Vitality and the small church

By Kathleen Staudt

For the past few summers, with funding from Lilly Foundation, Virginia Seminary has hosted a 10-day Summer Collegium in support of pastors of small membership churches and their spouses. These are pastors of churches in mainline denominations with average Sunday attendance under 100. I’ve participated in the program in various leadership and teaching capacities and always come away with a sense that there IS good news about the church, less about numbers than about spirit, commitment and ability to embody the presence of Christ.

The people I meet at these gatherings are good, grounded pastors, many in very challenging practical situations. Some are at multi-point charges, some are bi-vocational; all are in churches with various kinds of financial struggles. But they do not see growth in numbers as a major goal, though they do see the importance of helping people be open to change and growth in spirit and in community life. What I find inspiring when I spend time with these pastoral leaders is their dedication to being with their people and “helping them to ‘be the church’” – I hear that language across denominations, and regardless of the pastoral and personal challenges that small church ministry presents.

Small mainline churches offer the continuing presence of a thoughtful, practical Christian faith in their communities, and the people in them are formed by their lives together. There are churches represented here that are focal points of their local communities, engaging in genuine, effective, heartfelt mission work both locally and nationally. They understand about mission and faithfulness; they have a vision of themselves as the People of God in their contexts. Perhaps most important, they are small communities but they persist, they are still there – and expect to be remaining where they are even as the broader, wider church changes.

Since our job is to support the pastors, we do hear about their pain, their challenges, the splits and controversies that plague our congregations. But running through all of this is a sense that the Church of Christ is still alive, still present in these communities, and seeking ways to be faithful in the face of challenges that have been there, off and on, for generations and sometimes centuries. For these congregations, controversies within and across denominations may affect their histories some, and there are sometimes histories of conflicts and regroupings, but there’s a ground base of continuity that really has nothing to do with the Great Issues of judicatories and church conventions . There’s simplicity of focus: people are involved in their churches as a foundational part of their family and community life. They are worshipping and doing ministry where they are, and their pastors know them, love them, pray with them and walk with them while they are there, recognizing that congregations persist and pastors nurture and lead them for a time. These leaders know that there is something bigger about being the church than the individual pastor, even as they also know how to be “wise as serpents and innocent as lambs where evil is concerned.”

There are many ways to be church, and not all of them are large and well resourced. Indeed, when I look at the way that these gifted, dedicated people are managing, I sometimes wonder if I am looking at least in part at the Church of the Future, where some of the norms of institutional survival that we now hold may just have to change. Small churches (which make up the majority of most mainline denominations) know the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “the church of God takes up space in the world.” Those we hear about here continue to embody a living faith, expressed in the struggle to be a faithful and loving community even when the struggle is difficult. Spending time with these pastors always leaves me with the feeling that the Church, the body of Christ, is real, carrying out its mission in homely and human ways that are profoundly incarnational, and that whatever challenges we face as big denominations, the lives of congregations find ways to continue, testimony to the presence in the world of persistent, faithful Christian faith and practice.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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