Mom always stopped the car whenever she scouted an open parking space near Joe Gatta’s on Main Street. His little deli — the size of a one-car garage — provided the freshest fruit and vegetables, delivered there right from the farm.
Today Joe Gatta’s is no more. In a supermarket world, only a few delicatessens still survive. We Americans enjoy the wide array of choices and the wide range of prices — from store brand staples to exotic imports — now provided by the superstores that dot the landscape.
That culture change has depressed many a Main Street. It also has hurt many a Church Street. Many small and medium size churches have suffered through an era of diminishing returns, as supermarket churches have boomed.
Can such a trend be reversed? Can shrinking churches grow again? What’s it going to take to help our churches, regardless of their size, to become originators of missional innovation, agencies of world outreach, centers of devotion, hubs of community organization, and cradles of care?
One thing we can do is to turn our churches into universities of spiritual formation.
We Presbyterians are smart. We are avid readers. We equip our leaders with high quality educations to instruct us in the faith. Some of us are squandering that great asset. I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: “You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.”
What those churches are trying to avoid are too many programs, too many costs, and too many classes to attend. Sunday school? That’s for kids. We have no kids? Then we don’t need Sunday school. Ah, no teachers to recruit. No curriculum to buy. What a relief!
Churches that sleepy are few in number, but like Joe Gatta, many a church leader watches out the narthex window as the population drives by en route to one of those other service providers.
This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was the one who commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” and many in our nation are hungering to live into that commission.
Can that be done in smaller churches? Karen DeBoer, a developer of small church children’s curriculum, says it can be done (article link). I asked her, “How can small churches become magnetic?” She responded with force and enthusiasm, “The biggest thing is for leaders to treat that program big even though it’s little. Whether you have five kids or 50 or 250, you give it the same effort because God led that child through the doors for you to minister to.”
Her response reminded me of a ministry philosophy I adopted early in my tenure as pastor of a small-to-medium size church. “We need to act like we’re a supermarket, even if we’re not,” I pronounced boldly. At age 29 I could get away with that.
If only to humor my youthful enthusiasm, the elders on the Session and members in the congregation rose to the challenge. They developed more programs and recruited more classes — for all ages — than ever conceived before. Our weekly calendar soon filled like that of churches three to four times our size. We stretched our resources, financial and human, almost to the breaking point but, funny, they never did break. What we did do was to develop a reputation in the community for quality educational ministries for all ages. And we drew in new members at a rate that defied local population growth trends.
I’d like to say that such efforts will always bring similar numerical results. Too many other factors make each situation different. But every Presbyterian congregation, a repository for the gifts of knowledge and wisdom, can become a university for spiritual formation. At least, in that sense, even deli-sized churches can operate as supermarkets for God.