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Posts Tagged ‘Mega-churches’

Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Church Mission and Kingdom Mission

One of the 20th century’s great missiologists, Ralph D. Winter, identified the struggle between “church mission” and “kingdom mission” in the American or Western Church.  I came across one of his articles in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” (4th Edition).  It captured my attention and provoked my thinking in regards to the local church and my experience as a church leader.

In the way Ralph D. Winter uses these terms, Kingdom Mission is the effort to approach and deal with broad social issues that effect society as a whole.  In other words, the mission is to change all of society, not just establish a church group focused upon personal sanctification and discipleship.  On the other hand, Church Mission is the work to establish discipleship methods that focus upon personal salvation and sanctification.

This struggle between what has been called in the past “the social gospel” and the “the salvation gospel” is nothing new.  It has been raging in the Western Church for more than 150 years!  Only recently has there been agreement that it is not an “either/or”” decision but a “both/and” one.  We need both the ministry to the body and ministry to the soul for the Gospel to be effective.  However, that discussion and resolution is still a difficult struggle at the local church level with limited resources.  Despite the high profile image before us of large mega-churches, the fact remains that the vast majority of churches in America and the West are churches of less than 100 people.

On more popular terms, the struggle is between being “outward focused” or “inward focused.”  Of course, almost all would agree that the local church needs both.  However, in practice it very rarely works out that way.  The vast majority of time and money is spent on Church Mission – ministering to and keeping those we have – and not Kingdom Mission – reaching out to and helping to transform the lives of those around us not yet among us.

As a church leader, I have always pushed congregations to “think outside its walls.”  This is harder than what it sounds.  The faithful hear the words but our church structures have conditioned them to do otherwise.  Almost every ministry of the church is inward focused on Church Mission and not outward focused at all on Kingdom Mission.  I have often tried to challenge a church’s leaders by telling them that, “Unless a local church can prove its value to its community, I believe it should pay taxes!”  So far, that has not been very motivating.

The culture of the church works against this type of effort from the top down when the majority of a pastor’s time is spent – and is expected to be spent – with parishioners instead of the least, last and lost of the community.  Pastoral time is consumed with administrative duties, particularly as the church grows, as well as keeping the sheep he has content and happy.

Heaven forbid he should miss visiting someone at home or in the hospital when he is needed because he is involved in a community outreach project or ministering to someone not a part of the church!  After all, what is he being paid for?  I have been told by someone that, “Since I pay my tithes, I consider the pastor to be my employee.”  That is definitely a Church Mission attitude, not a Kingdom Mission attitude.

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Each of the congregations I served attempted to do things that served the community with “no strings attached.”  I considered these more than just attempts at community public relations.  I considered them a vital part of building relationship with our community as well as meeting a need.  However, in every congregation, I have faced and answered to a skeptical deacon or church leader who wants to know after it was all over, “But pastor, how many people started attending our church as a result of our efforts?  How many visited our church?  How much did this send us in the ‘hole’ in our budget?  Did anyone get saved?

These types of questions are endemic to the attitudes of many congregants.  Who can blame them?  After all, they have limited time and limited finances.  They want the most “bang for their buck.”  Nevertheless, it misses an important part of the Church’s mission; the part where the Church is to be a change-agent for transforming the world around it.  There is not quick-and-easy plan to do that in any community.  It takes a commitment to what I call “being vocal and visible” in one’s world, which requires commitment and consistency.  It earns the right to be heard and to minister to people’s real needs.

As Ralph D. Winter warned,

The Lord’s Prayer…becomes too often ‘Our kingdom come’ as the Church is concerned with the personal and spiritual fulfillment of its individual members, its building plans, etc., not the solution of problems beyond its boundaries.”

The trap in our local churches is “keepin’ busy for Jesus” but not at things that lead to real change in our communities.  What if more local churches released their people to volunteer at the local food banks, homeless shelters, clothing banks, pregnancy centers, sexual and child abuse agencies, adoption agencies, community children’s services, local family services, jail and prison ministries, and free medical clinics?  What if the local church focused on after-school tutoring, divorce and grief care, and volunteering at local schools?  If you are a church leader and reading this makes you nervous and sweat, then you understand the cost of what Ralph D. Winter is proposing.

We have conditioned our Evangelical churches to become individual focused on personal salvation and discipleship.  Even our outreach efforts are  most often measured according to what is convenient and what seems like a credible effort in our own eyes.  We want to be able to personally measure the results with “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We want to focus upon what our own talents and interests offer instead of the needs around us.

I am guilty of this as a church leader, despite my best efforts.  I have been sucked into the vortex of “keepin’ busy for Jesus.”  Ralph D. Winter’s article provoked my thinking and a good amount of self-reflection.  I believe he sets before every church leader and local church a clarion challenge that requires our focus and dedication if we wish to be obedient to the mission of God’s Kingdom.  Let me leave you with his words,

Our obedience is certainly flawed if focused only on what the world approves.  Our obligation is to seek the expansion of the knowledge of the glory of God and His Kingdom, and this would logically require us each to prayerfully seek God about doing the hardest thing we are able to do in the most crucial task we can find.  First John 3:8 says, ‘The Son of god appeadred for this purose, that He might destroy the works of the Devil.’  To follow Jesus is to go to war.  This side of the Millennium that’s what the Christian life is.  In a war what needs to be done comes first.  And a true sense of accomplishment is not that you did what you wanted to do, or what you thought you were best at, but what you felt convinced was most crucial, most important.  Doing good things is the biblical way to portray God’s character and glory only if we are willing to act without personal conditions.”  (“Three Mission Eras: And the Loss and Recovery of Kingdom Missions, 1800 – 2000” by Ralph D. Winter in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” 4th ed.)

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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