Most churches in America are small, with less than 200 in worship. For generations small churches have effectively cared for the spiritual needs of our families and our communities. Small churches helped focus on what was really important and our communities were stronger because of them. In the past 25 years our culture has changed and suddenly small churches are no longer having the impact they once had. As communities have changed, many small churches have responded by withdrawing from the community and “hiding” in the church building. Though being part of a “holy huddle” might make us feel safer, the community desperately needs the life changing power of the Gospel. When we withdraw from the community because we do not know how to deal with change, it hurts both the church and the community.
In the past, many communities had certain common characteristics. Everyone knew everyone and there were lots of connections through school, church, and community organizations. Many people were related by blood or marriage to a significant portion of the local population. Racial groups often stayed together in certain neighborhoods because it made them feel more comfortable. Community members knew the unofficial rules of how to get things done, which had a lot to do with who one knew more than paperwork and policies. People were more respectful of religion in general, though not everyone went to church on a regular basis. People spent most of their time with those who had similar educational levels and economic realities.
But most communities have changed. Though the old stereotypes can still be found, they are not as prominent as they once were. With the advent of technology, people are constantly exposed to other ways of thinking and no longer just accept that what “used to be” is the way things “should be.”
How Does This Impact Small Churches?
• The influx of new ideas is rapidly transforming the mindset in most communities into a more postmodern way of thinking. Postmodernism is the idea that individuals have both the intelligence and the right to decide for themselves what truth is without any objective standards. Because churches typically base truth on the Bible, it often puts churches in conflict with how postmodern people think.
• Postmoderns decide what truth is based on individual experiences and relationships. They do not recognize absolute truth. However, many postmodern people are actually interested in learning about spirituality, they just want to do it on their own terms. To learn more about how to reach postmodern people, consider reading, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.
• Though we should not give up our biblical values to reach postmoderns, we may have to change some of our man-made traditions in order to break out of our holy huddle. Many churches will struggle with giving up their man-made traditions, but for the sake of the Kingdom, we must. The challenge will be in praying through what is a man-made tradition that we can let go of and what is a biblical mandate which we must retain no matter what.
Five suggestions for How Small Churches Break Out of the Holy Huddle and Impact Changing Communities:
1. Embrace technology
2. Embrace bivocationalism and lay ministry
3. Embrace racial diversity
4. Use church buildings for more than worship
5. Get outside the walls of the church into the community
• Postmodern people are more “virtual” than ever before. That means they often socialize via technology more than in person. Churches must discover how to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging, blogs, websites and other technological innovations. People no longer look in the “yellow pages.” Many people are less open to a home visit and prefer to connect through technology.
• Embrace technology in public worship services without losing the sacred aspect of church. Merging technology with ancient liturgy appeals to postmoderns, because they like to “experience” different things. This is particularly effective when we explain the meaning behind the rituals. Therefore, invest in a projector and screen and use them when we quote the Lord’s Prayer or sing traditional hymns.
Embrace bivocationalism and lay ministry
• Funding for small churches is going to be diminished in the future for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we must accept the reality of bivocational ministry and lay ministry. Most churches will not be able to afford multiple-staff members. Lay ministers are going to have to fill roles we used to pay people to fill.
• Churches that do not have high levels of commitment might not even be able to afford to pay their pastor a livable wage, therefore he may have to work another job in addition to the church. We may not like using lay ministers or having bivocational pastors, but it is a growing reality in many small churches.
• The great challenge of bivocational ministry is burn out. The key to helping bivocational ministers avoid burn out is to help them learn the art of delegation. Pastors must train lay people to accept the duties that the pastor delegates to them. Consider the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church.
Embrace racial diversity
• Some churches may resist reaching out to people of other races, but this is essential, especially if we want to reach a younger audience. Do not misunderstand, there are places where “ethnic” churches are essential because of language barriers. But the “second generation” will not have those barriers. Postmodern people see no racial barriers and neither should the church.
Use church buildings for more than worship
• Many church buildings only get used one or two days a week. This is not good stewardship of the facility. Many unchurched people see church buildings as the perfect place for weddings, funerals, family reunions, 50th anniversary receptions, Boy Scout troops, AA meetings, etc., even though those people may not be religious. When churches let the community use their buildings for such things, the public begins to think of it as “their” church. Postmodern people want to “belong” before they “believe.” This does not mean they want to join the church organizationally, it means they want to feel a part of the group relationally. Providing a building and appropriate ceremonies for postmodern people to participate in is very important to helping them feel like they belong. Once they feel like they belong, they are more likely to come to worship.
Get outside the walls of the church into the community
• Practice the faith outside the building that is preached inside through involvement in community organizations and activities that demonstrate compassion to the hungry, homeless and hurting. This is what postmodern people think Christians are supposed to do, yet what so few churches are doing.
• Recover personal evangelism through sharing our own difficulties in life and how our faith gives us hope instead of just giving a religious sales pitch. (Consider My Hope videos from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.)
• Work hard to let the community know anyone is welcome to attend any church services or activities regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.
Our communities are changing rapidly and churches are going to have to adapt to those changes. Those adaptations include:
• Embracing technology
• Embracing bivocationalism and lay ministry
• Embracing racial diversity
• Using church buildings for more than worship
• Getting outside the walls of the church into the community
Terry Dorsett has been a church planter and author in
New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy
husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He
is a cancer survivor and believes that God works
powerfully through times of suffering. Find all of his