude of healthy detachment. If our egos are vested in an organization doing our bidding, there is the very real danger that we’ll stifle the gifts and abilities of others.
Third, Cosby encourages those in intimate communities to live together in expectation. While each of us freely brings our own gifts into the relationships we establish, we need to leave room for God to both act in us individually and through all of us together. Through that opening up, we’re all given the opportunity to work towards the Reign of God in the world.
Maintaining this open, expectant stance is necessary if we’re to give those who enter our fellowships an opportunity to participate in a way that feels both authentic and organic. In larger corporate and program-sized churches, this is less the case. Human beings who are drawn by the order and structure of a carefully-crafted institution will expect to act institutionally or corporately.
But within the more human-scaled dynamics of a healthy small community, people will seek the chance to participate in ways that reflect the organic character of their gifts. What matters less are broad and overarching strategies that structure ever moment; what matters more is the participation itself.
The essential character of inclusion and participation in a small community is more qualitative than quantitative, a fusion of the structure that comes from the rituals of family and tribal relationships and the freedom that comes in the relationships we share with our closest friends.
- Leadership that understands/loves the character of the small church
If small churches are not driven by overarching plans and structures, and more by the dynamics of human relationships, what does that mean for those in leadership in a smaller congregation? For pastors in particular, this poses something of a conundrum. On the one hand, pastors are supposed to be the visionaries, the driven dreamers, the ones with the plan and the passion. They are thought leaders, actively willing to disrupt the status quo as they prophetically transform a gathered people.
On the other hand, smaller communities...and particularly healthy ones...are creatures of relationship, woven together by the bonds of family, friendship, and the Spirit.
Leadership that comes charging in, bright-eyed and eager to change the world? That’s not going to work well. It’s going to be a mess. Here, there’s a peculiar tension in the oldline denominations and their expectations for seminarians.
Progressive seminaries are a heady place, filled with the latest and most cutting edge theologies. Conservative seminaries and bible-colleges are filled with passionate debates about theological and scriptural esoterica. Within them, students are steeped in a culture that is radically ideological.
But small congregations are not ideological creatures. They are political creatures. That doesn’t mean everyone in them is continually debating politics. It means that they are little towns, little “polis,” and what matters most is the interpersonal dynamics within them. Relationships are what counts, and those who come roaring in with wild ideas and a yearning to be prophetically disruptive are as welcome as your daughter’s drunken and truculent college boyfriend at a Thanksgiving gathering.
To lead a small community well, either as a pastor as a lay leader, you have to approach things a little bit differently.
First and foremost, effective leaders of small churches can’t be focused too intently on growth and achievement. Their task is not to relentless drive their churches towards one vision after another, but instead to gently move their communities towards what changes would be the most healthy for their thriving.
These pastors are not CEOs or managers or administrators. They are not taskmasters or overseers. They must be, first and foremost, be “lovers.” No, not in that way, unless you’re referring to their spouses. A successful small church pastor must genuinely and unreservedly love their community.
Not “the ideal of their community.” Not the Platonic form of their community, existing up there in the ether. Not their community as it will be after it has finally come around and changed itself to meet every expectation. But the community as it is, with all of its warts and mess and simple human beauty.
The rule of thumb, as I have come to know it over the years: if you would not be a part of a community, you cannot pastor it. Meaning, if you cannot for a moment imagine yourself worshipping and singing and sharing with a small church outside of the particular role of “pastor,” you should not be pastoring it.
Within the healthy small church, there are a number of specific ways leaders can approach leadership that respect the unique character of the intimate community. Anthony Pappas lays out six of them, all of which are excellent guides for those of us who are called to serve smaller communities. All of those paths require a leader to set aside the big-dream super-Christian image, and to get a little simpler.
In the small church, the pastor isn’t the champion. Pastors in strawberry churches are meant to act as catalysts, but must resist the temptation to be the point person of every single initiative. You aren’t the growth. Your task is to care for it, water it, encourage it, but not to do it all. This can be surprisingly challenging for many pastors, who lovelovelove to feel needed. Resist this temptation.
In the small church, one of the primary means by which you support a community is by telling the story of the church. Those tales of faith, family, and life together are core narratives, the great teaching fables of the tribe. They are fundamental data, the DNA of the little church, and if well told can help give both energy and character to the community. The leader of the small church knows the history of that community, and can retell it as if it is their own story. Because, honestly, it is.
If you’re going to act as a catalyst and a support, your primary task is to remind the community of what is possible, and establish a “tone” for the life and dynamics of the congregation that affirms what is both life-giving and attainable. Celebrate what can be done, and affirm what has been done. The surest sign of a small community that is failing in its calling to be a sweet and fruitful fellowship is negative self-understanding, which, as we’ve seen in prior chapters, is an easy thing for congregations to fall into when they are small and perceive that smallness as inherently inadequate. Leading such a gathering requires renewing and building hope and confidence in what can be done, and restating that over and over again. Remind them of their sweetness.
As you’re guiding and supporting a little church, you’ll find that there are gifts and abilities that are part of the fundamental repertoire of the church that might be applied towards new and life-giving ends. A community hall long disused might be put to use. A patch of grass might become a garden. Just as you take up and transplant strawberries from one patch to another, you can often find within one old and overgrown part of community life the seeds of what might become a new thing.
Finally, in a small church, leaders are part of that story. What they say and teach must be visibly modeled in your life and your every interaction with the community you are serving. The structural distance between you and the little church is basically nonexistent. You’re part of their lives, and they are part of yours. That means you need to visibly model and mentor the practices of fruitful, loving, Reign of God sweetness in your every action.
In all of this, leaders of little churches must be willing to be “tentmakers,” meaning they cannot for a moment expect the church to be their primary form of financial support. That’s just not going to work, and going into a small congregation with that as an expectation will create unnecessary anxieties.
This is considerably less onerous than it sounds. If you have a working spouse and children, serving a small church can be remarkably fulfilling. This is particularly true if the church itself feels embraced and empowered, with everyone involved aware of how much the church relies for it’s health not on the one paid professional, but on them.
- Be Radically Grounded in Discipleship
What is the fruit of a strawberry church? Why does it exist?
It exists, as do all Christian communities, primarily to manifest the Reign of God Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed. That’s our reason for being. The radical, gracious, transforming love he lived out is the fruit we are trying to bear. In each of the little communities in this study, that core is lived out in varying ways in the relationships and character of their life together.
Meeting for the study of the faith, prayer, singing, and worship are absolutely vital to the health and character of the little church. They ground their fellowship in the teachings and life of Jesus, because, well, that’s kind of the whole point.
In the community I am now serving, in Dayspring and in Holy Cross Abbey and in Movement, that’s the heart and center of the life of the church. It is the primary measure for every community, and it’s one that the small church can forget.
Just as churches that are extensions of the state can come to serve only as instruments of the state, and congregations that are driven by the corporate model of growth can become little more than JeezOTainment Centers, little churches can be nothing more than families and tribes. “Faith” can be only the lightest gloss over the top of a way of being together that is utterly unrelated to what it means to take up our cross and follow our Teacher.
Here, the small church must watch itself carefully, being sure that as it tells and retells its story that it remains woven up with that great Gospel story. It’s a central part of the mission of every church, the deep defining story of which all of us, big and small, are a part.
Discipleship doesn’t have to be complicated. But it does have to be there, recognized, practiced, and continually renewed.
LINK TO CONCLUSION
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:
- One of the most consistent challenges faced by small communities is their self-understanding. What is the “tone” or the “feel” of the story you tell yourselves about your community? Is it a positive one? Is it realistic? Is it...both?
- What does your small community do...actually do...to maintain the relationships that are at the heart of healthy intimate fellowships?
- Are people empowered to act on their gifts and graces in your congregation? If so, how? Think of examples. If not, what barriers exist, and how might you overcome them?
- How “permeable” is your church? Are you rooted in and engaged with the place in which your congregation dwells? Give examples!
- How do you receive visitors and guests? How are they integrated into the life of the community, should they decide to stick around?
- What are your expectations...implicit or explicit...for those in leadership in the church? What are the expectations for the pastor?
- To what extent is your community rooted--intentionally and firmly--in the task of living out the Christian Way? How does that manifest itself across the various activities and relationships of the congregation?