Most Churches Are Small for Good Reason

When urban mission opportunities are served on a platter, leaders often don't know where to begin.

When urban mission opportunities are served on a platter, leaders often don’t know where to begin.

Small Churches Are Next Year’s Seed

Today, I’m referencing a post from Christianity Today’s fairly recently appointed blogger, Karl Vaters, on small church ministry. He covers many of the topics we discuss here from the clergy point of view, while 2×2 usually addresses the lay experience.

Voters correctly points out that denominations play favorites with larger churches—an oddity since as many as 80% of all churches are small. We are like one big family—eight of the ten children are stepchildren.

There is only one reason mainline denominations emphasize mid-to-large churches. A church of 300 members or more theoretically provides financial security for professional leaders. In a sense, the primary mission becomes the support of leadership. But small churches provide unparalleled mission opportunity.

All churches start small. Most churches stay small. Most talk about growing but know that they will never be big. When they think of growing it is more in terms of being better able to serve where they are. They aren’t looking to migrate to the suburbs and the luxury of parking lot space. They want to witness where they are.

There was a time when small churches could expect to find adequate professional leadership. Today, not so much.

I was reminded of this over the weekend. Redeemer Lutheran Church’s property was seized by the ELCA synod and sold to a developer. There was a never a congregation vote as required. They plotted to bypass their own rules and locked out the congregation.

We are still here and still have a sense of mission.

Our denomination has a bad case of arrested development. They are stuck in a time warp that dates to the social changes of fifty years ago. Churches were among the leaders of the urban exodus known as White Flight. Some congregations simply relocated to the near suburbs. Others lost their younger members as they set out on their own. Denominations were ill-equipped to provide leadership for changing neighborhoods. They still are.

Make no mistake—changing neighborhoods are now the norm—everywhere.

Our locked out congregation was part of a neighborhood festival this weekend. With the help of volunteers, we restored our 30-foot wooden sliding board for the community Oktoberfest. We also had a bake sale and this gave us an opportunity to talk to new neighbors and visit with Redeemer veterans.


Two thirds of Redeemer’s 30-foot slide.

One Redeemer member recalled a search for a pastor that had to date to the 1960s. She told of how the congregation showed the parsonage to a candidate. The parsonage was a row house on Midvale Avenue — one of the most beautiful blocks in the neighborhood. These houses sell today in the mid $300,000s. The candidate said he could never live in row house and likened it to living in a slum.

Most of Philadelphia lives in row houses.

Clergy often look for calls that promise a lifestyle they envisioned when enrolling in seminary. If their heads have been filled with suburban prejudices about cities, the city can be viewed as undesirable.

A funny thing has happened since the turbulent 60s, 70s, and 80s. City neighborhoods are now viewed by young people as the place to be. Our neighborhood—East Falls—is booming!

Saturday’s crowd was young. Many of them shared their faith experiences and their hopes for a long stay in the city. There is great potential for ministry. But the potential has been largely squandered by leadership that made decisions about our neighborhood with self-interest in the forefront.

Our situation is not isolated. The same leadership that squandered Redeemer’s ministry just “celebrated” the closing of St. Michael’s in neighboring Mount Airy—one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Church closings have their own rituals and liturgies. Clergy dress to the nines and process down the aisle in celebration of—well—failure. A lot of nice words will be bandied about, but they are celebrating failure—their failure.

When mission opportunities are served to today’s leaders on a platter they haven’t the slightest plan where to begin.

Then there are those of us who stayed. We are here today, ready for mission. Our leaders took our seed assets (their seed assets, too)—endowment funds and property. They squandered the physical assets that Lutherans of East Falls sacrificed to provide for the future. They viewed lay members as enemies rather than local leaders.

Good stewards protect seed assets!