When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to
you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ,
and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My
speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a
demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
--1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NRSV
As a minister, my inbox is filled with emails promising tools guaranteed to grow my church. It’s a hazard of the profession. I tend to view such offers with skepticism, because if all these strategies and tools worked then why are there so many dying churches these days? Sure, in every community there’s usually one large church that everyone points to as proof churches can grow and usually the finger pointing at the large church turns to point with judgment at one’s own smaller church. The problem with such judgment is that nobody mentions that the larger churches often succeed not by making new converts but by sucking up members from smaller churches like a spiritual vacuum. Often the larger churches (especially the megachurches) are cults of personality that have found ways to put on a better show instead of authentic communities of faith.
Don’t get me wrong, things like an attractive building, effective preaching, quality music and offerings for kids and youth all matter, but they matter less than many realize. There’s no excuse for churches offering low quality ministry, but a lot of congregations out there purporting to be thriving churches are superficial, consumer-oriented fluff. It’s pretty packaging on an empty box.
As PHCC makes decisions about its future, it will save itself a lot of time, aggravation and money accepting that most churches are never going to be as large as they were a generation or two ago. That’s not the world we live in anymore. As I’ve written previously, I’m not convinced the larger numbers present in the post-war church boom in the 1950’s and early 1960’s really amounted to more disciples of Jesus Christ. Sure, church pews and bank accounts were full, but that’s not the same as people devoted to following Jesus. If it were so, then why is it that when our society’s approval and rewarding of church involvement waned churches began declining? Many who came to church did so, because it was good for business and their standing in their communities. When such “earthly” rewards went away, so did their need to go to church.
I believe smaller churches can thrive if they are willing to offer something that is authentic, loving and vulnerable. These qualities are what made Christianity grow exponentially in a Roman Empire that was hostile to it. People came, because in the Christian faith community they were valued in ways society did not value them. People who had no place to belong found belonging. People who found no awe and wonder in the gods of culture discovered the awe and wonder of the one true God. People were loved because of the image of God inside them made them valuable instead of feeling they were valued only because they were important, wealthy or influential. That’s why Christianity flourished. Where these qualities are found, Christianity will always thrive.
United Church of Christ minister Jennifer Brownell makes this point in an eloquent way:
What if church growth, though, was less about a plan or a program and more about an orientation, an attitude, a way of being? What if the most attractive feature of your church to young families (and old singles and all the configurations of humanity in between) was that you had the kind of true peace that confronted conflict in a healthy, unafraid way? What if the most appealing growth plan was a commitment to faith so unabashedly reverent that it looked something like awe? What if the best church growth program of all was a community of people giving and receiving the kind of comfort that can only be inspired by the Holy Spirit? I mean, I don't know if it would work. But if your church is anything like mine, you've tried everything else.
PHCC leaders have begun important conversations about how the church should move forward and what the future of the church will look like. These are the kind of preliminary conversations that are essential and must take place before a pastoral search really gets going. Conversations that ask the right questions before a pastoral search gets up and running. Questions such as:
The first question leads to searching for a pastor, setting priorities in spending and attempting ministries that exhaust a small congregation and leave everyone feeling like they have failed. The second question leads to a congregation which looks for a spiritual guide rather than a charismatic guru and ministries that flow out of what church people gladly offer rather than guiltily and half-heartedly hand over. The first question leads to a competition between our church and other churches. The second question leads to us sharing what we have with anyone and everyone who is working to build the Kingdom of God. The first question leads to making our church look good so we look good, but the second question leads to God getting the credit God deserves.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of a faith community that helps me know God’s peace, love and grace rather than a church that contributes to my insecurities which say who I am is dependent on how much I own, who I know and whether or not I can write a big check. There’s a reason why yoga classes are everywhere, online courses offering help with mindfulness fill our social media feeds, and self-help books are best sellers. People are just as hungry for peace and purpose as they ever were. The need is real, but it will not be met at a church whose biggest goal is to have more numbers—more people in the pew and more money in the bank.
I’d rather go to a small church that is real than a big church that’s fake. How about you?
Grace and Peace,
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.