Can Small Congregations Change?

J. Chein Church Bank
Ed Berg – Wikimedia

by Sarai Rice

No question is more vexing to me than this one, because I see so many small congregations struggling with the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest. It’s a relevant question, too, for students of congregational life, given that the median size of a congregation in this country is currently 75, only 11% of Christians worship in such congregations, and most are experiencing decline. Lots of seminars and workshops have been spawned on the subject, with the same implicit subtext–can small churches change in order to grow?

I love small congregations and regularly get goose bumps (in my experience, a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit) listening to members talk about them. But there are ways small churches can and should change if they really want to grow.

  1. Most importantly, make sure that the Christmas wreaths have been removed from the front doors of the church by the time the temperature is in the 60’s and we’re in the middle of Lent. (You can probably tell that I’ve had a personal experience with this recently and am still shaken by it!)
  2. Rethink your staff. Congregations with an average worship attendance of 75 generate barely enough pastoral work to justify a full-time pastor, and then frequently expect him or her to do everything from preaching to plumbing. Small congregations may cling to a full-time pastor as a way of holding onto a former identity, but it would be more cost-effective to call a less-than-full-time pastor, hire local people to do the day-to-day organizational and maintenance functions, and perhaps invest any left-over dollars in housing the homeless or feeding the hungry. In communities with multiple small congregations, it might even be possible to combine everyone’s administrative or maintenance work into shared full-time positions with benefits.
    (For decades, consultants have said that a congregation needs 1 FTE program person for every 100-150 in average worship attendance, but declining attendance rates across all age groups have almost certainly pushed this down to something closer to 1 FTE program person for every 80-130 in attendance.)
  3. Downsize your “stuff.” Many small congregations have big buildings and long histories, and because they’re populated by human beings, they tend to accumulate “stuff.” Some of it is even your stuff or my stuff that we’ve given to them because it’s still “too good to throw away.” All congregations should periodically pretend they’re moving to a smaller house and get rid of anything that’s ugly (by current standards), out-of-date (Sunday School curricula from the 1980’s), or threadbare. Furniture so dated that it’s come back into style should be viewed as a potential revenue source.
  4. Share your space. Congregations have been sharing space with daycare centers and non-profits for decades, but more and more congregations are sharing their space with other congregations. One congregation with which I’m familiar houses two other congregations in its building. The ministers have a miniature, building-based ministerial association and meet regularly for support and education. Beyond sharing, some congregations are even making the decision to move into smaller space or own no space at all in order to have maximum resources and flexibility for new ways of being the church.
  5. Outsource your website. There are still many small congregations that have no website at all and others that have an old-fashioned website. Having no website at all is inexcusable for any congregation that hopes to grow – visitors find you by your website much more than by driving by your building. Unless you’re in a very small community where no one new ever moves in or comes to visit, you need a website. Furthermore, it is no longer sufficient to have a dated website with more words than pictures or with out-of-date information. Website styles change, just like clothing or hairstyles, and congregations that wish to attract visitors need to stay up-to-date in terms of both content and design.
  6. Clean your yard. I was visiting a group of congregations in Vermont this past weekend and noticed that, even though there was still snow on the ground and mud in the parking lots, residents were out in their yards raking up dead grass and leaves. Congregations that hope to grow should do likewise. One congregation with which I worked was well-treated and well-respected in a high-crime neighborhood just because one member was particularly tenacious in her care of the congregation’s landscaping and liked to chat with passers-by while she worked.
  7. Advertise your programs and assets, and remember that most people don’t read newspapers anymore. If your congregation is known for its quarterly community fish fries, I expect to see your members going to the grocery store in brightly-colored t-shirts emblazoned with your congregation’s name and a hip fish logo. If your congregation has a basketball court or a soccer field that’s available for pick-up games, I expect every recreation center and gym in town to have notices posted offering your space. If you’re starting a youth bell choir, every music teacher, public and private, should get a note from you encouraging them to send students your way.
  8. Be clear and specific about the purpose to which God calls you and then evaluate everything in light of whether it helps you reach God’s goal. It’s lovely to say in a mission statement that your goal is to “make disciples,” for instance, but if every member of the church is not fully prepared to talk very specifically about what this looks like in his or her life, then your mission statement is just words. Figure out what God wants you to do and then align everything – budget, building use, staff time, and members’ hearts – with your unique and singular purpose.

None of these are the kinds of adaptive changes in which we are literally rethinking the purpose of the church. They are all technical changes – things we already know how to do. The challenge for those of us in small churches is to realize that we can change and then find the energy to start moving. Preferably today.
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Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.