How Can Encouragement
Help Small Congregations?

When I was a schoolgirl we sat in classrooms that looked something like this.

Girls wore dresses. Boys wore dress pants—no jeans. The rivets scratched the furniture.

Our teacher instructed us that while waiting in line we should make an egg with one hand and place it in the nest made by the other hand.

We were good kids. We followed the rules. We raised our hands to speak. We spoke one at a time. We used inside voices.

Most important: we did our own work. We kept our eyes on our own papers.

To do otherwise was cheating.

But that was in school.

There was no authority while we walked to the bus stop. No one to monitor our activity while we waited for the bus, only a bus driver in charge during the 20-minute bus ride.

Instinctively, we kept what we did during this unsupervised time secret. We sensed that what we were doing was horribly wrong, possibly immoral. Given the structure of the time we spent between bus rides, we suspected that we were engaged in sinister activity. We never discussed it, even among ourselves. Getting caught might ruin our chances at a quality future. 

What were we up to?​

We checked each other’s homework.

We traded papers and reviewed the answers and told our classmates where we thought they might be wrong. We didn’t erase our work and scribble in another student's answers. We just said, “I got a different answer to question Number 10.” We’d review the problem together to see which of us was right.

We did very well in school. We were the cream of the crop. The accelerated students.

Had we cheated our way to the top?

My son’s school experience was very different. More like this:

He never sat in a classroom with rows of desks facing a teacher. In grade school, most instructional time was spent sitting on the floor with all the children surrounding their teacher. He and his classmates shouted out answers with enthusiasm. They laughed freely along with the teacher at the remarks of the class clown. Our class clown spent his childhood in the principal’s office! For hands-on work, they sat at tables with three or four other classmates.

I was jealous. He had approval to do what we did in fear and secrecy.

I can stop feeling guilty now. Turns out we weren’t cheating; we were ahead of our time!

Now educators recognize the way we were taught was already a relic of an industrial past, where conformity was hyper-valued.

Today we are learning the potential of collaborative learning.

Here is a 2013 TED talk worth viewing.

Watch it and then ask yourself, What does this mean to the Church?

TED Talk: Sugata Mitra
Talks about the School in the Cloud

If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch, here are the basics.

This educator fashioned an experiment. He placed a computer in a wall surrounding an Indian slum. He walked away, returning every two months to see what happened.

Slum children found the computer and started punching buttons—a powerful modern skill. We would have been told to keep our fingers to ourselves and seek permission to touch something that wasn’t ours.

Slum children left alone with a single computer, taught themselves English and DNA science.

Within months they had achieved academic proficiency without supervision—while teaching themselves a foreign alphabet and language.



The results are amazing. First, the children had to learn to use the controls. In eight minutes, they mastered browsing. More than that, they had taught several other children what they had learned.

They had to learn English to do more. In two months they had a working vocabulary of 200 words.

He found that the younger children often led the way.​

In four months, they had achieved 30% proficiency on the topic presented—DNA science.

They seemed to be stuck there. Then Mitra added what he called "the granny effect." He enlisted someone to encourage the children, to simply ooh and ahh at their achievements. Within two months the slum children reached 50% proficiency in their understanding of DNA science.

What does this have to do with church?

Church is still operating in the industrial age. We still expect people to sit attentively in the pew and to seek approval for any initiative.

What might we be missing?

Mitra studied the challenges of education in remote areas. He identified key problems. He had proven the ability of the children to learn so he avoided the temptation to list what was wrong with the students. He found instead:

  • They do not have good enough teachers.
  • They have poor retention of teachers.
  • They have poor infrastructure.
  • They have poor maintenance or oversight of the infrastructure.

Change teachers to preachers and infrastructure to hierarchy, and you describe the modern neighborhood (remote) congregation.

Mitra discovered favoring richer schools with early innovation actually held back educational advancement. Technology was first introduced in richer schools where grades were already high. Administrators saw no marked improvement and resisted the added investment.

What effect do disgruntled pastors have on the congregations they serve?

Mitra also discovered in his studies that teachers in remote schools were unhappy and wished they had positions in larger, city schools.

Their unhappiness, he concludes, surely affects the quality of education.

We tend to fast-track our most promising pastors to richer congregations, regional leadership, or the seminary classroom. They can serve their entire careers without ever visiting small congregations. Meanwhile, smaller, remote congregations are lucky to get part-time retired pastors. 

What would happen if we found a way to put the mover/shaker pastors where moving and shaking might do the most good? 

The attention of denominational leaders is with the top 20% of congregations where offerings support multiple pastors and where innovation is not a priority because it is not needed—at least at the moment.

Mitra discovered that paying more attention to the remote schools was a catalyst to change. Might we find similar results in the Church by concentrating on serving smaller congregations?

Mitra discovered teachers were far less important than presumed—at least in the traditional ways. What if we discovered that preachers were not as pivotal to innovation and church leadership as we think? Small churches continue years and decades after regional offices write them off. Maybe we have already discovered something!

The time to study this might be NOW! The cost of supporting pastors is crippling ministry where it is most needed—in poorer neighborhoods. There is an undetected trickle-up effect. The problems that once characterized the smallest churches are now being felt in medium-sized churches.

Note: This is not saying that pastors should not be compensated well. They should. What needs to be explored is how the time and calling of pastors are determined along with how they are funded.

When was the last time your small congregation felt encouraged by your denominational leaders?

Mitra discovered that self-instruction is possible and far more effective than presumed. He is working to develop a system he calls "outdoctrination”—the opposite of indoctrination.

Most interesting of all his findings was the value of encouragement.