When I released my overview plan to transform St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church into a mission center – a plan that I believe will change the direction of small churches in our church body – I did so to begin the discussion of one simple question: What is the Church today?
What the Church Was
At one time, most of our now small churches were vibrant, worshiping lots of people every Sunday. They were places where Sunday Schools were overflowing and ministry efforts were strong. And, most of these Lutheran Churches were ethnic at their core. German, Swedish, Chinese, you name it – many established Lutheran Churches had an ethnic component at their founding. For example, if you were German and Lutheran living in the northern New Milford area in the 1900s, you went to St. Matthew’s because it was a German Lutheran Church.
As time has gone on, the ethnic make up of neighborhoods and communities change and the numbers of people attending church every Sunday dwindles. Newer neighbors who have no connection to a Lutheran church are less inclined to attend, even if the church is around the corner from their house.
The challenge for these churches is to begin and sustain a real outreach effort to not just new neighbors but to families in the region. It is here where churches have stumbled. Outreach efforts cannot be sustained if there aren’t enough bodies in the pews or if the bank account is small. In small churches, they begin to look inward instead of outward.
Sunday Morning Church
In small churches, institutions that worship with less than 50 people per week, just because of the smaller attendance and weaker financials, church is Sunday morning. The focus of church leaders, including the pastor, is to make sure that the doors are open and the lights are on come sunrise on Sundays. Small churches, by their very nature, retract from daily ministry simply because “there aren’t enough bodies to get the work done.” When church events come up, there are always complaints that the same small group of people are doing the work. And as membership grows older, the numbers of people doing the “church things” drops, putting pressure on the remaining members to keep the doors open on Sunday morning.
I believe that if we are to change the direction of small churches in our Synod, the first realization that all small worshiping communities have to come to is that there is no grand Daddy Warbucks coming to drop a ton of cash into the bank account. The Synod and all of our individual districts don’t have the resources to pour endlless amounts of dollars into helping keep up small churches. They’d go broke just trying.
Small churches have to realize that in order turn things around, they have to take the first step. They need to take a deep look at their ministry (if it even exists) and make a commitment to change.
Change is hard.
After doing the church thing one way for decades and decades, to admit to yourself that it is not working for the greater church is off-putting. It hurts. You’ve liked coming to that particular building for years and years. You’ve loved singing the same hymns week after week. Maybe there are even times when you like the pastor’s sermon. It is your church.
Admitting that change is needed – dramatic and soul-rattling change – is scary. We love our comforts. When doctors tell us to change our diets, no one wants to stop eating the foods that we like.
Yet to change the direction of a church, this type of change is needed. It means taking a serious look at the entirety of the church and making a true estimate of the effectiveness of the ministry. If at any time during your assessment you start looking inward at yourself and at your comfort level, stop. The assessment should be about how your church is doing and what direction is it headed.
If small churches take this assessment truthfully and without emotion, then they will say that change is needed.
We all have to remember two important aspects of our Christian lives: Churches are not buildings. Churches are the people of God.
Today in many of our small churches, the struggles of ministry and membership and finances are real. If we are to turn things around, we need to commit to major change. Churches need to be more than just a Sunday morning appointment on your calendar. Souls are at stake.