Small Membership Church: Scenarios for Tomorrow [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Lyle E. Schaller
eBook Category: Spiritual/Religion
eBook Description: One of America's leading church consultants shows why he believes the small membership church has a bright and promising future if the leaders will adapt to new roles in the culture.
Lyle E. Schaller here presents forty-four alternative scenarios that can lead to a better use of resources and more focused energies in ministry.
eBook Publisher: United Methodist Publishing House
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2002
For many observers of the world scene, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 came as a tremendous shock. At least a few reacted by defining that event as the end of the twentieth century. An even greater shock came on September 13, 1993, when two longtime enemies, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, stood in front of the White House and shook hands.
Why were these two events among the greatest news stories of the twentieth century? One reason is that each marked the end of an era. A second is that the widely held assumptions of a few years earlier made both events appear to be highly unlikely elements of the future.
This book is organized around three theses. The first is that, for nearly four centuries, the small congregation has been the dominant institutional expression of Protestant Christianity on the North American continent.
The second thesis is that the societal context for the small Protestant church has changed from supportive to neutral to, in many places, a hostile environment. The small Protestant congregation once thrived in a society dominated by small social institutions, most of which were friendly toward and supportive of the churches. Today the small church exists in a culture dominated by large institutions, most of which do not make any effort to be supportive of organized religion.
One example is the retailer who never opened his store before noon on Sunday. Today many retailers are eager to welcome customers two or three hours before noon or earlier on Sunday. A second is municipal governments, county governments, and local boards of education that once were eager to cooperate with the churches. Today not only is that rare, but also municipal officials are becoming increasingly reluctant to issue building permits for the use of land for religious purposes.
The third thesis is that small churches have a bright and promising future -- if they are willing to adapt to a new role in a changing culture. That is the theme of the fifth chapter, which identifies a list of 44 alternative courses of action for the leaders in small churches. That, however, is not the place to begin this discussion. A better beginning point is to review some of the assumptions on which those three theses are based. While far from being an exhaustive list, these assumptions do help to explain why others may arrive at a different set of conclusions about the role of the small church in the third millennium.
1. The small church is not a miniature version of the large congregation. The small congregation is to the megachurch what the village is to the large central city. They are different orders of God's creation. (See chapter 1.)
2. The small church naturally tends to be the dominant institutional expression of Protestant Christianity on the North American continent. The natural and predictable tendency is (a) for Protestant churches to be small and (b) for larger congregations to shrink in size as the decades roll past.
3. In the year 2020, congregations averaging fewer than a hundred at worship will represent at least 40 percent of all the Protestant churches in the United States and Canada -- and that proportion may be closer to 50 percent. In those denominations with a strong pro-small congregation orientation and a powerful anti-large church bias, that proportion may exceed 70 percent in 2020.
4. A growing proportion of small congregations will depend on bivocational pastors and bivocational ministerial teams, rather than on a full-time and fully credentialed resident pastor for ministerial leadership.
5. On the list of the most attractive alternatives for the small church looking forward to the twenty-first century, merger with another small congregation should rank no higher than 42 and disbanding or closing or dissolving should rank no higher than 44. (See chapter 5.)
6. Numerical growth should never be the top priority for the small church that has been in existence for a decade or longer. If substantial numerical growth does appear to be both possible and desirable, that should not be perceived as the number-one priority. In those situations, the number-one priority should be planned change initiated from within the organization. The heart of the issue is planned change, not simply numerical growth. The central assumption is that small churches cannot enjoy substantial numerical growth without making what many will identify as unwelcome or disruptive changes.
7. If the goal is numerical growth, the leaders should accept that they will be competing with other congregations for prospective new members. Intercongregational cooperation on ministry and programing such as worship, music, Christian education, and pastoral care may be compatible with shrinking in numbers or perhaps in remaining on a plateau in size, but it is not compatible with a strategy for numerical growth. (See chapter 3.)
8. Effective pastoral service in a small church requires a different set of gifts, skills, priorities, and personal characteristics than are required to be the effective senior pastor of a large congregation.
9. The most influential criteria for evaluating staff in the small church often include (a) skills in interpersonal relationships, (b) depth of a personal Christian commitment, (c) instant availability, and (d) a willingness to focus on the parishioners' agenda. In the large church, the basic criteria are more likely to include (a) professional competence, (b) leadership ability, and (c) effectiveness in completing an assignment with better-than-expected results.
10. A decreasing proportion of regular churchgoers display a preference, if circumstances offer them a range of choices, for the small church. Those who prefer the small church tend to come in disproportionately large numbers from among (a) people born before 1940, (b) those who place relationships above the quality of ministry, (c) adults on the liberal end of the theological spectrum, (d) seminary-trained clergy who graduated in a class that included fewer than one hundred candidates for the M.Div. degree, and (e) adults who spent their formative years in a small church in small-town or rural communities.
11. In several traditions, defenders of the small church build a strong ideological argument that small is good and big is bad. This argument often is used to explain why large congregations should provide financial subsidies for small churches.
12. Long-established large congregations tend to be fragile institutions, while small churches tend to be institutionally hardy and tough.
13. The smaller the congregation, the more influential are the volunteer lay leaders in formulating policies. The larger the congregation, the more influential are the senior minister and the paid program staff in making policy.
14. Participatory democracy is an appropriate system of governance in the small church, while the middle-sized congregation naturally chooses a representative system of church government. In the large churches, a higher premium often is placed on competence, commitment, experience, and performance. One common result in very large congregations is governance by an elite group. A second is that as the number of members goes up, the size of the governing board goes down. A third is a greater dependence on standing committees in smaller congregations and greater use of task forces and ad hoc committees in large churches.
15. Given the limitations on discretionary resources (such as the time and energy of volunteers or money), the governing board in the small church often perceives itself as a rationing or permission-giving and permission-withholding body. By contrast, the governing board in the large church is more likely to see itself as a long-range planning group responsible for inventing a new tomorrow.
16. Continuity in the large churches tends to be in the senior minister, the staff, the ministries and program, and a distinctive identity. In small congregations, the central threads of continuity tend to be in (a) local traditions; (b) real estate; (c) the racial, nationality, language, or ethnic heritage; (d) kinship and friendship ties; (e) the relationships among the people; and (f) volunteer leaders.
17. A change in pastors is more likely to be a disruptive incident in the large congregation than in the small church. (See points 12-16 above.)
18. That dependence on lay leadership can justify short pastorates of four to seven years in the small churches, while the ideal pastorate in a large congregation will be fifteen to forty years.
19. The smaller the number of members, the more likely the focus in program planning will be on Sunday. The larger the congregation, the more likely worship, the teaching ministries, the nurturing of the group life, and the creation of attractive entry points for first-time visitors will be scattered through the week.
20. In the small congregation, the Sunday morning schedule and program usually are designed with the members as the number-one constituency. In larger and numerically growing churches, it is more likely that the primary constituency for planning Sunday morning will be first-time visitors.
21. The limitations on discretionary resources often means the small church can offer people only two choices: "Take it or leave it." By contrast, many large congregations are able to offer people a broader range of attractive experiences in worship, in the teaching ministry, in music, in fellowship opportunities, in personal involvement in missions, in youth programming, and in the group life of that parish.
22. Good blood lines, a body temperature between 98 degrees and 99 degrees (F), a willingness to serve, and friendship ties are among the most influential factors in the selection and placement of volunteers in many small churches. In most large congregations, skill, completion of a training experience, vision, a powerful future orientation, a willingness to serve, and Christian commitment are among the most influential factors in the selection and placement of volunteers.
23. The focus on the members, the importance of interpersonal relationships, and the benefits of volunteer participation support strong lay leadership in Sunday morning worship in the small church.
By contrast, the focus on first-time visitors, the emphasis on quality, and the need to speak to the religious needs of people (see chapter 1) suggest Laity Sunday (sometimes called "Amateur Hour") is an appropriate event on the annual calendar in the small congregation, but not in the big church.
24. It may be appropriate for the pastor of the small congregation to reprimand the members during Sunday morning worship. That is not appropriate behavior in any congregation that hopes first-time visitors will return next week.
25. The smaller the number of members, the lower the annual turnover rate in the membership. The small church usually must replace 3 to 6 percent of the members annually to remain on a plateau in size. The large church often must replace 8 to 20 percent annually to remain on a plateau in size.
26. Large and middle-sized congregations usually are either growing or shrinking in numbers, while small churches often find it relatively easy to remain on a plateau in size for decades.
27. The financial needs of the institution often become the number-one motivating force behind second-mile giving by the members of the small church. The primary motivation for second-mile giving by members of the large congregation often is (a) missions and outreach and/or (b) the vision of a new tomorrow and the challenge to turn that vision into reality.
28. If and when the circumstances call for two weekend worship services in the small church, they are likely to be carbon copies, while in the large congregation they are more likely to be designed as two different worship experiences for two different constituencies.
29. The larger the number of members, the larger the number of dollars per worshiper that will be required to pay all the bills. In 1995, many small congregations could pay all of their bills on time if the weekly offering was equivalent to $7 to $15 times the worship attendance. In large congregations, that figure was more likely to be $15 to $35 times the worship attendance.
30. In smaller congregations, Sunday school often is the heart of the teaching ministry. In larger churches, the Sunday school may rank third or fourth or fifth in importance in the teaching ministry behind (a) the sermon, (b) evening Bible study groups, (c) daytime study groups, or (d) educational trips of five to fifteen days.
31. The larger the size of the congregation, the longer the time frame needed for planning. In many small congregations, the time frame for planning is two to six months. In very large churches, it often is two to ten years.
32. A central theme in the life of the small church is the life cycle of the individual -- birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, birth of a baby, retirement, death of a spouse, and the death of that member. In the larger congregations, the central theme may be the spiritual or faith journey of the individual from inquirer or searcher or seeker to believer to disciple to volunteer minister.
33. For many small congregations, the denominational affiliation continues to be an important part of self-identification. The larger the number of members, the less influential is the denominational label in terms of self-identification.
34. The small church usually perceives Sunday morning to be the number-one entry point for newcomers. The large church defines Sunday morning as only one of several attractive entry points for first-time visitors.
35. The smaller the number of members, the smaller the proportion of total expenditures allocated to advertising. The larger the number of members and/or the greater the desire to reach new generations, the larger the amount of money spent on public relations.
36. If it does advertise in the local newspaper, the small congregation is likely to rely on the "tombstone" ad that carries the name of the church, the name of the pastor, the address, the denominational affiliation, and the Sunday schedule. The large congregation is more likely to focus on the needs of the reader in designing that newspaper advertisement. (See chapter 4.)
37. The grapevine often is one of the two or three most valuable channels of internal communication in the small church. In the large congregation, the grapevine often does more harm than good.
38. The small congregation rarely receives a newcomer who was first attracted to that congregation by television. It is not unusual for very large churches to report that close to one-half of their new members came in response to a television program or commercial featuring that congregation.
39. For instrumental music support for worship, the small church is more likely to rely on a piano or an electronic organ or a sound system with recorded music, while the large congregation is more likely to utilize a pipe organ or an orchestra or a band or a team of seven to twenty worship leaders.
40. In the small church, the primary institutional loyalty of the individual often is to that congregation. In the large congregation, the primary institutional loyalty of many individuals is to a choir, a Sunday school class, the youth group, a circle in the women's organization, an adult study group, a band or orchestra, a program committee, a mutual support group, or a small Bible study and prayer cell.
41. In identifying prospective future members, the small congregation usually begins by focusing on (a) kinfolk of members, (b) friends and neighbors of members, and (c) people without any active church involvement who live within a mile or two of that congregation's meeting place.
By contrast, most large and rapidly growing churches think in regional, not neighborhood, terms and focus more on people's spiritual and personal needs rather than on established kin or friendship ties or place of residence or geographical proximity.
42. In the small church, the term "ministry of music" usually is a synonym for one to four choirs, plus two or three volunteer leaders. In the large church, the ministry of music often includes five to twenty music groups and three or more paid staff members.
43. In most small churches, the number-one reference point when the discussion turns to "quality" is the quality of interpersonal relationships among the members. A close number two is the quality of the match between the pastor and the parishioners.
By contrast, in the large congregation, discussions on "quality" tend to focus on the quality and relevance of the preaching, on the worship experiences, on the teaching ministry, on pastoral care, on administration, and on the real estate.
44. Finally, the most important assumption on which this book is based can be expressed in three words: Churches can change! As the context for congregational life changes, as older members disappear from the scene, and as new generations come along, churches can change. As many of the assumptions identified here suggest, change is more difficult in smaller congregations than it is in big churches.
While it is far from exhaustive, this long list of assumptions is offered here for three reasons. First, these assumptions constitute the foundation for most of what is discussed in subsequent pages. Any disagreement the reader may have with a specific diagnostic or prescriptive comment may be based on a difference between the assumptions carried by the reader with the assumptions carried by this author. This is not a value-free or neutral book!
Second, these assumptions help to explain why small congregations are not miniature versions of large churches and why large churches are not enlarged versions of small congregations. They are different orders of creation. They function around different sets of central organizing principles. What is an appropriate leadership model for a minister in one often will be inappropriate in the other. The appropriate priorities for the small church rarely are the appropriate priorities for the large congregation.
Finally, and perhaps most important for the reader of this book, these assumptions help to explain why the operational response to God's call to be faithful and obedient will not be the same in the twenty-first century for the small church as the operational response of the large parish. They enter into their journey into the third millennium from different beginning points, and they do not share a common destination.
The world is filled with people who seek simple answers to complex issues. One example is the scribe who challenged Jesus to identify the greatest commandment of all. Jesus answered that there are two (Mark 12:28-31). These two commandments also offer a conceptual framework for identifying the basic differences between the best of the small congregations and the best of the large churches. That is the central theme of the first chapter of this book.
The second chapter documents the fact that the small church is the normative institutional expression of Protestant Christianity on the North American continent.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the ideologically correct stance of mainline Protestant leaders was to encourage intercongregational and interdenominational cooperation. The widespread ownership of the private automobile, including ownership by hundreds of thousands of teenagers, plus other changes described in this book mean that the vast majority of small churches today are competing with other congregations for future generations of members. The meeting place of some of these competing churches may be as far as ten to twenty miles away. What is the appropriate stance of today's small churches? To encourage intercongregational cooperation in programming or to recognize that competition is the new fact of life? That conflict is the subject of the third chapter.
One beginning point for the leaders in the small church as they plan for the twenty-first century is to seek to perpetuate yesterday as much as possible. A second is to recognize that most congregations are really confronted with two choices: change or gradually fade away. An introduction to this discussion is the theme of the fourth chapter.
A different beginning point is to review specific courses of action. A total of 44 are presented in the fifth chapter, in the format of six categories with the most promising discussed first and the least promising last.
Finally, a brief chapter summarizes some of the crucial learnings about the identity, role, and central characteristics of today's small churches.
This book is a product of working with a variety of small churches over the past four decades. It is dedicated to two long-time friends. Unfortunately, it is impossible to identify and list all the other individuals to whom I am also indebted for their comments, criticisms, ideas, insights, reflections, and wisdom, but that debt must be acknowledged at least in general terms. Thank you all!
Copyright © 1994 by Abingdon Press