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Where Few Are Gathered

For the past 12 years I’ve been pastor of a vibrant church in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. During my time there we doubled our attendance, spawned a new 200-soul congregation, built a new church and school, and doubled our tithe and offerings [1].

Recently I shifted into a job with the conference office, and like others there I began preaching each weekend in churches around the conference. Here in Ohio about 85% of our churches are below 100 in attendance on an average Sabbath, and half of those 30 or below.

I grew up in a small church, but in the baby-boom era, when churches like ours in rural North Dakota could be surprisingly strong. Later, like nearly all intern pastors, I put in my time leading a district of small churches. But for the past 25 years I’ve been in congregations with enough people and money to do interesting ministry.

Picture NAD churches in three tiers. At the top are those few “corporate” churches, almost always near an institution, with abundant staff, money and talent. Below them are those churches (generally suburban) with one or two pastors and varying levels of resources. At the bottom are the majority of Seventh-day Adventist churches in the NAD: under 100 in membership (which means 50 or less in attendance), usually in a district with one or more other churches. This 52% of the congregations account for about 20% of the total membership.

On the positive side, I’ve found in each of the small churches I’ve visited a few precious lay people who give their lives to keep the congregation alive. It never takes long to spot these dear saints. I’ve been in churches where one or two couples make the announcements, lead the music and prayers, run the church board, give most of the budget, and bring most of the food for the fellowship meal. They pour out their spiritual lifeblood for the congregation, the best of them with a kind and gentle grace.

Occasionally church leaders are driven by a need, not always healthy, to be in charge, and the same thing happens in small churches. Yet I find it it somewhat more forgivable there, for if not them, then who? If there’s going to be a church at all you’ll have to overlook imperfect motives, for without someone stepping up the church would probably be shuttered. They will receive a reward for giving their best.

I also see there an enthusiasm for Seventh-day Adventism that isn’t as apparent elsewhere. The rethinking of Adventism that we Spectrum readers are so often about doesn’t happen in the same way here. Small churches keep alive the conviction, if not the joy or energy, of the Millerite gatherings. If you wonder where Dr. Ted Wilson’s General Conference inauguration speech is resonating, it’s in these little churches. If you want to know who reads our official magazines cover to cover, they’re here, too. These are the people watching the evening news not just to find out what’s happening in the world, but to note the signs of the times. Some of the most faithful tithe payers are here, exceeding in terms of sacrifice the wealthy donors who give the church far greater sums. Lacking anything much to be very proud of locally, they live through the denomination. “Yes, it’s true that we have a church building in need of paint, and there are only 20 of us gathered to worship,” you can almost hear them think. “But you ought to see our colleges, our hospitals, our headquarters in Silver Spring, our missions, our vast gatherings at General Conference time.”

Perhaps this sense of being a vassal of a larger, more successful church is why they insist on maintaining, against common sense, all the customs and practices they see as the essence of “churchness”. I have seen bulletins printed for a congregation of 10, with not a shred of information that everyone doesn’t already know; singing to one-finger piano playing; board meetings called with nothing to decide; and children’s stories without any children. All the elements of church life that have accumulated through decades are continued here, giving the feeling of children playing church, though it is wholly serious.

I love them, and applaud them for carrying on. I have had some beautiful and precious moments with them.

Yet for all the good in these little congregations, theirs is an unpropitious future.

For one thing, they are ill-equipped to receive new people into the church family. So long have they felt in decline, so long have they spent all their energy only to survive, that they have lost a connection to the world outside their doors. That the entire world is ignoring them makes them feel isolated, almost persecuted. The building is too threadbare, the remaining believers too set in their ways, the leadership too inbred, the worship too homely, the doctrinal expressions too rigid, for strangers to feel welcome.

They still throw out the occasional evangelistic line, as they’ve done for decades, but anymore they really don’t expect a fish on the end of it. When by some miracle someone new does get baptized, it usually doesn’t help them turn things around, for it is likely to be someone needier than they themselves. The greatest tragedy is that they have rarely kept their own: I see few in these churches under age 40, and many of the Sabbath morning prayer requests are for lost children.

I always try to find a few moments to talk to the church leaders. I have yet to have a conversation in which I don’t hear stories of hurt feelings, lost friends, and congregational divisions. One of the effects of being in continual decline is a sense of crisis and loss that leads to disagreements and schisms. Every little church I’ve visited has a story about the families that left and didn’t come back. Usually it’s a pastor they blame; rarely themselves.

Yes, God is still among them — that, at least is a Bible promise (Matthew 18:20), though what He is doing, or waiting to do, isn’t always apparent. At times one senses the Holy Spirit there — if lopsidedly expressed, the congregation’s attention having been so long turned inward.

One of the things that small church experts have always said is that small churches aren’t just big churches with fewer people. Small churches have a distinct small church personality. The best small churches I’ve known (like the one in which I grew up) had at least one quite admirable feature: everyone knew everyone else, and cared for them. They were able to absorb even some rather eccentric characters. It was a family, with all the good features (and annoyances) that come with family intimacy. I always look for that quality in the small churches I visit. Some still have it. Others have declined into a dysfunctionalism that I doubt can be eliminated short of turning out the congregation and locking the doors.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in many of these congregations is the ability to hold on and care for one another, even when they don’t know what, besides fear it, to do with the world beyond the church doors.

  1. I’m always a little annoyed when a pastor lets you assume that a congregation’s success is all due to him, so I want to make it clear that I give the credit to a city economy that was growing and bringing people into town (in contrast to Ohio’s many declining industrial cities) and a congregation with enough money, talent and leadership skill to make interesting things happen.

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