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The great ends of the (small) church  

Budgets and worship numbers matter — but they are not everything, Phil Blackburn believes.

Carved Wooden pews in church in sunshine

If you are reading this, perhaps your church is small, or you think you are small, or you even someday dream of becoming small. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “small” is as much a state of mind as a matter of raw numbers. Some congregations with an average worship attendance of 200 think they are small because, once, 400 attended their worship. Other congregations think they are small because they compare themselves to the largest nondenominational church in town. Still others think they are small because they really are, by any definition, a small group of people.

The goal of church membership is to reach a union with God, which is achieved through “communion with him in grace and glory.”

Regardless of where you land on this spectrum, the mere fact that you are Presbyterian means that, at some level, you have wrestled with the idea that you are now – or perhaps always have been – part of a small congregation.

Theoretically our size should not really matter. We believe Jesus when he says he can be found “where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20). Practically speaking, however, being small does matter, very much.

Why size matters

Being small matters because we used to be bigger and now are smaller. It matters because we are sad when we see fewer people in worship than there used to be, and we miss those who are gone. It matters because our buildings need maintenance, and we cannot afford to repair them. It matters because we want to call a pastor, and none is available. It matters because success, in 21st-century America, correlates to size — and small correspondingly correlates to failure.

We can all agree, then, that size does matter, even if it should not. And because it does, and because “small” is a big part of our faith lives, we have developed some troubling emotional states.

First, smallness leads to fear. When you think of your church, are you afraid? If so, of what? Perhaps you are afraid that your congregation will not last. Maybe you are afraid that the glory days of your church are behind it. Maybe you fear something else entirely, but I suspect some fear lurks in there somewhere.

This fear leads to a second emotion: anxiety. This anxiety means you are counting, constantly counting. How many are in worship? How much is in the offering? What’s left in the endowment? How much longer can we operate with this deficit? Counting and counting and counting. That’s anxiety.

Perhaps the above describes your experience, and perhaps it doesn’t, I don’t know. But from my perch on the edge of the Ozark highlands at the University of the Ozarks – where I work with rural pastors and congregations in the Presbytery of Arkansas – this is what I see: fear and anxiety.

I am not here to tell you that budgets and buildings and worship numbers do not matter. They do matter. What I do want to say, however, is that they are not everything. Far from it.

Where Jesus is

Go back to the quote from Matthew. Jesus says to his followers, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Two or three, now that is small. But it’s enough.

It’s enough to remind us of a couple of things. First, this passage reminds us that our vocation as disciples of Jesus is not contingent on numbers. We don’t need 20 or 200. We need just two, and we are in business. I think all our congregations can tick that box.

Second, and perhaps most important, the passage reminds us that Jesus is in our midst. Jesus is amid your congregation, just as he has always been. While you might be scared or anxious about the future of your church, Jesus probably is not. That means a lot.

I am not here to tell you that budgets and buildings and worship numbers do not matter. They do matter. What I do want to say, however, is that they are not everything. Far from it.

What do we do, if we are diminished?

Reminding ourselves of Jesus’ words, then, let’s return to our congregations. What do we do in this moment? How do we move forward if we are not who we used to be, if we are diminished?

You and I are Presbyterians, and that means we think things. We have one of the richest theological heritages in Christianity, a heritage that has held us in good stead for 500 years.

When I began my work as director of the Thriving in Rural Ministry program of the University of the Ozarks,
I did not know exactly what I would do. But I knew where I wanted to start: the great ends of the church.

Nestled inside the “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section of the Book of Order, the great ends were composed way back in 1910. In six simple statements they outline the church’s job description. Is their language a bit anachronistic? Yes. Do those short sentences lack necessary exposition? Of course. But those six sentences also remind us of who we are, who we are called to be and what we are supposed to be doing in this world. If you do not know them or have forgotten them, allow me to refresh you.

The six great ends of the church are as follows:

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
  • The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
  • The maintenance of divine worship.
  • The preservation of the truth.
  • The promotion of social righteousness.
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

One could write a whole book on each of these, and indeed people have. The denomination produced a series of books on the great ends between 2005 and 2010;  sadly, they are now out of print. Regardless, take a minute and reread the great ends carefully. Ponder them for a moment.

Embodiment

I want to talk about something else for a moment. I want to talk about “embodying” our faith. This idea is not new — but it is, I believe, of vital consequence for us as a denomination. If we Presbyterians excel at thinking stuff up, we have really fallen off at the embodiment part of faith.

Embodiment simply means bringing our beliefs into alignment with our actions. We used to be better at this. I work at a university which was planted, nurtured and sustained by the Presbyterian Church. Starting a university in rural Arkansas in the 19th century was an embodied act of faith if I have ever seen one. When the great ends were written down, the Presbyterian Church at that time was concerned about a whole raft of social issues, among them fair wages for workers and child labor. (Cynthia L. Rigby wonderfully details the context of the great ends in her 2010 book titled Promotion of Social Righteousness.)

Somewhere along the way, however, our ability to embody what we believe waned. I don’t know where it happened, but clearly it has fallen off. And I believe fear and anxiety are the culprits.

So I believe it is time to reconnect with who we are and what we believe. It is time for us to take those six sentences, the great ends, and really embody them, all of them.

Asking questions within our congregations

It’s not as if we, as congregations, are doing nothing. Most of us have regular worship, mission programs and Bible studies, among other things. My suggestion is that we lean into those things. My thought is that we sit down as congregations, all across the denomination, and think about how we might live into the description of the job our churches have held for almost 115 years.

My thought is that we sit down as congregations, all across the denomination, and think about how we might live into the description of the job our churches have held for almost 115 years.

How would the great ends sound if you put them into the vernacular of your community? If you are already carrying out some of them, how are you doing them? If you aren’t, why not?

I encourage all of us to spend time letting the great ends ask questions of us. How are we proclaiming the gospel — and if we are proclaiming it, what does it sound like? In what specific ways are we nurturing one another? We are maintaining worship, but is it divine? How do we define “truth” in our congregation? What is the most profound social issue in our community? If the Kingdom of Heaven were defined by our life together as a congregation, what would it look like?

I hope these questions begin to show you the potential of the great ends in your church and help you start a conversation.

And here is the key: do not ask these questions in the hope that your answers might attract new people. Ask these questions, and others like them, because we are followers of Jesus. Ask them because we are the church. Ask them because the Holy Spirit called us in this time and in this place to be disciples. Ask them because you were baptized. Ask them because right now, you and your congregation are alive.

You have already crossed the size threshold established by Jesus.

If we consider ourselves in this way, is it not exciting? Do you not feel inspired and convicted? Every time I read that list of great ends, I feel compelled to act, reminded of who I am as a follower of Jesus. The church has been a great gift in my life, and I assume it has been to you.

The congregation of which you are part is also a great gift. It is a gift to you and your community and the PC(USA). So go ahead, count your worship attendance and your dollars if it makes you feel better. But don’t for a second confuse those numbers with your purpose. And don’t let them be the reason you do or do not do something.

We worship Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. That is truly something. Wherever two or more of us gather, impressive things can happen: things that change hearts, change communities and have historically changed the world.

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