(Living in the Shadow of a Larger Neighbor)
By Peggy Hahn, Executive Director, and
Pastor David Hansen, Director of Communication & Innovation
First, a little truth in love and then a way forward. Let’s start with two truths to hold in tension:
- The largest 7% of U.S. congregations represent about half of all churchgoers.
- In the first century, it is estimated that the average Christian church included 50-60 people, meeting in the marketplace or homes of wealthy members.
In our research we are seeing obvious differences in small congregations (with under 150* people in weekly worship) that fall on a spectrum between those with a healthy, purposeful, outward identity and those with an inferior, “family-like,” inward identity.
In any ministry, it can become easy to talk about what isn’t working. Falling into this pattern, it is often an uphill battle for small congregations to embrace the new behaviors needed to become a remarkable ministry in your community.
The temptation of negative thinking and patterns is especially strong for congregations who have a larger, thriving congregation nearby. We find ourselves drawn toward comparing ourselves to the neighbor across the street, complaining about the resources we don’t have, or trying to mimic programs that don’t fit our mission.
Instead of living into our unique identity and purpose in the community and in the kingdom and focusing on the gifts God has entrusted to us, congregations in the shadow of a thriving neighbor spend significant energy trying to “measure up.”
Just as self-absorption is a downward spiral for human beings, it can be deadly for congregations.
But there is good news!
The low-grade depression that is pervasive in congregations that live “in the shadow” can be shifted to concrete next steps toward healthy ministry…if leaders are willing to take a chance.
Remarkable means worthy of attention. It does not mean large, staffed programs, great buildings or reserve funds. It does mean:
- Having a clear purpose that includes the neighborhood.
- Having a unique identity – not trying to be a copy of a neighbor.
- Setting and following through on goals.
- Making ways for new things to happen even if this means overriding the current governance or power systems in place until they can be changed.
- Launching experiments with a growth mindset and a willingness to fail.
- Risking making some people mad with an understanding that we can love people but not give them the power to stop the mission of the church.
- Overcoming our fear that people may leave (and take their money with them) if things don’t remain “the way we’ve always done them.”
The road is not easy, but it is possible. We have seen it happen.
Remarkable small congregations make disciples, mentor youth and children into the faith, and make a difference in their neighborhood each in their own way.
LEAD has resources to help leaders in small congregations who want trusted outside partnership. We have experienced coaches, learning cohorts, consultation, and resources that can support the movement from an inwardly to outwardly focused congregation.
We can help you move out of the shadow, and claim the mission that God has given to your congregation.
It takes a group of committed leaders who want their church to grow and are willing to practice new behaviors. This starts with praying about God’s call for your small congregation and trusting that like first century Christianity, good things happen in small groups of people. They may even change the world.
*LEAD knows that when the average worship attendance drops below 150, it becomes harder to fund a full-time pastor, to maintain facilities, to run programs valued in the past, and to have confidence in a vibrant future in this changing world. We believe that small congregations have a unique mission in their neighborhoods and the power to deepen the discipleship of those who gather, but traditional models need re-visioning. We also know that when a new mission start reaches 150 in worship, they become more confident in their future and recognize that their next steps are important.