Saturday, August 15, 2009

Smaller Churches (such as most Episcopal and many on the Plains) tend to devalue Bible and evangelism

Robin G. Jordan at Anglicans Ablaze posted research showing that people in churches of under 100 attenders
  • - are much less likely than members of larger congregations to believe that the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches,
  • - are much less likely to believe that sharing their faith with others is important and
  • - are much less likely to attend worship and engage in Bible study or other church activities on a regular basis.

One of the first veteran Episcopal priests with whom I served was emphatic that people come to church for "fellowship," and could really care less about spirituality, theology or much of anything else beyond enjoying the company of their friends.

The recent Episcopal "State of the Church" report, largely ignored by the denomination, flagged "lack of evangelism" as a glaring denominational problem.

Nevertheless, my anecdotal experience is that small churches perceive themselves as warmer and more sincere than larger churches. Often, members of these smaller churches do not take into account the "cells" within larger churches, where members find intimacy and spiritual growth apart from the large Sunday worship gathering. Members of smaller churches tend to emphasize "knowing everybody at the service" when they choose to attend and form their perception accordingly.

The small congregation is a staple here on the Plains, where many communities are very small. There are certainly lively, sincere churches that are "small" only as a reflection of the limited or spread out population base from which they can draw members.

But for denominations like the Episcopal Church, where average Sunday attendance in all settings is 80 or less, the research might suggest that congregations are satisfied to meet the social needs of current members, and have no perceived need to find a compelling spiritual message. This is consistent with the findings of the denomination's "State of the Church" data.

In the mid-90s, I heard a church development speaker apply Jesus' words in Luke 19:26 - "I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away" - to the trend of larger churches claiming a growing percentage of America's active Christians, while smaller churches decline. The recent research might suggest that what the growing churches "have" is more than material resources - they have confidence in their Scriptures, urgency about sharing their message and commitment to spiritual growth and practice beyond Sunday mornings.


caheidelberger said...

Fellowship is important, but church needs to be more than a social club. I wonder: do small congregations have the resources to do more than use the church as community glue? Are the seminaries producing enough rigorous theologians to keep all church communities large and small properly grounded in Scripture and evangelism?

TLF+ said...

Cory - I think you are on target. Seminaries (at least the old line denominations) have been lax about theology and spirituality of any transformative depth. The denominational churches spent so long as a "chaplaincy" to the broad American social consensus that they find themselves standing on sand as that consensus disappears. Scroll down and find that link to a Lutheran theologian's scathing letter about how "reason and experience" (code for individual feelings) have trumped Scripture and tradition in that denomination.

On a practical level, there is very little mentoring by folks who've actually led congregations - many if not most profs went directly from seminary to grad work to teaching. As the denominations shrink, the problem is exacerbated because fewer and fewer congregations can afford assistant clergy - so the newly ordained don't get to serve under a seasoned mentor.

I think that small churches can make a difference, because their primary resource is people guided by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus sent out his first apostles, he instructed them to go with limited material resources (boy, is that a kick in the head to most of us in ministry today). What's interesting (and not shown in the research at the link) is that small Christian cell groups are proliferating - it is the small traditional model (budget, building, pastor) that is fading away. Only larger churches can sustain that... but there are all kinds of small groups that are not encumbered with such "survival" issues and able to explore and practice the faith in fresh ways. In many cases, they are in the orbit of a larger church, in many cases they are more independent.

I have complete faith that something new will emerge. Christianity has been remarkably able to outlast its entanglements with various social arrangements and it exist around every form of government and culture.

But that means tough questions for those in small, traditional church models. Same old same old = a death watch. Maybe that is what God wants in some cases - tender care for those who are in their last days. But we have to hope that in other cases there are folks on the watch for resurrection - a new, different and unexpected life in the church.