Thursday, March 8, 2012

A trend 90% of SBC pastors should not overlook

It’s not much of a selling point to prospective SBC pastors but one could tell the young theologs that if they believe God is calling them to the pastoral ministry they should expect to spend their ministerial career (a) pastoring a single staff church, and (b) preaching to less than a hundred people each Sunday morning.

Visions of being pastor of a large church of 500 attendance, a midmega church of 1000-2000, or a megachurch with 2000+ each Sunday might occupy some of their unrealistic and idealistic aspirations but the statistics are clear and compelling – there are 46,000 SBC churches but only a couple of thousand have average attendance of 500 or more.

There is nothing wrong with an average sized, single staff congregation and there is a lot of right about them.

The clear, long lasting trend (noted by Thom Ranier in his blog People Migration to Larger Churches) is that larger churches get larger as congregants move away from smaller churches to the big boys.

I’d bet that every pastor of a single staff church has a sad tale about some of his best, most faithful, and most generous members who have left the church for a nearby large or megachurch. These can be hard blows for a small church (I confess to being averse to the term “small” church, preferring “average” which is more appealing and less inclined to elicit sympathy or condescension) and for the small church pastor.

In the SBC there is a lot of hand wringing about the plight of the small church and SBC leadership regularly offer sympathetic laments for small church pastors; however, one should not expect much more than the occasional article. The reality on the ground in SBC life is that smaller churches receive condescension from leaders while mega and large churches receive attention and plaudits.

Convince me I'm wrong about this: In the SBC small is bad, large is better, and mega is best. 

Too bad.

So what should the single staff pastor of the average sized church do? I suggest a few things:

1. Drop the attitude that says that your value depends on the size of the crowd you preach to on Sundays or on the size of the staff you supervise.

2. Cultivate the deep personal relationships that come with a congregation where all the members know each other and relate directly to the pastor.

3. Seek that unique ministerial niche in your community that cannot be matched or surpassed by a large or megachurch.

4. Do something radical: consider that approval by God is not gained by increasing congregational size nor is it lost when members leave.

One wonders where the SBC will be a generation or two from now. By all indications the trend from smaller to larger, but fewer, churches will not abate. 

The SBC may have significant numbers of churches closing. We may have significant numbers moving to bivocational status.

I don’t know but we may have to adjust our thinking about success in ministry.


Bill said...

I agree. I've been saying this for a long time. I used to have a harsher view of megachurches than I do now, but I am still not convinced that they are modelling the intent of the early church.

John Notestein said...

We have been members of over half a dozen churches in our lives due to moving for work. We are now members of a church that averages 500 on a Sunday morning, which is the largest church we have attended. The smallest had 98 members with an attendance that averaged around 60, and that one is the one I miss the most. We knew everyone, from 90 year ofl Charlie who loved to sing about his Savior, to the brand new baby whose mother attended faithfully but whose father seldom came. We shared our lives with these people. We knew most things about them and vice versa. We still keep in touch with some, even though we haven't seen them in nearly 30 years. They are family.

I don't get this in our larger church. There are more and bigger programs, but less personal contact and interaction. Our 'small group' is Sunday School, and while we have friends there, one hour a week does not make for a shared life.

While I'm not one to long for the 'good old days', I do see something in the way we do church today. I can get great preaching and great singing on the internet. I can get to know people only when I see them face to face regularly.

I see a backlash eventually against the consumer culture of church today, because in the end it will not satisfy. Instead of shopping at mom and pop stores, we go to WlaMart because it's cheaper, and we have taken this thinking with us to church. It cost less to be in a larger church but you can miss out on so much of what it means to live in community.

Matt Richard said...

I became a Christian in an "average" Baptist church (less than 100) when I was 15. The foundation I received there is what has sustained and eventually led me to answer the call to be a pastor. I've often wondered where I would be today without that "average" church.

J L Carver said...

I fear that the hand wringing among denominational leadership over the plight of small churches is cosmetic at best. At a recent minister's conference the speaker, who was brought on by the state executive director to develop a new evangelism/discipleship strategy, kept referring to small church pastors and members as "those people". He was committed to helping "those people" get it right. As long as small and average size churches are perceived as "those people" by the big boys, we will continue to see the demise of the small church.

Having said that, my observation is that the waning of the small church may be neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is.

Jon L. Estes said...

Pastored both the average and 1000 member church. From my perspective each have things I liked and do not like.

For the larger church I liked:

1 - having resources and volunteers for the myriad of ministries.
2 - having insurance provided for my family, not taken out of my base income.
3 - having 3 other ministerial staff to build friendships with that will last beyond the church tenure.

Things I did not like at larger church:

1 - 25 deacons
2 - Committee mtgs almost every night 3/4 of the month.
3 - outlandish power struggle among the people.

Things I like in the average church:

1 - ability to really know the members.
2 - being able to easily identify those who are genuine.
3 - fewer deacons
4 - heavy mission involvement (when your church runs right at 100 and you are taking 50+ each year on a short term mission trip - this is exciting).

This I struggle with in the small church:

1 - developing really close relationships with people in the church.
2 - Limited funds to do more ministry thing.
3 - unneeded traditions.