Monday, May 7, 2012

Can a small, very traditional church make it?

I hear some of my colleagues decrying smaller churches that, as they put it, are stuck in the 1950s (or earlier) and which are so hidebound and traditional that they will never survive in the 21st century. I am told to prepare for the closing of thousands of SBC churches who refuse to change.

Yesterday as I drove to a nearby church to worship, I considered that I might be visiting one of these churches. I knew it was small although I had not heard anything about it for at least ten years or so.

My wonderful wife wasn't feeling well, so, after promises that I would behave myself, I went alone.

The red brick church and everything about it screamed, 'old timey,' right down to the singing of the Doxology when the men brought the offering to the front and to the closing hymn, 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds.'

You cannot get any more traditional that that.

I was greeted by several folks in the parking lot and again when I entered the building. Guess I stood out. No anonymity here.

The church had not had a pastor change and I knew the man but not well. We chatted for a moment in the aisle.

I took a seat in an empty pew about middle ways back. In this church folks like to sit toward the rear and all the back pews were taken. If the sanctuary were a canoe it would have tipped over backwards.

My pew was empty, save for me, and stayed empty the whole time. No one sat by me, talked to me, or messed with me after I was seated. I occasionally like a little solitude but this was a bit too much.

It's my thinking that people sometimes don't know what to do with guests in church. As a pastor of average sized churches that might have 100 or so in a service, when I saw a guest come in and sit alone, I would enlist someone to go talk to them and sit with them. It makes me cringe to see a guest sitting alone while the regular church folks are smiling, laughing, and chatting with one another all around.

Not good.

The service included a greeting time and during that an older lady with a big smile came up to me and asked if I was the 'preacher who used to be at First Baptist'.

'Uh, yeah,' I admitted.

"Well," she continued, "all those people on the other side of the aisle from you are staring at you."

I looked. Sure enough they were.

"You think it's my stunning good looks," I asked her, "or my bright red shirt?"

"Maybe both," she said while laughing.

I felt better.

So, I ask you: Is this a church that is going to die a quick and merciful death?

God only knows.

Would it help you diagnose it if I said that about one-fourth of the 50-60 folks in the service were children and teenagers and there were more young couples than senior couples? If this church is going to die, they will have to do it with an average age younger than any of the churches I pastored.

Would it help if I disclosed that the music leader was a young, well, boy? He had to be a teen but was nonetheless quite competent in leading the music.

Would it help if I mentioned that the pianist was very young herself but very accomplished as well?

Would it help if I described the choir of ten people as singing, and singing well, a very challenging 'special' that blessed me?

I get a little weary of the critics who look with disdain on churches like this one and who pronounce their inevitable demise.

People get to vote on killing churches every Sunday. This church isn't getting many such votes, seems to me. 



Leland Bryant Ross said...

Actually I came here looking for thoughts on Wiley Drake, but I don't see any, so I guess I'll read this post about dying old-fashioned small churches.

I don't think I saw what the actual attendance was.


Terry Reed said...

I hear the same things about the eminent death of the small churches. Oddly enough no one seems to have let these congregations in on their demise. Small churches vastly outnumber large ones in America. In fact, I believe that if our country is to be turned around it will be through a great revival in smaller congregations.
Terry Reed
Small Church Tools

Lee said...

My wife and I visited a small, extremely rural Baptist church in West Virginia last Sunday, about 100 people in attendance. There was no worship service, since it was a "half time" church that met for worship on the 2nd and 4th Sundays, when the pastor they share with another church is available. The hymnal in the rack that they used was "Heavenly Highways." It looks like that church will be around for a while, given the age of the people there, some older, some middle aged, some younger, about 20 children under 12, and about 20 teenagers. It turns out it was a former ABC-USA congregation.