Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Different Size Churches

Recently I rode through the country in north Georgia, and all the different size churches came to my mind. There are still small churches scattered along the countryside where a few cars pull up into the grass around the church each Sunday. We also have mega churches, many of them with parking lots that cover over 20 acres with asphalt and shuttle cars running folks from every end of the parking lot to the main building. One church I pass on my way to my own church has at least 100 handicap parking spaces.

I grew up in relatively small churches. As a Methodist pastor, my father served churches that seldom even had a part time secretary, let alone a staff of any size. In fact, when I was in the second grade my dad was appointed to a six-church circuit in south Georgia. Dad was a true circuit rider in the Methodist tradition with a ’36 Plymouth as his horse. Two Sundays a month Mother would get my sister and me up early and feed us breakfast. Then we’d change our clothes in the car on the way to the first church. After Sunday school and church, we ate lunch at someone’s house in that town. Then in the afternoon we moved on to a tiny country church for the afternoon service, where the hymns were sung to a pump organ, and I’m not even sure we had electricity. We then enjoyed supper either in the home of one of the church members there or in the town where we were headed for the evening service. Before the evening service, we changed our clothes, back into our pajamas, and fell asleep on the back pew. The next morning we woke up in our own beds. The other Sundays of the month we attended Sunday school and church in the town where we lived, and Dad usually made the other circuit runs alone.

Before they were in middle and high school, our children never lived in a town of over 2,000 people. In fact, one town only had 92 people, but that’s another story. During those years we, of course, attended very small churches. I even taught the Primary Sunday school class behind the piano in a one-room church so that the kids weren’t distracted.

Later, I worked on staff in churches ranging from 500 to 4,000 members, and I learned that in a large church people must become a part of a small group in order to have a true Christian experience of fellowship.

All that remembering set me to wondering just how we help persons become disciples in different size churches. Why do we put such emphasis on numbers? Are we more concerned to have a good report of membership and attendance than we are of helping persons learn to love God and to live according to that loving? Do large churches with big programs dazzle us into thinking that God only appreciates something that zaps us in the eyes and pounds in our ears? Where are the relationships between the children and adults of our churches? Does an adult know about the upcoming test of a ninth grader in the church and tell him or her that prayers are lifted to God? Can adults call the names of children in the church other than those they are related to or whose Sunday school class they taught?

My nephew and his wife feel called to reach out to persons who do not feel comfortable in our church buildings, no matter what style of worship is practiced. They are moving into a community where they can develop a small church family in their home, a church family that will relate to an established church, but that becomes a cell of loving Christians themselves.

I know of a United Methodist congregation in the Atlanta area that meets in a strip mall in a coffee-house atmosphere. After a free breakfast where a small jazz ensemble plays, the pastor sits at a table in front and preaches in a teaching method. Then they enjoy communion together each Sunday. The church is closely tied to the community, but some folks travel over an hour to attend, because it is a community that fits their needs.

The early church started worshiping together in the Jewish synagogues and temples, but also meeting together in small groups. Those groups were made up of all ages, loving and supporting each other. Have we forgotten our roots? How can we pump up those roots in order to plump them again into vital vessels of God?

How is your church working to make disciples instead of numbers? How can we work together for this?