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The Innovative Small Church

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Close your eyes and imagine the cutting edge of ministry. What do you see? Maybe a state-of-the-art facility that takes advantage of the latest audio-visual and communications technology—professional sound and lights, live tweeting, engaging video. Maybe an expansive Internet presence including virtual campuses in online role-playing games. Or a network of congregations distributed but connected through simulcast video preaching.

I bet I know what you did not see. I would guess you didn’t see a handful of middle-aged worshipers in Middle America singing “Shout to the Lord” in a building last renovated in the 1970s. Or a small group of first-generation Americans in a storefront in a depressed urban neighborhood. I bet you didn’t hear the growl of Harley engines, the jangle of spurs, the wheeze of accordions.

But perhaps that’s what we should see.

A decade into this new millennium, smaller congregations are leading the charge in innovative ministry in remarkable ways. Instead of viewing their small stature as a deficiency to remedy, small churches are embracing their size as a unique advantage for relevant and effective ministry. Doing so requires them to think of everything—including what it means to be innovative—in fresh and refreshing ways.

Is New Technology the Silver Bullet?

Talk about innovation in ministry often leads to discussions about the potential of communications technologies for expanding the reach of the small-membership church. The church without the resources to have an impressive real-life campus and community presence can flourish in cyberspace. Or so they say.

But the small churches I know that use social media best don’t use it to expand their influence into the ether. Instead, they use it to deepen real-world relationships. Church members host online forums for discussing Sunday’s sermon and how it applies to members of different ages or in different socioeconomic contexts. Deacons use scheduling websites to help arrange meals for ailing members. Several of the small churches I’ve visited in the last year don’t have a PA system in their sanctuary; even fewer are wired for the latest technology. But that doesn’t hinder their innovation. In fact, the way many small churches are “innovating” is by abandoning conventional ministry wisdom about what a church needs and discovering low-tech ways to be successful, significant and relevant.

Boutique Ministry

For the past several decades, church leaders have chased the ever-elusive value of relevance. To reach people, we all know, we have to meet them where they are, articulate their felt needs and create a worship experience that speaks their heart language. We have to prove that church matters to a culture that has its doubts.

Small churches are sensitive to this issue, of course. And to address it effectively, many are asking a more pointed question: Church should be relevant, but to whom?

As an answer to this question, courageous smaller congregations are finding success in ministry by narrowing the demographic they strive to reach. They choose to be relevant to the men and women who work 60 hours a week at the mill just outside of town. They choose to be relevant to the newly arrived immigrant or refugee population struggling to put down roots in a new culture. They embrace a radically local, parish mentality that claims as their target demographic everyone who falls under their steeple’s shadow. Some of these, like cowboy or biker churches, target subculture communities that are unlikely to be attracted to larger, more mainstream congregations. These boutique ministries focus their unique gifts and connections to reach radically specialized groups with the gospel.

“We get enough college at college.”

Earlier this year my wife and I hosted a gathering in our home of college students who attend our church. The church doesn’t have a college ministry—these infrequent get-togethers are it. Much to our surprise, instead of being a liability, our lack of focused student ministry is what attracts this group of young people. Why?

“We get enough college at college,” is how one student put it.

There is no place in American culture with greater potential to bring the generations together than the local church. Christian young adults who grew up in church likely passed through a series of age-segmented ministry that kept them from fellowship and worship with adults. Young adults without a church background may not have intergenerational experience with anyone outside their family. The students in our church don’t want to be marginalized into an age-targeted ministry.

Children of broken homes, young couples without children of their own and senior adults who live far from their children and grandchildren all crave interaction across generational lines. Smaller churches are finding extraordinary opportunity for innovative ministry by bringing the generations together.

First Baptist Church of Manchester Center, Vermont, for example, has launched an intergenerational Sunday school with members ranging in age from 5 to 70. The class meets before the Sunday morning service for fellowship, prayer and Bible study and work together to create a poster that describes the big idea of that morning’s lesson. The children then present their lesson in the worship service. “This means,” interim pastor Steven Jewett explains, “that during the children’s message, the children are not receiving some object lesson or story. They are presenting it.”

Innovative small churches are giving Christians of all ages opportunities not only to be recipients of ministry but also to minister themselves.

A Partner in the Dark

In life’s darkest moments, what people really need is not a program but a presence—a quiet companion along the lonesome road of grief. Innovative small churches are finding ways to be present in a stranger’s pain at a time in history when people feel more isolated than ever.

One Oklahoma church has found a way to walk alongside the grieving. They provide bereavement baskets to funeral homes to offer to clients dealing with a death. The baskets include things like disposable plates, cutlery, napkins and cups, aluminum foil, paper towels, coffee—stuff you might need when funeral guests descend but that you might not have on hand. Included in the basket are the church’s contact information and an invitation to be there as needed.

Other small congregations prepare themselves with disaster relief training to be spiritual first responders in the case of natural disaster or open their buildings for forums to discuss and grieve local tragedy. In short, strategic small churches are investing in human capital, often instead of bricks and mortar, which makes them invaluable community resources in dark times. Instead of attracting outsiders with an exciting Sunday event, innovative small churches are finding ways to take gospel comfort to the world when it needs it most.

Embracing Potential

If all the small church had going for it was a unique ability to reach the marginalized, the incredible potential for intergenerational ministry and the relational resources to meet a grieving world at its moment of need, that would be enough to justify the claim that small churches are indeed on the leading edge of ministry innovation today.

But small churches have other strategic advantages. They can be nimble, testing out new strategies without prohibitive overhead like new staff or facilities. As one pastor put it, “We can try something and if it doesn’t work, we scrap it and try something new, all with minimal risk.” Small churches also have unique venues for identifying people with leadership gifts and giving them opportunities to develop them.

The real deficiency of small churches, then, is not that they lack resources or opportunity or the potential for impact. The central problem of the small church is perception: many pastors and congregants fail to see the unique and strategic advantages of their small-membership church. Innovative small churches leading in ministry innovation, by contrast, have stopped viewing their size as a liability and have embraced it as an asset.

And folks are beginning to take notice. Larger churches nationwide are finding ways to harness smaller congregations’ strengths, building smaller, more intimate facilities and hiring staff to facilitate intergenerational ministry. This should embolden small churches to celebrate their own unique potential for being salt and light in the world, to recognize that God has given them—already!—everything they need to make a profound impact for God’s kingdom.

For more: The Strategically Small Church: Intimate, Nimble, Authentic and Effective by Brandon J. O’Brien (Bethany House). Order it from Amazon »

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