Thursday, September 1, 2016

Small Churches Got No Reason to Live

I love small churches.  I like the intimacy, the focus on what is essential in human relating.  I like the scale--small, humble, devoid of the big screen sturm-und-drang of the Jesus MegaCenter.  I like that there don't need to be standing committees, that the energy of the church is free to coalesce around whatever needs to get done.

Lord, do I like that.

But for denominational Christianity, tiny congregations have always been something of a fuddler.  They got tiny little feet and tiny little toes, and you got to pick 'em up just to say hello.

Institutional efficiencies mean nothing to communities that are primarily relational.  Procedures and protocols just aren't the way microcommunity gets things done.  New programs can't find purchase in communities where volunteer time is at a premium.  Wee kirks do things in idiosyncratic ways.  They couldn't care less about the latest new thing.

Small churches aren't particularly eager to do anything other than be themselves.

Still and all, it came as something of a surprise when my denomination stepped way back from supporting and encouraging small churches this last year.  A program that supported clergy committed to serving congregations with less than 100 members was eliminated.  The denominational office that served to network tribal-scale communities became the "Office of Church Growth and Transformation."

Small churches have been cut loose.  It'd be tempting to grumble and kvetch, because complaining comes easy to humans.  "What?" I could snipe.  "We're abandoning our support of fully half of our congregations?  Oh, the humanity!  Jesus weeps!  He weeps!"  Then I could say something snarky and smug, and feel good about myself and how much better I am than everyone else.

But I get it.  In a time when denominational Christianity is in radical decline, and my own corner of the Reformed tradition is crumpling in flamey flames like an ecclesiastical Hindenburg, you need to do some triage.  The resources just aren't there to do everything.  If you're oriented towards supporting and sustaining the infrastructure of communities, there's not much point in pouring your increasingly limited energy into the organic gatherings that neither have nor want infrastructure.

And as the Alban Institute's Loren Mead once put it, you couldn't kill most small churches with a stick.  They just keep on keepin' on.

So rather than grumble and deconstruct, better to be positive.  To build, rather than tear down.

The issue with most little churches, honestly, isn't that they're little.  It's that a culture that celebrates both growth and largeness tells them small and intimate is inherently bad.  You got no reason to live, the culture says, and the small church starts to believe it.  

Which is why over the last month I've worked to "bookify" my doctoral research into what makes small churches vibrant, slapping it into a form that is easily readable by lay folks, perfect for a book study or an adult ed class.  Or just a little light reading for those so inclined.

"The Strawberry Church," it's called, which by the standards of churchy books is pretty non-intimidating.  It explores what it means for a community to be small and fruitful and sweet.

You can buy it, if'd you like, out there on Amazon, for the lowest price they'd let me sell it for.  Or, if you'd like, I'll send you an electronic copy for free.  Because while healthy small churches may be made of love, they ain't made of money.

And that goes double for the pastors who serve 'em.  Lord, do I know that's true.

So just pitch me an email at belovedspear at gmail dot com, and it's yours with my blessings.

'Cause small churches got plenty of reasons to live.