Guest post from Eric Peltz
For last Thursday’s session meeting, we read a piece by Lyle Schaller on family-sized congregations.
Every month we discuss an idea and evaluate it, and rarely does the literature discussed lead to any substantial movement. But something happened last Thursday. Quickly, my ruling elders connected to the article, and they started asking questions like: What can we do about these unhealthy communication patterns brewing in our church family? How do we deal with matriarchs and patriarchs? How do we grow if we’re a family-sized church right now and we want to be a pastor-sized church?
They’re great questions, none of which has an easy answer. However, I suggested two paths:
- Reform the existing church. To move from an inward-facing, bulletin-battling-family to a missional, community-focused congregation would require significant self-reflection and confession on behalf of all involved in the system that has led us to this point. Particularly daunting is the task of confronting the most unhealthy communicators in the church, several of which are in their 70s, and asking them to behave in ways totally unlike what they’ve done for most of their lives.
- Create a new church. A missiologist once said to a group of young pastors, “Some of you will have to be OK with going to a small church, taking a pay check, fulfilling the needs of the institution, and spending the rest of your waking hours trying to build the movement.” Like the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative, we would sustain the institution feeding us but spend our energy on new endeavors: a worship service in a local sports bar, family-fun events, building an at-cost laundromat in our building for the community. Sunday morning worship would still happen as it always has, but the rest of the week would be up for grabs.
It was easy to suggest these two paths; it’s a lot harder to walk down them. Both require overcoming a significant amount of inertia. If we follow the first path, inevitably saints from this sixty-some-on-a-Sunday family will leave the church, and leaders will have to trust that what the young-buck pastor says is true about long-term health is worth risking the break-up of 30/40/50-year-long relationships. Homeostasis is a powerful force that often conquers even the most sensible ideas, and in a world that’s changing faster than I can learn how to Tumblr, it’s hard to blame folks for clinging to some form of stability.
On the other hand, creating something new requires meeting a minimum threshold of support from those who make decisions with the current resources. The office secretary will need to back up the pastor when early-morning-risers accuse the pastor of spending too much time at the bar; the finance committee will need to support expenditures on ministries that might have zero perceived bearing on the Sunday morning faithful; ruling elders will need to commit tremendous amounts of prayer to new people groups far beyond their typical demographic wanderings.
Reading articles like consultant Sarai Rice’s recent piece, “Can Small Congregations Change?” reminds me that I’m not alone in trying to figure out the $60,000 question. But it would be nice to have more stories, more proof that small-church resurrection can and does happen. And a reminder that I, in my ineptitude, could be used by God for a small piece of it.
In the meantime, help me out: In this resurrection season, where are you seeing hope spring up from the ground? Where have you seen congregations revitalize in missional ways, and how did it happen?
ERIC PELTZ is a husband, father of 2.5 under 4, lover of organizational behavior, curious about governance, branding, Frisbee and an intergenerational gospel. I write sporadically about the intersection of science and faith at 1presby.com and tweet @ericpeltz.