Beyond the Boundaries

The majority of United Methodist Churches in North Alabama are small churches and they are in precipitous decline. All indications are that the decline will accelerate over the next decade, despite our efforts, and despite the mandate of Jesus Christ that we, as his disciples, are to go and to grow. By my estimates, we produce about twenty new small churches every year in North Alabama, as once medium-sized churches shrink.

History shows the small congregations are wonderfully resilient. They survive. To be honest, one reason United Methodism has more small membership churches than any other denomination is that we have so many ways of subsidizing and supporting small churches, long after any other denomination would have forsaken these small congregations.

However, one of the main reasons that small churches survive is that many so restrict their view of the ministry of the church, scaling down their expectations for discipleship, that clergy and laity find it easy to meet the meager expectation that many people have for the small church. If your definition of the church does not extend beyond the bounds of the nurture and care of the people in that congregation, then it doesn’t take much pastoral leadership, or much time and effort, to meet those expectations.

Now if we move from our scaled down, limited expectations for the church, to Jesus’ more expansive expectations, many of our small congregations look quite different. The major reason why our small congregations are not growing, and the major reason why most small churches are almost exclusive tied to those of us in the over fifty generation, is that they have limited their ministry exclusively to the boundaries of their congregation. Many of our small churches are “church family,” as we like to say. That family feel of the small church becomes the very reason why a small congregation eventually dies.

Veteran church observer, Penny Marler, has studied small congregations. She notes that it is very difficult, virtually impossible, for a long established small congregation to grow — mainly because it restricts it’s ministry to its own people. A congregation may think of itself as a loving and caring group of people, but if you visit there on a Sunday morning, or if you should try to join, you have the impression that they are unfriendly, focused inward, and closed. Their vision of the church is restricted to those people whom God gave them thirty years ago. They restricted their ministry to the members of the church, and their families. As those members age, as the birth rate declines, so does these churches.

Alas, too many of us pastors have bought into this view of ministry. We believe that the purpose of their ministry is our ability to care for the people within the congregation exclusively. We pray for the sick, we visit the infirm, we focus upon the needs of the congregation, without praying for, visiting, or encountering anyone beyond the bounds of the congregation. And the congregation comes to value a pastor exclusively on that pastor’s performance within the congregation. Death is the result.

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as the one who went “outside the camp.” Jesus Christ was crucified, in great part because he went beyond the boundaries. He reached out, touched, and embraced the untouchables. He was constantly pushing out beyond the boundaries, expanding the notion of God’s kingdom and God’s people. In fidelity to Jesus Christ, we must stop propping up small congregations who have decided to limit their vision of the church to those who happen to have been given to them by a previous generation. And pastors, who have come to limit their definition of ministry to those within the bounds of a congregation, have got to grow in their definition of what God has called them to do as evangelical leaders of the church. Any congregation that limits its ministry to itself will not be with us long into the future. This appears to be a law of church growth and decline. More importantly, it also seems to be an implication of following a Savior like Jesus!

William H. Willimon

7 thoughts on “Beyond the Boundaries

  1. I agree with your evaluation of the small, rural churches. I serve one in East Texas. As I try to grow the church, there have been times when I have felt crucified. Thanks for validating my work as I try to move them beyond the family church.


  2. Rev. Willimon, How true was your post What churches label as “ministry” is really nothing but socializing opportunity.This post really helps me re-think how the church functions as the true Church.Thanks.


  3. This sounds pretty accurate, but the anonymous commenter makes a sharp point. As a Free Methodist presently serving as a Youth Pastor in a United Methodist Church, I frequently hear from my UM friends how unsupportive UMC beuracracy is of those who venture “outside the camp” for new ministry opportunities. Again, this is hearsay, but I sense a connection between this issue and the seeming inability of the UMC to recruit and EMPOWER young leaders. Appearances may deceive, but it appears that those with power in the UMC pull these young Peters kicking and screaming back into the boat when they shake it up to water-walk out to Jesus.


  4. I have served small membership churches in the North Alabama Conference for over 38 years. I don’t agree that their resiliency or ability to survive has anything to do with the subsidies, support, or “propping up” measures of the conference. If their longivity is due to anything it is precisely that sense of loyalty to the “family” engendered by the intergenerational connections in a given congregation, and their sense of being part of the larger connection of the UMC. Compare the annual rate of small churches who pay 100% of their apportionments to that of the medium-to-large membership churches, and you will see who’s really subsidizing the conference budget.


  5. I wonder, as “anonymous” has suggested above, if we don’t go “outside the camp” for the very reason that there are some out there who will crucify us? Truth be told, there are some “within the camp” who might crucify us for going outside, too.I think that we’ve found the comfortable niche in ministry – preaching to the choir – and it’ll take…well, an act of God to move us out of this comfort zone.Thanks for your insights.


  6. I served one of the smallest churches in my conference (a conference other than North Alabama) for four years. They paid their apportionments and my salary not out of their giving, which was extremely minimal, but out of a dwindling bequest left to them some years before.I know for a fact that the conference was not interested in looking any deeper at what was and wasn’t going on there, so long as they could meet the salary requirement and pay their apportionments. That church decided not to grow long before I ever got there. They were down to ten in attendance by that time. The youngest member retired while I was there. There were no children. The members existed to care for one another. They had absolutely no interest in inviting anyone else to be a part of their church. They “threatened” to close if the conference ever sent them a pastor of a different race. And slowly, one by one, they died.Please don’t get me wrong. I loved these people with all my heart and I was as good a pastor to them as I knew how and as they would permit me to be. But they would not permit the hard questions. They’d smile politely when I would challenge them to open their doors to the impoverished, hurting world around them, and would do nothing. A local pastor with a thriving, growing church in addition to theirs, simply could not force them against their will to be the church.Subsidy by the conference is not merely monetary; in fact, in that church’s case, it was in no way monetary. That church, which had long since stopped functioning as a church in any real sense of the word, was subsidized by the conference turning a blind eye to their selfish insistence on being an exclusive club open to “members only,” so long as the essentials got paid for.Small churches that are small because they’re located in tiny, remote locations are not the problem, so long as they’re healthy and open to the power of God to use them. The problem is churches that exist only for themselves, as the bishop described.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: