Friday, October 15, 2010

The Small Church

I have participated in a number of discussions about what to do with the growing number of small congregations in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Unable to afford the fair compensation and benefits of a full-time Pastor, this number grows every year.  Once it was said that a congregation with 50 in worship could afford the cost of a full-time Pastor without this compensation consuming nearly all its resources.  Then it was 75 in worship.  Now even 100 in worship can be difficult -- especially in areas of the country where the cost of housing remains high.  All of these are realistic issues facing our Church.  But there are some things that go beyond numbers of folks in worship.

While it is true that a small congregation may also be a small church, it is not automatically true.  What do I mean?  A "small" church is one whose mission is self-serving, a parish which exists to provide for the needs of the members, and a congregation with an unspoken goal of making sure that the building and a Pastor are there to bury the last person remaining, turn out the lights, and lock the doors.  Such a small church does not need to be small in numbers.  I have sat in the congregation in larger churches where no one spoke to me, no one noticed me, and no one paid any attention to anything but themselves.  Small churches use traditional worship and the hymnal but can also be found with praise bands and clapping hands.  Small churches consume the bulk of their attention and resources to fulfill the felt needs of their own people and feel no guilt or pang of conscience that their ministry is so, well, curvatus in se.

I think that numbers may be something we must consider but those numbers may not be the primary criterion of determining which congregation has a future and which does not.  Geography is important (remember the first rule of real estate -- location, location, location).  Facility has something to do with it all (not so much size but visibility and the impression the building gives to those who drive by).  The biggie here is attitude.  Cold and selfish congregations come in all shapes and sizes.  There is not a place in the country where Christians are over saturated or Lutherans have no possibility of growth and a mission beyond themselves.  There are some places where Lutheran identity is confused with congregations who are LINO (Lutheran in name only) or NELINO (not even Lutheran in name only).  This should be seen as an area of mission and an opportunity but too often it is not exploited.  Cast theology and doctrine aside, but marketing savvy only says don't do or sell or look like everyone around you.  Lutherans offering a pale imitation of what the local mega non-denominational church can provide are missing a market opportunity (speaking only here of business acumen and not of theology).

Small churches are those congregations interested in themselves... let me speak of "mission trips" here... I am not in favor of them.  How is it in the interest of the mission field to bring 20-40 folks from the USA on expensive airlines to consume precious few good housing places and perform basic manual labor at a cost of hundreds of dollars an hour so they can fly home and tell everyone what a difference they made for the Lord?  Who benefits most of all?  Most mission trips are pricey entertainment for the folks on the trip -- a different sort of Holy Land tour.  If those folks took the money raised and spent on that trip and sent it to the mission partner church, think what they might be able to do with it?  For 20-40 folks going to Haiti or Kenya, the bill is something like $40-100,000.  For the work done there (through Lutheran World Relief or our partner church) that money would multiply a hundred times more than the cost of folks flying half a world away to do unskilled labor (painting, cleaning up, etc).  Note here I am NOT talking about those who go to the mission field and teach or perform specialized tasks for a month, six, or a year -- different story entirely!!  The mission trip has become high cost spiritual entertainment in a world where people are looking to entertain their "spirits" the same way they do their bodies -- self-indulgence -- and this is a "small church" mindset in which our interests are more important than the mission as a whole.

Aside from the previous paragraph, my point is this -- small congregations are not necessarily "small churches" and large congregations can be "small churches."  Lets make sure that we keep this in mind as we seek a way to deal with the growing numbers of congregations unable to afford a full-time Pastor...

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I even know a church which has 150 people worshiping on Sunday and can't afford a pastor...

I agree with so much of what you said.

Sue said...

Interesting, and sad.

I think back to when my congregation was formed in 1899. Six families put their trust in the Lord that they would be able to support a pastor and his family. And now we struggle to provide fair compensation...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for articulating what I have long thought about mission trips! I am a person often thought to be mission minded and merciful so people are surprised when I get logical and practical and suggest that the $$$ raised could be used so much more efficiently that dragging folks halfway around the world to do jobs for which they have no apptitude and which they would never do for their neighbor down the block. Your thoughts are so succinct and compelling that I will simply refer them to your post! Thank you so much for all you write-a blessing to all of us!

Terry Reed said...

I totally agree that attitude makes the difference. To be inward focused is to deny the mission Jesus set us upon. Sadly, many congregations of all sizes suffer from this perversion as you so well pointed out. As to the side issue of mission trips I can't agree completely. My degree is in missions and I have led two of these trips and had interaction with missionaries about others. As a whole, they indicate that the help was greatly needed. Yes, the money used on these trips could buy more materials on the mission field. But the trips are kind of like an pioneer days barn raising--a lot of work was accomplished in a little time. Just sending the extra money would not make this happen. But back to your original point--amen and keep us reminded of the need for the right attitude.

Terry Reed
Small Church Tools

Rev Dave Poedel, STS said...

As the Pastor of a numerically small church that was consumed with survival for many years and who did a lot of good things and some really ridiculous ones.

Your comments on attitude are right on target. Through a lot of prayer, wailing and gnashing of teeth, our little church has been transformed into what still blows me away. Every time a visitor to our Divine Service tells me that "this is the warmest, most inviting Church I have ever been in" I want to jump up in praise...but my bad back and good sense curtails my enthusiasm.

For the first time in her 58 year history, our congregation sent a team of 8,including myself, to teach English in Poland this past Summer. While it may appear on the surface to be one of those sanctified entertainment trips, being on the ground for nearly two weeks (too short a time) showed me a different result. I connected and made a friend of a Polish Lutheran Pastor who is an amazing man, doing marvelous things with very little. Was it all that different from what I did in Tucson in the barrio with different food and language? No, it was pretty similar, but for our people it was an opportunity to experience what it was like to be a religious minority in an economically depressed area in a post-Communist country. Sure, they are being Westernized at a very rapid pace, but you will never convince me that what this group of American Lutherans did in those villages in Silesia was not a very valuable contribution to the development of the Church in Poland. In fact, we want to go back, God willing, and do a Polish VBS in English again.

Equally important is the pride of our little church that they have done something outside of themselves for the sake of the Church at large.

I'm just saying....