CHICAGO (BP)–The typical Harmony Baptist Church in Anytown, USA, might one day find itself facing a remarkable transformation — no longer a congregation of 35-or-so members struggling for both relevancy and survival.
The revitalized congregation might still have a pastor gifted in shepherding the flock, and even an excellent live worship team. But when it comes time for the sermon all eyes would be directed to the projection screen overhead. Their video-based preacher — not to be confused with pastor, in this case — might just be the gifted pulpiteer from Metro Megachurch 50 miles down the road, or across the country.
It’s a concept that Lyle Schaller, one of the nation’s foremost experts on congregational health, sees as an increasingly attractive alternative — particularly in an era when a modern demand for highly specialized professionals is at odds with a scarcity of pastors universally gifted in all areas of pastoral ministry.
Churches that have embraced the concept, Schaller said, have gained the leadership and staff of a large church while maintaining their present facilities and people.
“This is how you can have your cake and eat it too,” he said.
Schaller, a consultant and author of 52 books, advised Southern Baptist associational directors of missions on “Models for Ministry in Small Churches” during Connection 2003, a North American Mission Board conference in suburban Chicago May 18-21. Other Connection events — designed for missionaries, directors of missions, pastors and other NAMB partners — will be held in Atlanta July 30-Aug. 2 and in Glorieta, N.M., Sept. 24-27.
Schaller’s focus was on helping directors of missions guide churches through a range of alternatives that would allow them to grow beyond the typical plateau of 75 people or fewer. That’s about the median attendance in Southern Baptist churches, which Schaller said is even higher than most mainline denominations. For many congregations that works fine, but for others the higher per-capita cost and other limitations have sent many smaller churches in search of solutions.
There actually are several variations on the videotaped sermon concept that have proven successful, Schaller said. In another example, churches become a branch campus of the main congregation. The satellite churches in these instances also benefit from the full range of specialized staff at the mother congregation.
The idea also has met surprisingly little resistance in churches where it has been tried, Schaller said — none of which, as far as he knows, have been Southern Baptist congregations.
“I’m intrigued that young people born after about 1960 have no problem with it at all,” he said. “Even among older members, the common reaction is, ‘I was opposed from day one, but now I see the tradeoff. I’ll take first-rate preaching on the screen rather than second-rate preaching live.'”
In still another variation, Schaller said some small churches might choose to use videotaped sermons of nationally known preachers. A bivocational or lay pastor might still lead in other areas of the church, but the responsibility for providing quality preaching every Sunday would be unnecessary.
Pastors would have to ask themselves, “Do I have enough ego strength where I can say, ‘I’m not the best preacher, therefore I’m going to use this series of sermons from this preacher?'” Schaller said.
One objection, he said, is the view that a preacher must know the congregation. But he noted many existing exceptions. Television preachers have no problems maintaining a national audience, and guest speakers and even new pastors are still expected to deliver effective sermons.
Also during the workshop, Schaller outlined some of the reasons churches tend to remain small. There are the obvious issues with maintaining community as the congregation increases in size, which many large churches address through multiple services and small groups meeting in homes.
But Schaller said one reason is the way pastors are trained. Unlike many professions that increasingly require internships and residency programs with large companies, pastors exiting seminary often begin their ministry as the pastor of a small church.
“If you do a really first-class job, then a church that runs 350 in worship asks you to be a pastor,” he said. The problem, he said, is that the pastoral skills involved in a small church — based largely on personalized pastoral care and close relationships with everyone in the congregation — are different from the strong leadership and administrative skills required for a larger congregation.
“You bring skills of how you do small church, and before long that church (of 350) is running 200,” he said. “It would have been better that you had never served that small church, because those things are no longer relevant.”
For similar reasons, Schaller also advocated starting churches with a ministry team rather than a single church planter — one of the models being used by the North American Mission Board in its Strategic Focus Cities church-planting efforts. The church then begins with an unlimited “big church” mindset making it easier to continue growth and spawn other new churches as well.
Schaller said much of his research on small churches will be included in an upcoming book — tentatively tiled “Choose Your Partner” — due for publication this summer.
Information on other Connection 2003 events can be found at www.namb.net/connection. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: OFFERING ADVICE.