For 20 years, beginning in 1981, I served a small, rural church as a bivocational pastor. I left that ministry to accept a judicatory role that works with dozens of smaller churches as well as larger ones. I've written eight books on bivocational ministry and issues affecting smaller churches. I love small churches and have seen first-hand the tremendous ministry they can offer. But, I am also worried about the future of many of these churches.
We are told that approximately 100 churches close their doors in the US each week. Most of these are smaller churches that no longer had the ability to continue to do ministry. In reality, many of them had not done ministry in years and perhaps decades. For all practical purposes, many of these churches died years before they closed their doors. Because their decline happened so slowly, many within the churches did not even realize they were in trouble until it was too late.
Thom Rainer has written an excellent little book called Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. I bought the book yesterday and read it before going to bed. It is a small book packed with vital information that anyone involved in smaller churches needs to read. Rainer estimates that approximately 300,000 churches in the US are not healthy with half that number falling into the very sick category. The prognosis for these churches is not good, and their death is almost inevitable unless the congregations are willing to make significant changes. Rainer does not spend a lot of time addressing what churches can do to return to health, but that was not the intent of this small book. He has written elsewhere about that as I have in my book The Healthy Small Church: Diagnosis and Treatment for the Big Issues.
Rainer identifies one problem some of these churches face that, although I have seen it, I never really understood what was happening. The problem occurs when a community changes and the church doesn't. Perhaps the community changes racially, or economically, or in some other way. Rather than welcome those changes, some in the community move away. Because this is "their" church they are willing to drive in each Sunday for worship before rushing back to their new community. The church never makes any attempt to reach out to the new people coming in to the neighborhood, but this doesn't affect the church too much as long as the members are willing to drive back each week. However, the second and third generations of these families do not have the same connection to this church. As they grow up they see their parent's church declining and having little appeal to them. They begin looking elsewhere, closer to their homes, for a place to worship and serve. Fewer and fewer people are able or willing to make the drive, and the church has already told those in the community that they are not welcome. Eventual death is inevitable.
Another serious problem facing these churches is the growing difficulty they have in finding quality pastoral leadership. Studies repeatedly find that many pastors are unwilling to serve in smaller churches. Too often, these churches end up calling someone who has no ministerial training and no real leadership ability. (I should add here that this described me when I went to my church. I had no education beyond high school and no experience leading a church. However, I recognized my need for education and within a few months after beginning as pastor I enrolled in a Bible school and continued my education beyond that.) This can work out, and I have seen some of these pastors provide excellent ministry to their churches, but I've also seen many examples where things just kept getting worse for the churches because of the people they called to be their pastor. It will take a quality leader to turn around a sick church, and without such a leader that turnaround will not happen.
While there is much more than could be said, I will make only one more comment in this post about the difficulty smaller churches will face in the days to come. Many of them are living in the past when things were good. In many communities, the church was the center of activity. People automatically attended church services on Sundays and many returned on Wednesday night. If people moved to a new community they often sought out a church of the same denomination they had always attended. Most of the church's young people lived in two-parent homes and could be counted on to attend the youth gathering on Sunday evenings. None of these are true today, but many churches still want to pretend that they are. They continue to program and schedule like these things are all still true in the 21st century and then complain when people do not attend their functions. Unless these churches are willing to take a serious look at how they operate they will soon find themselves among those who lock their doors for the last time.
No church has to die. Even those close to closing their doors can catch a fresh vision from God and become a strong ministry presence in their communities. But, this will not happen without such a vision and a willingness to live into that vision regardless of the cost. For some churches, the cost will be too great. They will hold on to their dysfunctions until there is no one left to open the door. However, there are others who will find a renewed purpose and will accept the challenges that will be needed to live out that purpose.