How Small Is Too Small?

The United Methodist Church has a lot of small churches. For all the large churches, like Church of the Resurrection, that we make reference to, there are so many more that are small. In fact, some are just plain tiny.

As John Meunier pointed out in a recent post, over half (59%) of all US churches average less than 100 people in worship each Sunday. Of course, the other side of that is, half of all the people who go to church in a given week attend one of the top ten percent (10%) of all churches.

Typically, the United Methodist Church tends to track smaller than the national average. And here in Mississippi, where I serve, the numbers are smaller still.

In the MS Annual Conference, there were 1,153 churches that reported worship attendance and other stats in 2008. Of those churches, 992 reported 100 or less in worship. That’s 86% of the Annual Conference.

That same year, 65% reported 50 or less in worship. 55% reported between 50 and 10 in worship. And 36% averaged 25 or fewer in worship each week.

As we have long known in Mississippi, we are a conference of small churches. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Small churches can be strong, vibrant, and thriving, just as much as any large church. The close community and depth of relationship in a healthy small church is hard to beat. No amount of small groups in a large church can make up for it.

However, more often than not these small churches are less than healthy and slowly declining. Year after year, they get smaller and smaller.

All of which raises a difficult question: How small is too small? That is to say, how small do you let a church get before you stop treating it like a “traditional” church?

By traditional, I simply mean this: They have a separate building just for church. A traditional church building with a sanctuary and classrooms. And, second, they have a paid pastor who is responsible for organizing the life of the church.

Now, in the vast majority of larger small churches, these two things are not a problem. Clearly, a church averaging 100 in worship can easily handle a church building and a paid pastor. Likewise, even a church averaging 40 or 50 in worship can manage these two things. They may have to join up with a 2 or 3 point charge, but it can be done.

However, there is some point at which for the smallest of churches these two things, a church building and a paid pastor, are no longer feasible. They are more a liability than a help.

After all, buildings eventually get old. And old building have problems. There is constantly something breaking down or falling apart. And, let’s face it, most small churches have older buildings. To repair and maintain a 100 year-old church is a costly matter. Half the budget often goes to this: repair & maintain.

The other half of the budget is typically the pastor. Between these two expenses the smallest of churches can hardly afford anything else. This is why so many churches are fighting for survival. They are so focused on funding the pastor and the church building that they can’t think of much else.

I know what you’re thinking: Well, they should be focused on outreach. You’re right. But they’re not. Why? Because they are financially tied down by the albatross of a building and a pastor. It’s like a millstone around the neck. They’re sinking, and they just can’t quite keep afloat.

So what do you do? My thought, as unsavory as it is, is this: Make them sell the building. And if they still get smaller, stop appointing a pastor.

Why? To make them nimble, independent, and outward focused. At a certain point, say 10 people, this church can meet in a living room like a small group, or a class meeting. They don’t need a whole separate paid building.

Freed of that financial burden, hopefully they will be nimble enough to put energy and resources into reaching people for Christ. However, if not, removing the pastor will force it, whether they like it or not.

Let’s face it, for many churches as long as there is a paid pastor, they will let him or her do it. After all, that’s what we pay them for. But, without a pastor, hopefully, they will take charge of things for themselves. (Again, if they were a healthy church, they’d have already done this.)

Over time, they might actually get to a point where they need a paid pastor again. Only, this time they will work with her or him rather than let the pastor do it all.

Mind you, this isn’t a prescription for most small churches, only the smallest. But it’s the sort of thing we as Methodists need to be thinking about. We have so many tiny churches, and there are more of them every day. So what do we do? How do we help them?

What do you think?

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