As I sit here writing this post, I have a great sense of sadness within my heart for those small churches that have been “surviving” for years. Not growing; very little if any outreach into the community, and often faced with a minimal budget. You know the type of church I am referring to if you live in a small-town community. The kind of church you walk into that has 25 or fewer people attending, predominantly grayed-haired and generally physically limited. Usually, only one or two children are present, and often not even that!
I have been privileged to serve in churches with 150, 75, 50, and even 3 people attending. Conversations with these people often become memories of “how it used to be.” They reminisce about the congregation’s size in the past, how uplifting the worship once was, the ministry that proceeded from their church, and all the children that used to be there. And the greatest common denominator I have found between churches of 25 or fewer people is the desire to grow and be active again.
Over the years, I have talked with several leaders within those churches. I have had dialogue with various members within those churches as well, and what I have found is that while their current state of affairs profoundly saddens them, and while they acknowledge their despair at things not getting any better, they will not consider closing the doors and blessing another likeminded ministry or attending another local church! What I mean by “leaders” is the one or two in the congregation that have taken on the vast majority of responsibilities to hold it all together.
I have invested so much of my ministry in churches like these, and it has always grieved me to watch a young couple with children enter the church and, to their dismay, find out there are only several much older people here, and there is no children’s program to offer them. They don’t come back.
At this stage of the game, you can only feel sadness for them. They love the Lord and want to serve Him and help the church grow, but physically and, sadly, often mentally, they can’t invest themselves as they would like anymore. They don’t want to start over somewhere else, “to old for that,” they’ll say, so this church is their only option. Plan A, no other plans on the table.
So, there are several possible reasons why these churches find themselves in their current situations. First, it could simply be that as the future unfolded, wars came and went, and those young people did not return to their communities. In Pennsylvania, where I lived in a coal town full of life back in the day due to anthracite coal mining, a church I served in as an interim pastor had a congregation of over 125 people if I remember correctly. But ww2 and the over-regulation of the coal industry began to bring sweeping changes to these communities. Changes that they have not been able to recover from.
Sometimes a church has a bad history. Something in that church fostered a split, and the church has not recovered. Many reasons exist for possible explanations as to how some churches find themselves in their current state of affairs.
But other factors seem to keep these struggling churches in a rut, with seemingly less hope of ever recovering. Still, placing hope against hope, they persist in moving ahead. What are some of the issues they face now as they try to move forward, hoping to see their small church grow and be vibrant again?
Fewer pastors are willing to serve in these churches.
Seminary-trained pastors often carry a lot of student debt and realize that debt will not quickly be paid back from the salaries smaller churches often offer. Sadly, one of the biggest reasons for staying “stuck in the rut” is that these churches, even though they cannot afford a highly educated pastor, want one!
Regardless of the specific reasons, studies have found that many pastors will not serve smaller churches. So now, what do they attempt to do?
2. More and more smaller churches are seeking bi-vocational leadership.
As good an idea as it sounds, fewer bi-vocational ministers can easily relocate due to their other employment, which limits pastoral searches to a smaller geographic area.
Few full-time ministers are willing to move to a new location and search for other employment to supplement their church income as bi-vocational ministers. It’s not a viable option for many otherwise available qualified men.
3. One of the essentials for a healthy, growing church is strong pastoral leadership, and many pastors are unable to provide such leadership.
Many small-church pastors with leadership skills are not permitted to do so. Any effort to provide leadership is quickly halted by immature controllers allowed by the congregation to exercise their dysfunction on the entire church body.
Sadly, I experienced this scenario at one church when I agreed to be an interim pastor. Long story short- stewardship became ownership, leading to unwise and unbiblical decision-making.
4. In many smaller churches, you will likely see a lot of gray hair.
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. These churches are often aging, and as members become unable to attend church due to death or illness, younger persons do not replace them. One reason is that much of what the church does is geared toward its older members, with little effort focused on attracting younger persons to become involved in the church’s life.
These folks have grown accustomed to making it through the main service, and nothing else was pushed aside. They lack the energy level necessary to focus on the younger generation.
5. Finances are often a problem.
It is well established that younger generations do not tithe or give to the church as the “builder” and “boomer” generations do. Many smaller churches also do not make it easy to contribute. I read an article recently that showed that check-writing among young people is almost a thing of the past; Everything is done with a debit card or by direct withdrawal.
How many smaller churches offer the opportunity for people to give through either of those means?
That is not the only reason, however, that finances may be a problem. Many of these aged saints now live on a fixed budget. They depend on whatever they receive from a work pension if they have one, and Medicare! It is tough to give generously under such economic circumstances.
6. Many smaller churches have forgotten why they exist. Some are so focused on survival they have forgotten they exist for mission.
Because of a sole focus on survival, many of these congregations have not seen anyone brought to Christ in years (decades?). Not that the gospel isn’t preached; it’s just that it is being preached to the choir every Sunday.
Unless a church understands its God-given purpose and attempts to live it out, one must question whether it is good stewardship for that church to continue.
7. Even more churches have no vision for ministry; they merely drift along weekly, hoping that something good will happen someday.
God has a unique vision for each church, and it is the responsibility of the church and its leadership to discern that vision and begin to live in it. Scripture is correct that without a vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18), and so do churches.
Those churches that address these problems and begin to correct them can enjoy a productive ministry. It may simply be that their focus has to change with the changing backdrop of their particular church and its ability to reach out.
I do not believe any small church has to close, but if they are unwilling to confront why they are moving in that direction, it is unlikely they will survive.
So what counsel is there for the small church member or leader in this predicament?
First, be honest with yourself, the other members, and especially The Lord Jesus Christ, who created this thing called the church and is its supreme authority (Ephesians 2:11-3:6; 1:22; Colossians 1:18). Perhaps it is time to close the doors and bless another likeminded church with your resources as the church body prayerfully seeks another church to be apart of.
Second, reconsider the new program you may want to start. There is no new program that is going to bring the crowds flocking toward your church. You will never be able to compete with the bigger church down the road that has the people and resources to run any particular program they like. That includes programs for the youth. You can offer a church family built around loving the parents and children who attend. Your focus would be better suited toward relationships.
Third, consider that you need to change some things. I want to share this quote with you because it’s helpful.
“I know that change is a dirty word for some of you. You are all about tradition and keeping things as they have been for the past fifty years. Let’s think about this for a few minutes, though. You have a church that consists mainly of seniors, which is not an uncommon state of affairs. You want to attract young families with children because you think your church will die without a new generation of young people.
The fact that attracting young families is a problem strongly indicates that what you have been doing has not been working. Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. Too many churches are practicing a type of spiritual insanity in their response to this issue.
We have a shortage of young families.
What we are currently doing is not attracting young families. We will continue doing Everything precisely as we have done in the past, hoping that young families will attend. It isn’t going to happen. Any church with a preponderance of seniors will have to change something to attract young families.
For too many churches attracting young families isn’t the priority that determines what they do. They want to attract young families without changing anything to attract them. Attracting young families that will fit into their way of the church is the priority.
I am not calling for immediate wholesale changes in your church. I am suggesting that if what you are doing hasn’t worked in the past, you will probably have to change your approach if you expect any results in the future.”
Lastly, be fervent in prayer and generous in praise. We are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We are to ask in prayer, believing that He will hear and answer our prayers (Matthew 21:22). Everything that has breath should praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6); our lips should praise Him for all His wonderful kindnesses towards us (Psalm 63:3). Despite our current circumstances and the uncertainty of the future, we are called to praise our Father in heaven because He is good, trustworthy, and omnipotent! This is not a moot point; it is the main focal point!
- 1. Smallchurchconnections.com
2. Seven reasons were adapted from an article by this man below.
Dennis Bickers is a church consultant and author. He served previously as the bi-vocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years.
5 thoughts on “THE RELENTLESS PLIGHT OF THE SMALL CHURCH”
I appreciate your discussion. Much of my Christian life has been filled with small churches. These shrinking rural communities try to hang on to their churches and school.
Thanks for reading my post. God bless
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I’ve guest speak at a few churches like this over the last few years…my heart was moved reading this
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Larry, thanks for this “nuts and bolts” post with its insights regarding small churches. My wife and I are in our mid-60s and we left a large and growing “seeker” mega-church because it was exclusively focused on 20-40 YOs and the worship was wanting in many respects. The Lord led us to a smaller church (120 in attendance on Sundays) with a mix of ages and we are blessed.
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Happy to hear that Tom. God is good!
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