For 20 years, I have served small membership churches in communities confronted by difficult social circumstances. One church ministered in a community in the throes of economic death. The major industry declined to the point of closure. In one decade, the community’s population declined more than 60 percent. Many young adults and families, forced to leave in pursuit of jobs, had provided energy, vision, and ministry resources to the congregation’s life.
A second church, located in a rural community, faced similar economic challenges. The farms populating the countryside were largely overgrown and fallow. The industries, major employers in the county, faced financial strain. These economic crises resulted in corporate downsizing and large-scale employee lay-offs. Many congregationally- connected families experienced the country’s 10 percent unemployment rate in personal ways. During these years, high school graduates left home for college or technical school and rarely returned.
In these contexts, I attempted to lead congregations to growth. Internal understandings of success, as well as external reporting mechanisms, taught me to evaluate the “success” of my congregation in terms of new members, dollars raised, and movement to the next attendance goal. Our lack of progress in these areas frustrated me, leaving me discouraged and tired. I began to doubt my skills and abilities as a pastor. On my darker days, I doubted both the willingness of my congregations to grow and God’s concern for us.
In the crucible of my own crisis of faith, I engaged in dissertation research. My research focused on discovering any principles that would facilitate an experience of renewed vitality in stalled or declining, small churches. My research uncovered five such factors. Of the congregations interviewed and studied, two were on their last legs and near closure. Not only are these churches still alive, they have been renewed. Today, they engage their communities in making disciples, worshiping God in culturally relevant ways, meeting needs in their communities through acts of love and service, and living out the Great Commission and Great Commandment. In other words, the measure of their success is faithfulness to God’s call and mission in their communities and around the world.
The Centrality of Prayer
The pastors and lay leaders of these renewed small congregations identify prayer as the most significant factor contributing to their renewal. Each church created multiple, intentional, communal prayer efforts to pray for the revitalization of their churches. These prayer meetings moved beyond the typical prayer lists often seen or heard in churches to prayer focused on the movement of God’s Spirit through their local expression of the Body of Christ. Fasting for spiritual breakthrough accompanied these corporate prayer gatherings. In fact, one congregation spent more than 40 hours each week in corporate prayer, pleading for God to renew their church, for the salvation of people around them, and for opportunities to reach out and touch their community with God’s love.
In these contexts of prayer, many leaders discovered a renewed sense of spiritual vitality, as well as a fresh openness to the movement of God’s Spirit among them. This new spirit of expectancy and passion filled their worship services. With each passing week, a renewed sense of love, acceptance, and openness characterized their congregations. These renewed practices of prayer created new lines of vision, allowing individuals to identify and recognize opportunities to touch people in the community with the love of Jesus Christ.
Confronting the Brutal Reality
A second, significant renewal factor was a commitment to recognize and confront the “brutal reality” of their situations. Each church recognized they were approaching congregational death. This recognition fueled a passion and determination to breathe new life into their churches. No one was willing to let the church die on their watch. Yet, in the face of the “brutal reality,” these prayer-saturated congregations caught a new vision for mission and ministry; this resulted in a commitment to change. For some, the changes were sweeping, significant, and painful; yet, they determined that losing their old ways of doing things was worth seeing others come to faith. By exhibiting the integrity and honesty to speak the truth of their “brutal reality,” each congregation was able to partner with God in creating a new reality in their church for God’s greater glory.
The Crucial Role of the Pastor in Renewal
Going into my research, I wanted to dismiss the role of pastor in a congregation’s renewal. I wanted to believe that the vision for turnaround was led by an active laity. However, my research indicated that the pastor played a significant role in renewed congregational vitality. Each pastor, despite differences of age, gender, and race, provided vision, leadership, direction, and spiritual discernment to the congregation. The common factors among the pastors were a love for the specific congregation they were called to lead and a commitment to following the leading of Jesus Christ, wherever it took them in that context.
A strong bond existed between the laity and the pastors in these renewed congregations. This pastor/congregation relationship, built on deep love and mutual respect, contributed to a synergistic partnership in the ministry of the local church. In fact, pastors did not speak of their critical role in the renewal of these congregations; their lay leadership spoke glowingly of their important role among them. These renewed congregations understood that the work of the ministry was the task of both pastor and laity.
Discovering a Focused Identity in Missional Ministry
A fourth contributing factor to renewed vitality was a commitment to operate according to one central, guiding principle across all areas of congregational life. These churches experienced renewed vitality in their ministries by finding a focused identity, well-suited to their local contexts. This identity helped prioritize the distribution of congregational resources for missional effectiveness. Small, vibrant congregations must realize they cannot be everything to everybody; consequently, they must focus their efforts on the area of ministry they can live out with excellence. In the case of the churches studied, they are known in their communities by that purpose and ministry. Discovering and operating according to this focused identity allows the congregations to maximize limited human and financial resources in mission effectiveness.
The Development of a Culture of Excellence
A final significant factor was that these congregations worked hard at creating a culture of excellence for ministry and life in their fellowship. Church leaders made strategic decisions to do the few things that they did well, as a witness of God’s grace, to those outside of the Body of Christ. They spent time renovating crumbling buildings. They gave attention to worship services, so that the gospel would be communicated clearly and contextually. Church members spent time and resources making sure the first glimpse of their grounds revealed a commitment to Christ, and that their facilities were warm and inviting. Each church committed to living out congregational life and conducting ministries with excellence in order to please Christ and bear witness to God’s transforming work. These prayer-saturated, focused, missional congregations caught the attention of unchurched neighbors in their communities, as they bore witness to their faith in Jesus Christ.
A Final Word of Hope
Preparing my research study, I was skeptical if small churches could return to vitality and thrive after years of decline and stagnation. I had witnessed many small churches struggle to survive. Many closed. I had not seen churches return from this death spiral.
The congregational life and vitality I witnessed in my visits to these churches renewed my hope. My research discoveries convinced me that small, struggling churches can thrive and be vibrant expressions of the Body of Christ in their communities. It seems God has uniquely poised many small churches to be primary avenues, through which God’s message of salvation, holiness, and hope will be lived and proclaimed.
I now believe small churches can be victoriously faithful in living out God’s call in their contexts.
Today, I extend my hope to colleagues serving in small-membership congregations. They must realize the critical role they play as missional communities. I now believe small churches can be victoriously faithful in living out God’s call in their contexts. God’s plan and desire for small-membership churches is that they thrive as a beacon of salvation, holiness, and hope in their respective communities.
Throughout this journey, God showed me a new measurement of ministry—faithfulness to leading a prayer-saturated, focused, missional congregation. As I reflect upon my ministry contexts, I realize that most of the members who moved on from my congregations were still actively involved in God’s mission in a variety of ministry roles in other locales. While it was true that we had lost a significant number in worship and membership, those people were not lost to the Church of Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, their ministries testified to the work of God in their lives. The church was carrying out its mission of making disciples. This discovery transformed my understanding of ministry success. I pray it might do the same for you!
ART ROXBY serves as lead pastor of Milford Church of the Nazarene.