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Let's Hear It for the Small Churches - a Rejoinder

By Allen Holmes.

I always look forward to reading Ministry Today. It is a source of encouragement to me in my ministry. However, John Balchin’s article in the February issue, ‘Lessons From Larger Churches’, had the opposite effect. To be fair to him and to check that I was not over-reacting, I asked someone not in the Christian ministry to read his article and give me their immediate response. I took some comfort, if not solace, from that fact that their feelings resonated with mine.

There are of course many differences between numerically small and large churches in terms of their organisation, worship, resources, needs and expectations, and the book, Celebrating the Small Church1 is, I think, especially helpful in this respect. Paul Beasley-Murray’s recent book, Power for God’s Sake2, also offers insight into the use and abuse of power in both settings. I applaud the work of large churches and accept that John is only speaking honestly from his own experience. Nevertheless, I feel it necessary to write from a different perspective as one who has also pastored two small churches. Hence this brief rejoinder.

I want to take issue with him on a number of points, but for the purposes of this rejoinder, one is sufficient. On page 29 of the February issue, paragraph 3

he says, "at the very lowest level, we cannot get away with some things in a larger church which in a small congregation would pass unmentioned. Larger churches, for example, demand a higher standard of professionalism in the ministry. There must be consistency in worship, preaching and the programme on offer. Particularly in the 'preaching centre' type church, the minister cannot have a ‘bad Sunday’. He is expected to deliver high-quality ministry week by week" (italics mine).

My definition of a numerically small church is, ‘a church having no more than fifty members’. It is a definition that has been used by Baptists in recent times3. It might still be representative of the majority of churches in Britain today. My two pastorates have presented contrasts and similarities. The first was a church with a membership of just twelve, meeting in single storey, part prefabricated premises, situated on a huge and sprawling housing estate in a major city. The area had all the usual problems associated with urban decay - poor housing, delinquency, poverty and people who felt trapped in their circumstance without hope of relief. Almost all the congregation were pensioners managing on low incomes, and with little knowledge, skills or ability to assert their rights. Their hopes of self-actualisation were low both within the church setting and the wider community.

My second, and current pastorate, is in a small church founded as far back as 1819, which had thirty-nine members when I arrived, but nearly a third have been lost through death or admission to nursing home care during the past eighteen months. Its location is an idyllic moorland setting. Some of the congregation would admit that they are financially better off in comparison to those in my first church, and more able to articulate their thoughts and fight their corners when the need arises. They are self-sufficient and some have the satisfaction of having realised their ambitions. Again, most are of pensionable age. Here the contrasts end and similarities begin.

First of all, both demanded a pastor prepared to work! Second, each perceived the foremost need to be ‘built up’ in their own Christian experience followed by, through imaginative use of a community audit4, outreach into the community. Both were keen to cease the precarious routine stance of maintenance of services and instead grow spiritually and numerically. As the local gathered church they wanted to be seen as relevant to the community by the community itself. A change gradually took place in their thinking. Both came to the understanding that in the Kingdom of God significance does not flow from size, but from faithfulness5. Further, that whatever its size a church does not become salt and light merely by its presence in the world - it must inter-act with it6. They began to see that the Gospel could be expressed not only in evangelism but also through social action and moved towards meeting head on the inherent problems in working out such holistic claims7. The resulting vision, for pastor and people working together, was to translate what was conceptional and operational within it8 . None of these things could be attempted in my opinion, without operating at the highest professional standards in the Christian ministry.

Both followed a similar path in implementing the results. They celebrated past achievements. The church established in 1819 created a heritage room. Both took a fresh look at doctrinal statements and criteria for church membership. Ways of being church in worship and service were examined, in the light of modem developments, to encourage every-member ministry reflecting the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, without abandoning structure and leadership9 . Mid-week meetings for prayer and Bible study were revived and attendance remained high. Rolling programmes to refurbish church premises were put in place, in the second instance a Grade II listed building is receiving attention. There was an increased commitment to the denomination at local and national level and several people accepted officer involvement on district and association committees. As ever, the limited resources available, including willing and competent people to do the work, meant the vision could only be partially realised. Like many churches in the same situation we had to accept that, ‘when we cannot do all that we would, we do what we can’.

For myself the unremitting round of work and the need to provide twenty-four hour accessibility to members was the norm even in a small church. I am expected to take the lead in most things. I cannot hide. The majority of Sunday services remain my responsibility. When not preaching I am, most times, still present. I find myself, every bit like a pastor of a large church, having to exercise effective and efficient leadership skills, make decisions, motivate people, help Christians develop their potential, and managing every waking moment of my time. It has also meant developing good communication systems between teams and individuals. Like many other churches, large and small, we have the need to train up others to take over secretarial and treasury work, management of premise and burial ground and accept responsibility for church equipment. Further, especially if we are to grow, secure younger competent personnel to initiate work with children, young people, single persons, married couples and senior citizens. The way is also clear in these two churches for those having teaching and evangelistic gifts to work unimpeded by traditional barriers and attitudes. Sadly, in every respect there have been few if any ‘takers’. The reasons can only be assumed.

As a reformed pastor in a small church my congregation demand high standards from me as ‘I scratch food for the same chickens each week’. I have no deputy, assistant, director of music, worship leader or music group to call upon. I continue to seek to exercise the major leadership qualities of foresight, integrity, competence and inspiration. I have my own personal development programme of on-going studies and could happily submit myself to any ministerial appraisal scheme even if it were not to lead to performance related pay or some other ‘annual perk’ from an appreciative congregation. In short, I have to say that I do not identify, nor does my congregation, with John’s assessment of working in the small church setting.

I would welcome more of those in positions of leadership in larger churches valedicting themselves down rather than up, to work in new or existing small churches. Small churches need experienced settled ministry just as much as large churches. It would, under God, no doubt prove to be the means of bringing fresh vigour and impetus into the development to these modest causes. Moreover, it would go some way towards a practical out-working of one aspect of currently popular teaching on servanthood leadership. It would amount to showing servanthood and the exercise of power, through freedom to surrender what one wishes to do, in order to serve the purpose of God; faith to believe that God’s power will be at work through weakness10 . In conclusion I ask my readers to put their hands together and say, "Let's hear it for the numerically small churches in our land today".

1. Celebrating the Small Church, Martin Robinson and Dan Yarnell; Monarch, 1993.  Return 2. Power, For God's Sake, Paul Beasley-Murray; Paternoster, 1998  Return 3. Half The Denomination, Didcot; The Baptist Union of Great Britain.  Return 4. A Community Audit is where a church undertakes a comprehensive survey of the demographic, cultural, social and economic conditions and local amenities of the community in which it is situated in order to work out how best to serve it.  Return 5. Celebrating the Small Church, p.218.  Return 6. On Earth as in Heaven, Haddon Willmer and others, The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Didcot, 1996, p.38.  Return 7. New Tasks for a Renewed Church, Tom Wright, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991, p.164.  Return 8. Faith and Festivity, Paul Beasley-Murray, Eastbourne, MARC, 1991, p.90.  Return 9. Understanding Leadership, Tom Marshall, Chichester, Sovereign World Ltd., 1991, p.20.  Return 10. Transforming Leadership, Leighton Ford, Leicester, Inter Varsity Press, 1991, p.151.  Return

The Revd Allen Holmes is Pastor of Slack Baptist Church, West Yorkshire.

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You are reading Let's Hear It for the Small Churches - a Rejoinder by Allen Holmes, part of Issue 19 of Ministry Today, published in June 2000.

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