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Commentary: Who is visiting small churches today?

The Rev. Lewis A. Parks

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Lewis A. Parks*
Sept. 24, 2008

When small church lay and clergy leaders gather, their first comments often reflect an understandable anger, defensiveness and dread of the imminent future.

This is understandable given the challenges they face. But if you listen long enough, as I have done regularly for the last several years, you begin to pick up signs of hope. There's hope consistent with empirical data showing that approximately 35 percent of small membership churches are indeed growing each year—and hope consistent with the church’s own theological metrics for measuring the viability and vitality of a congregation.

So who needs a small church these days? What I hear paints a hopeful picture. Call it a work of prevenient grace. Call it a wooing by the Spirit. Call it a happy confluence of the new seekers and the congregations they seek. Whatever you call it, five types of persons keep showing up as visitors to small churches, whether those churches are located in cities, towns or rural settings:

1. Persons seeking surrogate family. They are separated from their families of origin by work, school or military obligations. They are estranged or divorced from those once dear. They are looking for brothers and sisters with whom they can relate in reciprocity. They are looking for aunts and grandfathers who can share wisdom for the journey of life. They hunger for family-like gatherings brimming with assorted characters and stories. The surrogate family language that dominates Paul’s letters written to congregations of 35 to 50 people resonates with these persons.

2. Persons seeking an alternative to the anonymity of the workplace and public square. They have learned to be compliant minds and bodies so they can navigate the interstate highways to get to work or to get through airport security without setting off alarms. They shop in big-box stores like Home Depot, Target and Ikea, where consumers seek products without regard for etiquette. They bank and take courses online. But when it comes to worship and spiritual growth, they want a setting where they know and are known by name. They want to be more like performers in worship and less like audience.

3. Persons weary of self-absorption and in search of a corporate story into which they can jump. Author and theologian C.S. Lewis once observed that there comes the day when one realizes one isn’t going to be a Great Person after all! So where does one go from there? One of the healthiest answers is to find a community or institution that is more than the sum of its individual members, and give oneself over to it. One reason small churches need to have their story ready to tell is that there are people looking for such stories. Many of the seekers are looking for a story bigger than themselves but still small enough that they might contribute to the advancement of the plot.

4. Persons who have a score to settle with God but want to settle it in a safe environment. They have outgrown the eclectic and nebulous spirituality of their New Age phase. They demand that God make sense of the sudden death of a child, spouse or best friend. They regret the setbacks of their lives and would like to find an overriding providence. As they have it out with God, they have a strong preference for an intimate setting. They want to be able to ask the preacher face to face their hardest questions after the sermon. They want to tell their stories in Bible study with persons whose ongoing stories they are following. They want to be able to feel their way into new vistas of faith and know that those who see the collateral tears read them sympathetically.

5. Persons who are looking for a place to give back for the blessings they have received. Life has been good to them and they have reached a fork in the road. Will they be anxious and grasping like the farmer in Jesus' parable whose logic is "more, more; there’s never enough!"? Or will they deem themselves blessed to be a blessing? If the latter, chances are they will look for a place where their gifts make a visible difference. Behold the small church where the budget is nearly always barebones and where "extras" like sending a teenager on a mission trip to Bolivia, having a 2600 lumens projector for the worship service, or making the bathrooms handicap accessible usually depend on the presence of patrons and the energy of volunteer labor.

Whether these five types of persons will come back to the small churches they visit is another story. There are issues of hospitality and excellence of execution that must be faced. But courage for facing them surely starts with a belief that someone is likely to show up and notice. The signs are strong that someone will.

*Parks is professor of theology, ministry and congregational development at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C., and has done extensive work with small membership churches and their leaders. This commentary first appeared in Leading Ideas, the online newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newdesk@umcom.org.

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