Thursday, January 20, 2022

Lessons from business. . .

I live in a city of about 200,000 about an hour away from Nashville.  In some ways, our economies are connected and intertwined so deeply as to be somewhat seamless.  People live here and work in Nashville and people who work in Nashville depend upon business from Clarksville.  Our industry, medical institutions, and recreational ties are deep and wide.  That said, I do not know much about the business scene in Nashville.  What I do know is what I see in Clarksville as I drive around this city.  Instead of big box stores opening in the malls, we have new strip malls with small stores opening up all around us.  It is crazy.  We have our giant Wal-Marts but even Wal-Mart has opened Neighborhood Markets to compete with the Dollar Generals and other smaller stores.  The trend here is definitely to small stores with narrow product and service lines.  If I had a clue about how and why these small businesses keep opening up their doors, I would be a rich man.  But I watch as new strip malls open up and the small spaces fill up with niche businesses from nail salons to vape stores to CBD sellers and even bank branches.

Christianity has always tried to be a big presence.  From the cathedrals to the megachurches, we want to go big.  Small and medium congregations yearn to be like the big boys in their stadium sized churches with their large staffs and huge sound systems producing flashy videos and edgy digital content.  Our experts tell us that this is what we must do to survive and thrive and it almost always looks like translating what we see among the few giants into something we can do with 25-70 in worship.  We ditched the hymnals and organs and set up praise bands and seeker friendly services.  We put designer coffee into our pots and talked about climate change and sexual orientation and gender identity and racial justice as the Gospel.  And what happened?  We -- the small size congregations with all kinds of denominational labels and physical addresses -- did not grow.  We continued our decline, hastened by COVID and a political climate hostile to the Gospel and the Scriptures.  Perhaps we should have taken a cue from the business models in Clarksville.

The church will always be small -- not the total numbers of those who confess Christ but the congregations around us.  Of course, there will be middle and large sized congregations.  There will always be.  But most Christians will gather in local assemblies that are small.  It is not failure but a sign of how Christianity thrives.  It is perhaps easier to be more visible when gathered in large groups but it is easier to survive the onslaught of secularization and the competition and the judgment that worship and church are non-essential as small communities.  It is easier to keep in touch with our people as small communities than to keep large groups connected.  The Church will always depend upon small communities as much as or even more than the large and visible assemblies.  The way is hard that leads to life and those who find it few...said Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14).

We have to stop beating up on small congregations and insisting that they are failing or have betrayed their right to be Christian because they are small.  Small congregations have to stop being jealous of and envying those megachurches out there.  It is a fool's errand to mimic what happens in cathedrals and stadiums and think this is what is real and effective, what is true to Christ, and what is the model of Christian success.  Yet that is what we have done.  We have berated small congregations as dying, maintenance, and selfish communities that need to merge or die or just die.  We have been fools.  And those who paid attention to such talk were fools.  Yes, well meaning fools, perhaps, but still fools.  So it is time to burst the balloon.  There will be and should be middle and large size congregations -- even some mega sized giant churches (almost like denominations!).  These are not the norm.  These are not the typical shape of congregations.  These will live side by side the small congregation that will live like the small businesses that dot the strip malls in my city.  They will live not by mirroring the practices of either large businesses or large churches but as the Church has always lived and thrived -- by the Word of the Lord that endures forever and by the Sacraments that impart Christ and the fruits of His redeeming work to us.  That is how any successful congregations -- large or small -- live, grow, and thrive.  It is this we have forgotten.  In our pursuit of a magic elixir for what ails the the church we have turned to business, sociology, psychology, and the like -- everything except the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace that are the seed and the lifeblood of the Church.

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