But We Used To Be A Big Church…

Dear Ones:

Small congregations come in lots of flavors. Yes, they share certain challenges and strengths. But there are also loads of differences among them. 

Like urban, suburban, rural differences. Or neighborhood demographics. Or shifts in local jobs and resources. There are differences in legacies of great leaders, surprise bequests, unexpected disasters, and hushed scandals. Transforming ministries. Painful misses. 

Yet with all these differences, small congregations often get lumped in together. Their primary identifier becomes just another small congregation. Usually followed by a long sigh. 

And the problem with this? When we overlook differences among small congregations, we also overlook their best, particular ministry strategies. 

The lumping together is dismissive. Not helpful. 

Need an example? Let’s starts with one distinctive flavor of small congregation: the but-we-used-to-be-big congregation. 

These congregations often have a shared memory of a golden age. A powerful, recognized community presence. With a packed sanctuary. Kids pouring out of Sunday-morning classrooms. Glorious, well-rehearsed choirs. A beautiful, big sanctuary. And an inspiring long-tenured pastor. Everybody just loved him.

And then, somehow, decline. Mostly slow. Sometimes sudden. But the result is a new set of small-setting realities. Fewer folks. Fewer dollars. A smaller staff. A part-time pastor?!  And a new identity that struggles to make sense out of these changes. But these things used to work . . .  If we could just get back to . . . If only there were another leader/program/spaceship full of young families . . . 

The challenge is often made worse by big architecture that reminds worshipers weekly that they are not measuring up to expectations anymore. 

This blog won’t try to riddle out all the causes. It also won’t adequately lay out a path through the grief. That, too, would be dismissive. Not helpful.

But there is this reminder. You’re not alone in the riddling and grieving. Scripture is clear. God doesn’t wait to show up only in golden ages. God is with you now, in even this. God shows up through times of tents, temples, and rubble. The story of God’s people doesn’t leap from easy victory to glorious success. Some of the holiest encounters take place in wilderness and under night skies. 

Oh, and God has never shied away from folks asking, “What just happened?” 

But while wrestling with this question, add two more essential questions to the list. They are two sets of practical questions that can transform your but-we-used-to-be-big congregation.

1. Have we updated our assignment (and tools)? Or are we still trying to fix an old assignment (with tools that don’t work)?

A formerly-big congregation has a very different set of hurdles from an always-small congregation. The settings aren’t the same. Even when the sizes are.

Why? The formerly-big place has been shaped by big-setting tools and expectations. Worshipers have likely come to expect a performance aesthetic, with expert staff-led programs. And even as numbers shrink, they are likely still chasing after this aesthetic with a lasso of golden-day memories.

But, by now, you know that chasing the wrong aesthetic doesn’t work. For small congregations it can mean ill-fitted, awkward worship. An endless series of bandaids. Burn out. Or the anti-gospel nonsense of we-must-not-be-enough. 

Formerly-big congregations are at a heightened risk of this kind of deficiency thinking. It becomes a trap. They focus on fixing what went wrong in an old assignment–being a successful, big church. And end up ignoring their new assignment–being a vital small congregation. They get stuck imitating an old reality with tools that no longer fit.

It’s a trap that most always-small congregations avoid. Many of them have an easier starting point. They may be used to making do. Adapting with whatever they have. And saying lovely ministry words like, “Sure, why not?”

So it may be easier for them to hear a new way. They don’t automatically imagine a series of one-size-fits-most programs.  Efficiency-driven models. They can be nimble instead. They can heighten hands-on, each-one-matters participation in ways that big congregations cannot. They can pick up new tools. New strengths. Local gifts. Lay leadership. They can treat worshipers as co-creators of worship, not just observers. 

So can your used-to-be-big congregation.

How can you recognize your new assignment? How can you start learning how to use a new set of small-setting tools?

2. Have we updated our measurement of vitality? Or are we still looking for outdated spreadsheets of success?

By now you know that numbers are not the hallmark of success. There are communities that cannot sustain rapid growth. There are vital congregations of all sizes. And there are also unhealthy congregations of all sizes. 

The problem is that it’s generally easier to count bodies, programs, and young people than measure vitality and health. 

Complicating this problem: many so-called vitality markers skew in favor of suburban and medium to large realities. We’re simply not as good at naming the myriad patterns of small-setting vitality. In part because we keep lumping all the flavors of small congregations together.

But this lumping poses a particular problem for formerly-big congregations. They’re often expert number-keepers from their golden days. They have records of worshipers, choirs, programs, dollars. And they believe these prove their effectiveness–and now ineffectiveness. 

The problem? Most of these numbers focus on their own proprietary stuff. The First Church numbers. Our attendance in our building. Our food pantry. Our summer program for kids. Our ministries. When these numbers decline, they often quit keeping records. Because it feels like they are documenting their own failure. 

And proprietary-stuff numbers may not capture the vitality of small congregations. They need different kinds of vitality measurements. 

Pastor Elaina noticed this in her formerly-big First Church congregation. The impressive building sat in the center of town. In the 1950s, the numbers were also impressive. The pews were packed with prosperous folks. The programs were numerous, well-coordinated, and expert-led. 

Then a big industry left. And another. So people left, too. The neighborhoods changed. The town got smaller. With fewer prosperous folks. And the congregation did, too. Year by year, there were fewer worshipers, fewer programs, less staff. A part-time pastor. What just happened?

But fortunately, Elaina, a part-time pastor, saw a new assignment. And new tools. She gently guided the formerly-big congregation in exploring a participation aesthetic. For worship and for serving their community. 

Maybe we can include more lay leadership in worship–even children.

Maybe the old bell choir room could be turned into a much-needed laundry mat.

Maybe the pastors of the three different denominations can work together to offer a broadcast sermon during Covid. For everyone.

Maybe we need to care for the two brothers who are trying to go to school without the support of sober parents and without shoes that fit. They don’t need a program. They need us.

Pastor Elaina knew that these “maybes” were signs of vitality. 

So she challenged the congregation to a new measurement. How can we join our community most fully? Even if we don’t start a list of our own programs, how can we collaborate and partner with other programs–even other congregations. 

The point isn’t building First Church. It’s building the kingdom of God. Right here.

The change was mostly slow. Sometimes sudden. But they did it.

And then something that felt golden-again happened. Several weeks before the community’s big fall festival–when thousands of visitors flooded the town. Their small congregation realized that no one was available to keep the building opened. Every last member was already leading and serving. They represented food pantries, children’s programs, mental health services, health screenings, employment and job training opportunities. The congregation had quit waiting for the community to join them. They had joined the community. 

It was a sure sign of vitality. Even though it didn’t fit any existing spreadsheets. In worship, they shared stories of where they had seen Jesus among the neighborhood. And how God was showing up in ways that could not be measured in choir members, but in clean laundry, new shoes, and relationships outside that impressive building. Sure, why not?

How does your congregation need to find new vitality numbers and categories?

God will show up.

Thanks for your willingness to take on new assignments, new tools, and a new recognition of the kingdom already among us.

And thanks for your not-all-one-flavor ministries,