Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Blessings and Challenges of Ministering in the Small Church (Part 3).

Challenge: To Move from a “Survival” Mentality into a “Growth” or “Missional” Mentality.

We humans seem to have a built in desire to survive. Our bodies are even wired for survival. “Shock” is one of the body’s responses to trauma—it is designed to aid in our survival. Blood flow is restricted in the body’s extremities to keep all available blood at the vital organs. “Hypothermia” is another of the body’s self-protection mechanisms. The body begins to shiver as its temperature drops. The shivering is involuntary muscle movement designed to generate heat. Bodily functions slow as the body’s temperature continues to drop. These involuntary actions are designed to help the body survive.

Smaller churches tend to operate in survival mode. All but the most vital functions cease to happen. The focus turns inward—rather than focusing outward. Worship will continue to happen each week. “Committees” will still meet monthly. Morale will be low. Some churches may appear to be dead when there actually is a spark of life remaining.

Last television season I watched the last three episodes of the Discovery Channel’s Everest: Beyond the Limit. On the final push to the summit there are numerous bodies that the climbers must walk by. The problem was that one “body” was not dead! One group of climbers had left this person to die so that the rest of their group could live. Lack of oxygen, hypothermia and exhaustion had caused the person’s body to effectively shut down. Without oxygen the person had no chance of survival—even with oxygen the chances were almost nil. The television audience got to hear the turmoil in the voice of two persons of the climbing group being documented. One person was the leader of the group who was at the highest base camp. The other person was a climber coming down from summiting the mountain. The climber was almost out of oxygen. As he walked passed the climber who had been left behind he realized that the person was still alive. He wanted to help the traumatized climber. The problems were many:

  • He was on his last canister of oxygen.
  • He barely had enough oxygen left to get himself down (the ascent had taken WAY longer than planned.).
  • Even if he gave up his own oxygen the other person was too weak to even stand up. He would have had to carry the climber down the treacherous mountain.

The audience listened as the team leader pleaded with him to head down immediately or else he would die. The climber cried as he left the traumatized climber on the mountain to die.

Many of our smaller churches have a spark of life. The members of these churches are in survival/life-saving mode. They want their church to live. Yet, people drive by these smaller churches every weekend on their way to attend larger, vibrant churches.

Congregational redevelopment efforts by our Presbytery and “Home Headquarters” have been quite unsuccessful. The only chance that these churches have is to move from the survival mode to an outreach/missional mode. It may take all of the churches monetary reserves and strength for such an effort. Failure may mean closing the church doors. Yet, I believe that it is worth the risk! The vast majority of the church folks must be “on board” with the idea. They must know the risks. All or nothing. Sounds like the first century church, doesn’t it?!?

So what would it look like for a small church to begin to live out an outreach/missional existence? Good question! It will be different for every congregation.

There is a small Lutheran congregation on the other side of our county that is a good example of changing to become missional. The church is in a very rural area of the county. Every winter there are power outages—sometimes lasting 7 to 10 days. This church decided to become an emergency shelter during those times. They upgraded their facilities with a generator to be able to function during power outages. They keep enough food on hand to feed 150 people for 4 – 5 days. They were faced with two challenges—how to get the word out that they were an emergency shelter and how to keep the food fresh. The church decided to host a free community dinner every month. They use the dinner as a way to get rid of last month’s stored food and to advertise that they are a shelter. Just before the dinner they buy a new stock of food. The dinners started out small. Within a year there were over 100 community members regularly attending the dinners. During last winter’s major power outage they fed over 100 people every day. Since becoming an emergency shelter and hosting the free community dinner their congregation has doubled Sunday morning worship attendance! Church membership has also grown. That small church was revitalized through transforming into a missional/outreach-oriented church!

Smaller, dieing churches are faced with a choice—keep doing the same things and the church will eventually close. This type of transformation requires pastoral and congregational leadership with vision, strength and courage. It requires much prayer and discernment. The change will take time, energy, commitment and $$$.

The transformation will not be easy—but it is possible.


At 7:01 AM , Blogger Red_Cleric said...

I am reading this series of posts with interest. I have been a small church pastor in rural Nevada. And am a small urban church pastor.

We are trying to reinvent ourselves as a "missional church" (whatever that means). I have also experienced the money issues as well. Here, at Kenton, we've been blessed with people who are generous without demanding leadership. That wasn't my experience in Nevada.

At 9:51 AM , Blogger Pastor Lance said...

Thanks for the comments red cleric!

My current church is small and just outside of the Tacoma, Washington urban area. While we have had financial struggles in the past--it was not because of threats by donors. I can only remember one threat and he had no clue who gives the bulk of the $$$ to the church.

By the way, I don't know "who" gives "what." Our session in the past has been told how many giving units there are in various "ranges" of $$$. This information was helpful when disarming this one man.


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