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February 1, 2012

Lew ParksThe Soul of a Small Church
By Lew Parks

These are anxious times for the lay and clergy leaders of small congregations. The repercussions of a disappointing economy, aging and shrinking membership, and a growing sector of happy seculars combine to raise hard questions. How long can we go on like this? Fail to connect with those outside our doors? Afford our pastor? Keep up this building?

Give credit where credit is due. Many if not most of the lay and clergy leaders of small churches know that nostalgia, blaming others, and cussed defensiveness will only delay necessary work.

They know that the times call for reawakening a sense of identity and mission, maybe even radical surgery. But they also know that not everything about a small church needs to be fixed, and small churches are not deficient just because they are small. So a necessary first step in any reform would be to locate the enduring substance of a small church, its soul which holds even when change is required in institutional forms. From observation let me try three guesses as to where that search might lead. What is the soul of a small church?

1. Surrogate family. Recent Census data report that only 21 percent of U.S. households are married couples with children, and more than one in three households are a person living alone. [See Update, August 11, 2010, “Churches Face Changing Demographics”] Small churches are as well practiced in providing surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents for the first group as they are in providing sisters, brothers, grandchildren, and friends to the second group.

Although there are the painful exceptions, small churches in general provide a healthy, family-like environment for the sharing of physical and emotional resources. Live-alone widows and widowers experience human contact. Harried single parents share the energy of their children with other adults for a couple of hours. Baby Boomers reared on “bowling alone” give in to the tight quarters and repeated face-to-face contact that encourages the hard work of growing up together and staying, not running, when the inevitable episodes of disappointment and pain come.

2. Small group religious experience. If you watch small church worship like a critical tourist, measuring what you see against what you’ve experienced in larger congregations, you are likely to be disappointed. The music is undisciplined, the passing of the peace is raucous, and the announcements go on too long. But if you approach that same worship service from the perspective of a curious tourist, you begin to detect a local religious vitality that may remind you that most small churches began not as seeds planted by a preacher but as small groups of lay persons experiencing spiritual awakening.

Beneath the first impressions, the curious tourist will find a solid substance. A group of people who follow each other’s stories assemble to surrender their personal stories to the larger narrative of the congregation and the even larger narratives of Scripture. There is connection with a higher power and self-transcending for a larger cause. There is singing of familiar hymns, which in the words of poet Robert Lowell “give darkness some control.” There is the marking of the seasons, sacred and secular. There is praise, interceding with God for others, seeking forgiveness and starting new. It is a flourishing of local religious creativity in the tradition of the first house churches where monotheistic Jews discovered and developed devotion to Lord Jesus.

3. A plentitude of spiritual gifts. You have everything you need, Paul tells the church at Corinth; “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor. 1:5-9). The exercise of spiritual gifts goes on in small churches, more effectively when tied to biblical teaching, but potent even before it is named. Attention to this Spirit-generated energy shifts focus away from scarcity of resources, the ghoul that haunts so many small church decisions. It helps congregations focus instead on freeing, sustaining, and equipping activities.

Even the smallest of small churches has its unique catch and combination of gifts. I once surprised a congregation of 36 persons assembled for worship with a spiritual gifts inventory. It was the kind of pop quiz you can get away with in a small church. A cornucopia of gifts surfaced among those 36 persons. There were singular gifts like tongues and leadership that gave the congregation its local color. And there were redundant gifts like faith, giving, and humor that helped to explain the congregation’s resilience.    

Of the estimated 335,000 congregations in this country, more than half have less than 100 persons in worship weekly. Although these small churches only account for 11 percent of worshippers on Sunday morning, the vitality of 177,000 communities of faith with their impact on the 9 million people who gather there is serious and necessary business.

Before we begin the hard work of realigning practice with vision and mission, and before we begin to tinker with the personnel, financial, and property systems, we need to pause long enough to feel the pulse of the Spirit-animated life before us. What is accidental and replaceable here? And what is essential and to be protected? I once heard a surgeon explain his caution in words something like this: “You want to make sure that the nerve you cut isn’t the one that connects the body to its soul.”  

Dr. Lew Parks is professor of theology, ministry, and congregational development and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Wesley Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Preaching in the Small Membership Church (Abingdon, 2009).

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