My family belongs to a small church. Quite small. Historically, it was a new church plant about 14 years ago. Membership, attendance and involvement has gone up and down a bit since its establishment, but we have never approached medium size, never mind large. Rather than MegaChurch, you might refer to us a micro church – although that carries overtones of a house church structure – and we certainly aren’t that. Specifically we are running at approximately 36 active adult members in a very traditional congregational polity, with Worship on Sunday mornings, and a few other minsitry and fellowship opportunities throughout any given week.
This size is just about enough to sustain a small membership with a full time pastor and limited organized ministry. Part of the reason this works is that we rent space to meet from a local Seventh Day Adventist congregation. In some ways it works pretty well. They meet on Saturdays. We meet on Sundays. They have generally been very supportive of us, and our rent is very reasonable.
To paraphrase Daniel Webster’s famous quip about his Alma Mater, Dartmouth College, “It’s a small church, but there are those who love it.” We are very good at certain kinds of things. First and foremost, we are pretty good at being a church – as opposed to being merely a provider of religious goods and services. Our worship is a blend of liturgical and less formal styles that is definitely “churchy” and God centered, yet seeks to be reasonable accessible without being about performance or entertainment. (I see this as a strength, not everyone would agree) Our conversations after worship, whether informal talks around the coffee pot, or more structured discussions in our “Adult Formation” class have been very important shaping points for many of us. We are good at providing a place where your kids love to be. We are good at rising to meet various needs of our membership and community that come to us. One of our members summed it up by saying, “We are pretty good at swarming.” By this he meant that we are good at just throwing a lot of energy and resources (such as we have) at a challenge that presents itself to us. We are pretty good at providing a web of friendships and connections that support and nurture our connection to Jesus. Many of us can testify about how Christ is using our church to help us to grow spiritually as individuals and as a group. In general, I see us as a group of people who seek to follow Jesus and are busy working out how to do it together - knowing that we are far getting it down pat.
In spite of these positive qualities, and many other good things I could write about, our denominational bureaucracy (Evangelical Covenant Church) has recently identified us as an “At Risk” church. By this the denomination means that on paper we manifest a number of qualities that indicate that we are likely to fold within a few years. These qualities include, but are not limited to, small membership, declining membership, small budget, able to support only a part time pastor, etc. While not all of those risk factors strictly apply to us, enough do so that we have been flagged for special attention. We are small. We have not grown much in numbers. We have not brought in any converts in some time. We have had some close calls financially in the last few years, but are currently stable.
So for the past 12 months, we have been engaging in a process to determine what should be done about this. Today, we had a discussion amongst the membership about exactly these questions. What do we need to do to intentionally lift us out of the “at risk” category into something more “viable.” As you might imagine, this was a lively discussion. Some of us vehemently object to the characterization, and for some very good reasons that are worth discussing. Where people land on these issues says a great deal about their theology of church.
As you might guess, I have some thought about what church is and how God wants us to do it. Rather than post one long post on some of the key ideas rising out of this conversation, I will be posting several shorter articles outlining a few of my thoughts on the matter.