I was recently contacted by Jessica Hanewinckel who is the associate editor of Outreach Magazine. She explained that she was putting together an article for their upcoming Small Church America issue and wanted to ask me some questions. I thought you might be interested in my answers. Don’t forget to read pt. 1.
Jessica: There does come a point with small churches, however, where small really is too small to survive. So some degree or growth, or at least retention, is desirable and necessary. How do we walk that line between celebrating small and working hard not to be too small?
Dave: First we have to agree on the definition of ‘church.’ Next we have to agree upon a definition of ‘survive.’ In many countries, including our own, a group of 8 people meeting in a home is regarded as a ‘church’. At this size very little is needed to survive.
But if we think of ‘church’ solely through the lens of our westernized definition of ‘church’, i.e. a building, a full-time pastor, children’s ministry, worship team, small groups, staff, budget, etc., then viability does become an issue.
I often help pastors of smaller churches determine whether or not their congregation is ‘viable.’ To determine viability I ask the pastor the following questions:
Do you (the pastor and their spouse) have enough energy and motivation to continue if nothing changes?
Does your leadership team have enough energy and motivation to continue if nothings changes?
Does the church have enough resources (time, money, volunteers) to provide the most basic of ministries one would expect to find in a church?
Questions such as these often reveal something that is hard for the pastor to admit, which is, ‘Our church lacks viability.’ This doesn’t mean that the church is not a church, (God loves them, they serve a purpose) just that the church is not a viable church, it will probably never be anything other that what it currently is. More times than not, however, this means that the church will suffer a slow and painful death. In my opinion there are many smaller churches like this in North America and they need to be given ‘permission to die’, but in a way that is honoring to Jesus and to the men and women who have invested so much in them over the years.
I don’t believe that a church is necessarily intended to live forever.
Jessica: Small churches just don’t have the resources to meet every single person’s needs who comes through their door or who is in their community. How should a small church go about deciding what to support and focus on, and what to ignore or pass off to someone else?
Dave: Smaller churches must be unapologetic about what they can’t offer people. I remember early on in one of my church plants, a family with teenagers visited and after the service the mother came up and asked, “What do you have for my teenagers?” All I could answer was, “Me”. I think I was more satisfied with that answer than she was.
I liked that part of your question that asked, what should we ignore or pass off? The word ‘ignore’ has a lot of negative connotations attached to it. For me, in this context, it simply means that there are some things we will choose not to worry about at this time. Sometimes small churches can partner with larger churches or other organizations that have developed certain ministries or programs people are looking for. It’s true, if you point someone to the big church down the street so that their child has a youth group to go to, and expect them to stay involved in your church, there is a real possibility that you will never see them again. We’ve got to be okay with this.
It all comes back to resources. What do we have to work with? What are the few things that we can do well? Capitalize on the strengths inherent in small churches rather than the perceived weaknesses.
Jessica: From your experience, are you seeing younger people interested in a small church environment? The perception is that small churches are often filled with older generations and a more traditional worship style.
Dave: I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to characterize young people and what attracts them to a particular church. I work with pastors of every denomination you could imagine, in all the regions across our country. What might attract and keep young people in one region often times does not have the same result in a different region. I work with many smaller churches that have a high percentage of young people. On the other hand, many of our smaller churches are filled predominately with older people. The problem with churches like this is not that they are mainly populated by ‘older people’, as if ‘older’ is inherently of less value than ‘younger’, the problem is when church members, regardless of age, are resistant to the changes often needed in their church to reach new people with the gospel. Resistance to change can be found in every size church.