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Small churches offer intimacy, ownership and involvement

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Small churches offer church members intimacy, ownership and involvement in ministry, and are crucial to the growth of megachurches, according to speakers at the “Hope for the Small Church Leader” conference held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in October.
“Smaller churches provide intimacy where people know each other, find a home and train for other places of service,” said Charles Chaney, research professor at Southwestern and former vice president of the Home Mission Board.
“Small churches do have high impact. They provide koinonia fellowship, effective discipleship, closer accountability, strong mission support and participatory governments,” agreed David Sanchez, director of Southwestern’s Scarborough Institute for Church Growth and current pastor of First Hispanic Baptist, a small church in Fort Worth. He spoke of his appreciation for the smaller churches he pastored in Panama and Atlanta for ministering to his family when they lost a daughter to leukemia.
“They are people who truly know one another and share their victories and sorrows,” he said.
“Ownership, ownership, ownership is key in any organization, large or small,” said Bob Ray, bivocational pastor of Fairy Baptist in Hamilton County, Texas. “Don’t assume that church members don’t have vision — they’re God’s. If we believe in the priesthood of believers we’ll listen to them. It’s a challenge for leaders to be quiet, but allow brainstorming and listen to the great ideas that generate from your people.”
At the members’ suggestions, Fairy Baptist adopted the Texas 2000 evangelistic campaign for their community. They organized a daily prayer calendar and visited everybody in Fairy. “They did it,” said Ray. “It’s not how it gets done, but that it does.”
“It’s a crime for someone to fully fund a staff and take away church members’ ministry,” agreed Leon Wilson, bivocational pastor of South Park Baptist in Oklahoma City. While he does have paid ministers of music, youth, finances, missions, outreach, family and education, they, like him, are bivocational, which allows church members to do ministry too. “Use the skills of your people to specialize. I was once asked by a neat Christian guy into car racing, `Why doesn’t our pastor let us do what we know how to do?’ People need and want to be involved. Let them loose.”
Carl Barrington, NAMB consultant in adult volunteer mobilization, listed positive aspects of smaller churches:
— When a church realizes a problem exists, it is easy to communicate and mobilize solutions quickly.
— Participation and involvement are at high levels.
— Fellowship can be sweet as people’s lives are closely intertwined.
— Warmth and intimacy come naturally to a healthy small church. Such intimacy can be used in positive evangelism to those whose nuclear families are not nearby.
— A smaller internal bureaucracy allows a smaller church to discover needs of its own members and community that are not being met elsewhere.
— Financial contributions are higher according to NAMB statistics showing that smaller churches give a larger percentage of undesignated gifts to the Cooperative Program.
According to Barrington and Sanchez, smaller churches also face inherent challenges such as:
— poor self image. Sometimes they are overlooked by the denomination and seldom asked to participate fully.
— lack of a sense of destiny. They may become satisfied with their status and size and not become more than what they currently are.
— false belief about the community and its people. Real evangelism and outreach are not always supported when they forget that lost people live nearby.
— inadequate ministry program. A pastor may be tempted to do everything and not let go of responsibilities that should be entrusted to others.
— inadequate personality. Sometimes blood ties are thicker than baptismal waters.
— exclusive family structures. These can cause people to feel unwelcome.
— an entrenched leadership pattern of small group control
— inadequate structure. The result is few points of entry.
— unrealistic congregation expectations of pastoral care. Too much is expected of the pastor.
— a remnant mentality. This is the feeling of satisfaction with the faithful few neglecting God’s original purpose for Abraham’s descendants to multiply and be a blessing to the entire world.
— a limited vision. This ultimately leads to plateau and then decline.
Whether counting their benefits or challenges, smaller churches are here to stay according to Chaney. “We’re at the dawning of the megachurch. With more megacities will come megachurches,” he said, adding the Southern Baptist Convention currently has at least three churches where more than 20,000 people attend each weekend. “Yet this is having no impact on the development or proliferation of small churches. Small churches are normative worldwide. In the SBC alone there are 26,500 small churches with 5 million members.
“Most new churches are small. As Lyle Schaller, a church growth specialist, said, `Denominations that grow start new churches; declining ones don’t.’ In fact, new churches feed the growth of megachurches.”
Sanchez noted many seminary graduates will go into the NAMB and International Mission Board’s church planting programs rather than into larger, established churches. “We are already having many students come to Southwestern because of Scarborough Institute’s mentorship program and the master of divinity in church planting,” Sanchez said.
The Nehemiah Project, a strategic partnership between NAMB and the six SBC seminaries, was discussed at the conference. The project calls for NAMB to establish church planting centers on each SBC seminary’s campus to mentor students with church planting interests and to provide resources for each seminary to hire a professor of church planting appointed as a NAMB missionary to teach and direct the church planting center.
The conference, sponsored by Southwestern’s Scarborough Institute and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, not only targeted ministers working in smaller churches but also featured speakers who themselves are pastors of small churches. It addressed topics such as spiritual vitality, family needs, growth principles, pastoral care and church staff.
“I left the conference very encouraged,” said Allen Coffey, pastor of Crescent Valley Baptist in Victoria, Texas. “I have left so many conferences in the past with speakers from very large churches feeling that something was wrong if my church was not running 2,000 in Sunday school. These speakers have been pastors for a number of years and have experienced both the upside and downside of leading smaller churches.”
Coffey also mentioned the confirmation he received in his present ministry methods and the fellowship he enjoyed. “Smaller churches in the SBC are often neglected. People don’t show up at our doors and ask, ‘So Brother Coffey, how did your church get this way?’ Smaller churches are not stepping stones to ‘real’ ones. We have something to offer too.”
“Small church leaders need to be addressed by someone reading from the exact same page, and that happened at this conference,” said Julia Petter, Southwestern student at the San Antonio campus. A member of the 5,000-member Hyde Park Baptist in Austin, Texas, Petter discovered the small church structure is very similar to that of a department of a larger church.
“Conferences like this one must continue so that smaller churches will not feel they’ve fallen through the cracks. The cross section of pastors was very good. They touched on every area of small church leadership,” Petter added.
“I met some real warriors for Christ,” said Alan Littlejohn, a Southwestern student on the Fort Worth campus who is considering pastoring a smaller church.
Statistics support the need for efforts to better prepare smaller church leaders. In Texas, 71 percent of all churches have fewer than 100 members, and 28 percent are led by bivocational pastors. Convention-wide, 86 percent of SBC churches are single-staff small churches.
The Scarborough Institute plans to form a council of small church leaders to address future needs. It will also offer similar conferences annually or bi-annually. Literature on smaller church ministry is expected to be produced from the results of this year’s meeting, Sanchez said.
“Small church leaders need encouragement, help with broadening vision and the chance to hear from others doing an effective job in smaller churches,” Sanchez said.
“Other denominations are abandoning their small churches, especially those in rural areas,” he continued. “Yet a big percentage of our Southern Baptist churches are smaller churches. We have a commitment to reach people wherever they are.”

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  • Cindy Kerr