Imagine that in some metro area this weekend, a small church is holding its last service. Once the church was established in a middle class neighborhood, and had a few hundred members. Over the years, the neighborhood has changed. An immigrant population has slowly moved in as much of the middle class folks have fled to the suburbs. The church, for whatever reasons, has never attempted to adapt to the new local population and has slowly died. Down the street, a young and energetic pastor has been holding meetings in the local school. He has crafted his church to match the neighborhood – he has recruited a few of the remaining middle class residents, and a few Christians from the immigrant population. This week, they are launching a new church service. One church has ‘died’ and another has been born to replace it – and one better equipped to meet the new demographics of its location. We can certainly feel badly for those whose church as run its course, but overall the Kingdom of God is still advancing in that community.
Now imagine that the church is located in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. For its 150 year history, the town has been an agricultural center. The little town has hosted a small grocery store, a little cafe, a school, and the elevator (for you city folks, that’s the grain distribution center). Over the years, changes in farming have changed the little town. Family farms have been bought up and turned into small parts of large farm operations. Those farms use massive equipment, making it possible for one or two farmers to work the land it once took 5, 6, or maybe even 10 families to farm. So population has dwindled. The school was forced to consolidate with another in the county, and now the kids take a bus to school out of town. The grocery closed, and the cafe struggles to pay the utilities. Most of the young families have moved on, either across the county to be closer to the school, or into the cities to find decent paying jobs. In that town the small church has been slowly shrinking, too. Now most of the congregation is older, living on their retirement saving and Social Security. The pastor in that small church averages 3 or 4 funerals a year. Now that the church can no longer pay the bills, it will be holding it’s final service this weekend. But there will be no church planter starting a new church meeting in the local school that week. The church will simply be gone.
This brings us to the topic of church ‘survival’. As promised last time, I want to talk about that word in the context of a church. I have been using it with the basic meaning ‘to continue to operate’. Even this, though, can be viewed in more than one way. A church may ‘survive’ by cancelling all but the most basic of functions (say, a Sunday morning service), bringing in someone from outside the community to preach, possibly sharing clergy with a nearby church or town. Not much is going on, but the doors to the building are still open. I’ve seen this more than once. (For another article on the topic, describing some of these things, see the Sept 2013 Christianity Today, or read the article here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/september/why-we-need-small-towns.html)
I have really very little interest in that kind of survival. But just because a church is small doesn’t mean it must be ineffective, inefficient, or anything like that. A small church can be very good at what it does, and be involved in the life of the community. It may never make the Outreach 100, but it also might not care. ‘Survival’ for any church should be more than just keeping the doors open (a phrase that I have truly come to hate). It is about faithfully carrying out our mission.
For at least on thought on purposefully small churches, try this: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/03/27/slow-church-movement-fights-mcdonaldization-church/