Why Small Churches May Solve Mainline Problems
The Church’s Food Chain
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest, imagine you are a person with a level 2 strength of character and attitude looking at a level 5 problem. Would this problem appear to be big or little? From a level 2 perspective, a level 5 problem would seem like a big problem.
Now imagine you’ve grown yourself and become a level 8 person. Would the same level 5 problem be a big problem or a little problem? Magically, the identical problem is now a little problem.
Finally, imagine that you’ve really worked hard on yourself and become a level 10 person. Now, is this same level 5 problem a big problem or a little problem? The answer is that it’s no problem. It doesn’t even register in your brain as a problem. There’s no negative energy around it. It’s just a normal occurrence to handle, like brushing your teeth or getting dressed.
Let’s look at how this might relate to churches—most of which face similar multiple problems with varying degrees of urgency. Let’s say Big Church A and Little Church B both face thm same Level 5 Problem. Because we live in a society that considers bigger as better, smarter and more desirable, we are tempted to think Big Church A won’t find a Level 5 Problem to be any challenge. Similarly those who represent the big churches assume that Little Church B will find the Level 5 Problem to be insurmountable. The Management-minded Solution: Close Little Church B down and reallocate their resources to Big Church A who faces the same challenge. In reality Big Church A will have a more difficult time solving the problem.
- It can avoid facing foundational problems longer. (The largest congregations in our denomination and region are showing large statistical losses, but are still viewed as more viable than small congregations that are holding their own.)
- They have a process they must follow to solve any problem. Creativity is less likely to enter the picture.
- Staff may be more bountiful, but problem-solving isn’t on any of the job descriptions.
- Lay talents are viewed with suspicion.
- New talents take longer to gain notice and acceptance.
The Level 5 Problem is likely to continue unrecognized for years. Taking on problems that few people recognize is asking for trouble.
On the other hand Little Church B is truly threatened by the Level 5 Problem. Their very existence depends on finding solutions. They start looking for answers. They evaluate the few resources and people they have and go to work.
And here is the magical nature of Little Church B. Every new person who walks through the door is a resource that can immediately be put to work. Leadership is cultivated. The roles of laity can change as problems force them to develop new skills.
The status of Little Church B, therefore, can change dramatically in months. Resilience.
Understand this. There are many more Little Church Bs than there are Big Church As. They are a valuable resource in themselves that is being squandered as we worship church size.
Management-minded regional bodies easily get stuck with prejudices — often fostered by years of disgruntled pastors who failed in leadership roles. They have rare interaction with smaller churches and view them as stagnating—lying in wait for the regional body to save them.
In reality, they haven’t given this notion a moment’s thought.
There is a prejudice that Little Church B cannot support professional services and therefore must be controlled or closed. No small churches have as their mission statement—We exit to support the clergy and contribute to the regional and national church. Yet this is the priority when evaluating viability.
This threat is felt at all levels of church leadership. They just don’t know what to do with Little Church B. Clergy hear God calling them only to congregations that ensure a comfortable living. The result is a form of cannibalism.
Regional bodies, strapped with their own survival problems, are tempted to manage small congregations. They usually manage them out of existence. Even so, small churches vastly outnumber large churches. They always will.
If the cannibalism (closing small churches and assuming their assets as their own) continues, the entire denomination will become a relic. There will be a few larger congregations sitting in suburban outposts with no real ability to serve the neighborhoods they stripped of their assets.
Fewer churches means there will be fewer traditional jobs for church professionals which will result in fewer seminaries, fewer service initiatives and much less need for the regional body.
Pretty soon, the larger churches who were content to watch as neighboring congregations were managed out of existence will feel something nibbling at their own toes.
Let’s end with another quote from a 20th century genius.
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.—Albert Einstein