Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Challenge of the Small Church

This past week the local American Baptist church closed its doors.  There are many reasons for this, some of them specific to the congregation.  For better insight into those reasons, you can read the article I have linked at the bottom of this post.

However, what concerns me is what it says about the future of other smaller congregations in Burbania.  The ABC church owned their own building right on the common downtown.  They used it for various community activities, so people knew who they were and were in and out of the building regularly.  Still, few people chose to drop in on Sunday.  It should also be noted that our little corner of Burbania really isn't all that small.  In these parts we like to think it is.  However, were we magically transported to the state of Maine where I grew up, it would be the second largest city.  The 'burb next to us is larger than Portland!  There are all these people and yet we cannot seem to maintain a mainline Baptist church.

In the article (if you read it) you will note that the only congregation interviewed that claims substantial growth is Episcopalian.  This makes perfect sense to me.  I know that church well. It is well run, but I suspect that demographics play a large role in the situation as well.  We live in an extremely Catholic area.  We also live in a place that is more liberal in many ways than most of the country.  This means that the Episcopalian combination of orthodox theology, Catholic-looking polity and liturgy, and progressive social agenda is both compelling and safe for many Burbanians.  Also, it is larger and its very largeness attracts more people.  There are more programs, after all, and the responsibilities are distributed over a broader constituency.

Meanwhile many of the rest of us (Baptists, Congregationalists of all four branches, Presbyterians, etc) have to explain who we are to visitors who often come expecting worship to look a different way.  Even if their theology is closer to one of these denominations, they face the challenges of small-church life and--coming from a different paradigm--don't necessarily see its benefits.  Life is different in a large church.  You show up, participate in what you want to participate in, and go home.  Certainly you give money and there are plenty of ways to be involved if you wish to be but there is also the potential for anonymity.  This model may very well fit the lifestyles of most of my neighbors better than the model of my own congregation. 

We are set up a bit more on that "monastery model" I wrote about at the beginning of my sabbatical.  The congregation members (for the most part) try to be present and interested in the life of the church.  There are few strangers.  The strangers who visit become friends pretty quickly, too!  We see this as a good thing.  The small church is (or can be) a force for intentionality and wonder in a world that continues to succumb to waves of frantic expenditures of energy and goodwill.

We Burbanians tend to move through a cloud of loosely held affiliations.  In most of these affiliations we are either consumers or providers.  In the small church the balance between what we take and what we give is more even.   We still try to think in terms of "we" rather than "me".  However, we are stretched by the world we witness in and some of that stretching can be a trial.

I don't have any answers today.  Folks at the church are talking about our future and--in many ways--The future for our church seems bright.  Still, we lost a neighbor congregation to the realities that impact our own existence, so it seems worth taking a moment to mourn its passing and to think about what comes next...

Here is a link to the article in the local paper.  Take a moment to look at the pictures...

Here is a link to my post about the liberal church being a modern monastery...which it isn't but I think it is a useful metaphor nonetheless...

1 comment:

  1. One of the annoying things about this template is that it can be very difficult to actually post comments! One of these days I will see about trying to fix this (Sigh).

    My friends Dan and Lisa who used to be members of the Eliot Church and now live in Texas attempted to leave this comment and I am copying it here...

    Adam -

    Great post! The popular churches here in San Antonio are non-denominational, like http://www.communitybible.com/.

    I think you are right about the "potential for anonymity" in these churches -- similar to the equally popular large fitness centers here, like http://clubs.lifetimefitness.com/San-Antonio/26843/.

    Many people like not having any responsibility for how the church (or fitness center) operates.

    We're jealous of your cool fall!