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