Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Imagining small church mission

What does it mean to be part of a small church?

This week, I began service as the pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Washington. St. John's is a gathering of approximately 40 people in Sunday morning worship. By almost any definition, St. John's is a small church. My small church experience is a small portion of my life with congregations.

1. I served an interim ministry at New Life Lutheran Church in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, a community at the time of about 40 people in worship.
2. I served an interim ministry at a three-point parish in Lyman County, South Dakota. One of the congregations was distinctly small in Kennebec, the congregations in Vivian and Presho could be large enough to classify differently.

From experience, observation and study, here are the small church thoughts in my mind.  I am taking an inventory of small church experiences. It should also be noted that as an interim pastor, I never lived in a small church community. There was always an understanding that I had relational access to people's lives, yet remained an outsider.

Congregational size is not the only variable of consequence. Region, denomination, judicatory, education and other variables can enter the discussion, but the focus of this reflection involves what I have gathered about small churches.

1. Often the small church is described with a sense of "plight." The small church is depicted in church circles as suffering or in disarray. Both seem to be associated with suburban migration of the mid- to late- 20th century; a migration that dwindled the size of both urban and rural congregations. The plight is that resources to fund urban or rural congregations fades as people leave, much like other urban and rural social institutions. Small churches can still thrive, I believe, but it also depends on the shared definition of what thriving means.

2. Power in small congregations must flow through the matriarchs and/or patriarchs of the congregation. Several decades ago, Arlin Rothauge published a short book on congregational size dynamics and named the 0-50 worship attendance congregation as a "family" church. Rothauge's observations have been parsed in congregations and church leadership circles for the better part of three decades. In this size of congregation, the members are often highly invested and see pastors come and go for many different reasons (see #3).

3. Pastoral leadership in small congregations often exists in a state of flux. Small congregations often cannot afford a full-time pastor, or an experienced pastor, because the salary levels cannot support clergy with a family living at home, or a pastor carrying large amounts of student loan debt. With pastors coming and going quickly, congregations develop a pattern of behavior where they can "wait out" the pastor and all of that particular pastor's ideas for ministry if they don't care for them.

4. In a small congregation, everyone knows everyone else. So the proverb goes--but I think this is a bit of a myth or euphemism for an intimacy that cannot be assumed. There may be a higher degree of familiarity among members/worshiper in small congregations than large congregations, but that does not necessarily reflect a depth of relationship.

5. What a small church needs is to replicate what is done at a large congregation. Reading a favorite blog, Church Marketing Sucks (CMS), I was reminded of how easily the replication notion is perpetuated. Large churches have the resources to share their experience, wisdom and knowledge with others. They share that information with pastors and congregations, and the small congregations often end up feeling inferior about what God is doing among them. As someone who has served both small and large congregations, this is not intentional, but it still goes on. Frustration continues to mount about good leadership resources for small congregations. The blog post from CMS reminded me about small-large congregation leadership dynamic.

In the end, what seems to matter is that people in a congregation can imagine a unique sense of mission independent of the aforementioned factors. This does not mean God's mission is lived in a vacuum. On the contrary, I think the question related to the Parable of the Good Samaritan is operative, "And who is my neighbor?" We need to know something about our neighbor in order to share good news in Christ.

Who is God? What is God doing? Who is my neighbor? I still have much to learn about small churches and the small church I am serving, but I need to remember these questions, and I look forward to addressing these questions with people in the community.


  1. Joe: I will be praying for you in your new field of ministry. Your post is good, esp. your observation that just because a church is small does not mean its fellowship is close. It often is, but size is no guarantee. I invite you to check out my blog at Some of my posts may speak to your situation. God bless!
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  2. Thank you for the resource link, Terry, and for stopping by my blog. The congregation I serve will be seeking redevelopment support, so I think that throws another variable in there. All of the congregations I have served address significant transitions in ministry. Thank you for the prayers. Peace to you.

  3. Katie and I went to Emanual Lutheran in Bremerton for Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. (Thank you to the lovely and outrageous gas prices, I haven't been to Port Orchard in over a year)

    I'm fine with the small congrgation deal. I know many of the community churches are suffering membership issues.

    Over the several visits we made, I got the feeling that "grow" was a bad four-letter word. There didn't seem to be any desire to want to grow. Not one person greetd me other than the pastor, who only asked for my name, but took no time later to chat with me.

    I ended up feeling out of place on Easter Sunday.

    I don't mind small congregations. I think it's good for kids like mine who have only gone to larger churches. I'm perfectly comfortable being in a small group. I felt like Emanuel was afraid of doing anything to make the existence known in the community.

    BTW, I miss you!!! :)