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Small churches are rich in assets money can’t buy

Vitality begins with redefining wealth

By Olanda Carr Jr. | Presbyterians Today

neon sign that reads Do Something Great

Clark Tibbs/Unsplash

It seems that in today’s culture, the “bigger is better” philosophy is all around us. Supercenters, 75-inch flat-screen televisions and mega-sized smartphones have become the norm. The church is not immune to this growing trend (pun intended), as many communities are seeing the growth of the megachurch — churches with hundreds in worship, often across multiple campuses and varying service times. It is as if the larger the church membership becomes, the healthier the church is perceived to be, leaving smaller congregations often feeling inadequate. While megachurches may appear to be the new norm, statistics paint a different picture.

Recent trends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remind us that we are a denomination with a large contingent of smaller congregations. Our average congregation size is 163 members, with 30% of our congregations having a membership of 50 or fewer. While these numbers may provide some comfort to those in this group, it does not eliminate the challenges of small church ministry. Nostalgia for yesterday, dwindling resources and shrinking budgets can create liabilities to ministry, but we can learn to view these liabilities in a different light and, by doing so, transform them into exciting ministries.

For example, one of the most frequent comments I hear is, “We just aren’t the church we used to be.” That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Yet many of the congregations I work with seem to live in this nostalgic place when the church was bursting at the seams with new members and they dined on nectar, milk and honey.

However, living in the past and always reflecting on the good old days are just not helpful in ministry. We must focus on where we are going, not on where we’ve been. Remembering the past isn’t a bad thing. We just can’t live there.

What we must do is learn to accurately study and assess the ministries of the past, removing the rose-colored glasses to carefully note the components of what made previous events, programs and missions successful.

Another popular liability in small churches is the age-old ministry killer, “We just can’t afford that.” So many ideas and programs have been defeated before they even get off the ground due to the belief that there just isn’t enough money in the budget. I seldom hear, however, brainstorming on what things could be done in order to make a ministry successful. In many congregations, the budget has become this scary monster that no one wants to look at in the eyes. It controls, restricts, defeats, discourages and devours anything and everything that comes in its path. Small churches must be courageous, channeling their inner David and facing the Goliath budget monster.

Part of that battle means not keeping the budget and financial health of the church behind lock and key. That seldom works in moving a church to vitality — no matter what the size of a congregation. Transparency in communicating finances should be practiced by all churches. In small congregations, especially, such a practice will often reap rewards as members tend to possess the oft-overlooked assets of ownership and pride. Thus, keeping members informed of the financial situation will likely lead to a response in giving.

And remember, while small churches might not have a lot of money to do the ministries they want, they generally have a family atmosphere that cannot be overlooked as an asset for building toward the future. Someone might be looking for a more intimate congregational setting.

Most small churches are rich in the way of being blessed with a supportive family community that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact, Sunday worship in small churches often resembles a family reunion — complete with hugs, smiles and stories. The challenge is to use that energy to create a “buzz” of possibilities, drawing upon the strength of the family and reminding all of their commitment, hope and confidence.

After all, it is written that whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus Christ is always in the midst — anything more than that is just gravy for the potluck supper.

Olanda Carr Jr. is a ministry relations officer at the Presbyterian Foundation. Serving the eastern region of the country, Carr works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries, and provides coaching to finance, stewardship and endowment committees.

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