Friday, June 04, 2010
The Place of the Small Membership Church in Rural, Suburban, and Urban Communities
By Robin G. Jordan
Here is a building,
On top there's a steeple,
Open the doors,
The church is the people!
When I was a boy in England, going shopping was often an all day adventure. We would cycle from the village of Ilketshall St. Andrew’s where we lived to one of the nearby towns of Bungay and Beccles. Then we would make the round of the shops—the baker, the butcher, the chemist, the greengrocer, and the ironmonger if we needed nails or paraffin. My favorite shop was the bookshop. We might go to the banks and to the post office. On market days we might visit the stalls in the market square. The big market at which the farmers sold their livestock was at Norwich. While my grandfather on several occasions took my older brother to Norwich on market day, I got to go to the Norwich market only once or twice. On those occasions the entire family went. We took in the sights of that famous cathedral town, Strangers’ Hall, Norwich Castle, and of course, the cathedral itself. My mother was a schoolteacher and our day outings were always educational—even our trips to the seaside. We visited museums and historical sites. At the seaside we not only marveled at the denizen of the tidal pools but also watched the phosphorescent jellyfish in the harbour after dark. We might walk along the beach to where the waves had washed away the cliff and had tumbled a village into the sea. We would stop for a supper of fish and chips on the way home.
In the late 1950s my mother’s parents, my mother, my older brother and I immigrated to the United States. In those days America still had Mum and Pop stores—diners, dry goods, feed, groceries, ice cream parlours, pharmacies. There were five and dime stores—Morgan & Lindsey’s, Woolworth’s, T, G, & Y. But the day of the chain supermarket has just begun and the day of the big box stores, the discount stores, like Wal-Mart, was still in the future. As the demographics of the United States shifted, and its economy changed, the small Mom and Pop operations began to disappear. The cost of operating was too high and they could not compete with the franchised restaurants, the supermarket chains and the discount stores. The construction of the Interstate system also contributed to the disappearance of the small Mom and Pop stores. Towns were bypassed and downtown shopping districts shriveled and died.
The United States today—even rural America—is a lot different from what it was 50 years ago. I live on the outskirts of a western Kentucky university town. The county is largely rural—farm and wood land, and dotted with boarded-up Mom and Pop gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores. Folks now shop at Big Lots, Dollar-General, Food Giant, Kroger, Save-a-Lot, and Wal-Mart, driving to the county seat for groceries or anything else they need.
The face of America has changed. Those Mom and Pop gas stations, restaurants, and stores were not just places to buy gas or groceries or to eat breakfast or lunch. They were community gathering places where folks came together to socialize with their neighbours, to exchange news and gossip, to swap hunting and fishing stories, and to discuss politics, the price of corn, the weather, and anything else that was on their mind. They helped to overcome the sense of isolation that besets rural communities in which neighbors may live miles apart from each other. They also served another purpose. If a regular suddenly stopped coming, one of his neighbors might go out to his place and see if anything was wrong. If he was injured or sick where he could not get around, the same neighbour might bring him some groceries to tide him over until he could get to the store himself. These gathering places were part of what sociologists call an informal social support network. While radio, telephone, television, and the Internet have also reduced this sense of isolation they have in turn added to the actual isolation of those living in rural communities. The latter becomes very real when a thunderstorm or an ice storm downs power and telephone lines. Both our modern-day culture and technology tend to isolate people from each other and to discourage the formation of local social support networks.
The Internet and tweeting in particular creates a false sense of connectedness, as do cell phones and text messaging. What happens is that we end up talking at other people and not to them. We are more interested in what we are saying than we are in listening to what they are saying. We are not really communicating with other people but engaging in an endless monologue.
The rural small membership church continues to offer a community gathering place but only on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights. It remains an important part of a rural community’s informal social support network. Some people who live in rural communities have a large extended family with members living in the same community or an adjoining community. This extended family may provide them with an informal social support network. Other people may not have such an extended family or the members of the extended family may not be close and may not support each other. There may ill-feeling or actual conflict between family members. In some families there is an unspoken rule against seeking help from others, which may include family members. Under such circumstances the rural small-membership church can provide a social support network to those who are willing to seek and accept help and even to offer help to those who are reluctant to accept it. Some folks will accept help from a church that they will not accept from anyone else.
A young Baptist pastor whom I know tells the story of an older pastor whom he met in seminary and who became one of his mentors. When other pastors had given up visiting people in the community, he continued to visit people outside the fellowship of his church. He was frequently greeted with curses and doors were often slammed in his face. But he persisted in visiting them. On occasion he would come upon an individual or family in crisis and would be able to offer them help even if it was just to listen to their troubles, to pray with them and to let them know God cared about them. He offered them two important gifts. First he offered them encouragement and with that encouragement hope. More importantly he offered them the precious gift of his time. Some of these folks began to attend his church. When asked why, their answer was the same: they knew that he cared about them. He came to see them even though they cursed him and slammed the door in his face. They mattered to him.
You can draw a lot of lessons from this story. I do. There are a lot of communities, rural, suburban, and urban, that need a caring church and a caring pastor. The church does not have to be large and the pastor does not have to be full-time. But the church and the pastor must care for the folks in the community. Those folks must matter to them.
For 25 odd years I worked as a caseworker in greater New Orleans, primarily among the urban poor. I first worked with foster children, their foster parents or other caregivers, and their natural parents or other relatives. I then worked with children in their own homes and their parents or other caregivers. I observed that the parents who made the most effort to remedy the problems that had led to the involvement of my agency in their lives were those who in this time of crisis turned to a church in the community for help in turning their lives around. Most of the churches to which they turned were inner city neighborhood small membership churches. The larger more affluent urban churches outside of the inner city neighbourhoods would give them clothes and shoes for the children, sacks of groceries, transit tokens, and vouchers. But the small membership churches in the inner city neighbourhoods gave them what they really needed. These churches often met in a storefront and their pastors frequently held one or two secular jobs besides pastoring a church. These churches, however, offered them encouragement and hope, and most important of all gave them their time. Through these churches the parents discovered what Alcoholics Anonymous calls their “higher power”—God, and through his Holy Spirit God worked in their lives and transformed them.
Interestingly President Barack Obama in his campaign for President repeated in his speeches two themes that are often heard in the sermons of inner city urban preachers—hope and change. It is a message that resonates with a lot of people experiencing a crisis in their life or overwhelmed by the daily problems of living. Most of us have a need for hope and most of us desire some kind of change in our lives. But in Obama’s speeches the reason for hope and the agent of change that these preachers give in their sermons was absent. The vital missing ingredient was God. In the place of God Obama substituted himself and the Democratic Party. He and the Democratic Party were the reason for hope. They were the agent of change. One might suspect Obama of having cynically manipulating the American voter with his borrowed message of hope and change—a message with which he would have been familiar from his days as a community organizer.
I am also convinced that a place exists for the small membership church in the suburbs. Due to high real estate values and zoning restrictions suburban small membership churches, however, may need to take non-traditional forms. I have been involved in three church plants in suburban communities. The first plant was St. Michael’s, an Episcopal congregation, in the 1980s; the second North Cross, a United Methodist congregation, in the opening years of the new millennium; and the third, the Church of the Beloved, a charismatic Episcopal congregation, around the same time. Both St. Michael’s and North Cross have grown to become medium-sized churches. The Church of the Beloved has been struggling to survive since the Gene Robinson consecration. At the time of the consecration it was a small but thriving congregation. But the consecration created serious public image problems for the Church of the Beloved in a largely conservative suburban community, and the congregation has never overcome these problems. The consecration has taken its toll elsewhere in the diocese. St. Mark’s lost so many members that it also lost its parish status and became a diocesan mission again.
One of the challenges that the congregation that would become St. Michael’s faced was finding a suitable meeting place. This is a challenge that faces many suburban church plants. The organizational meeting was held in the fellowship hall of a local Disciples of Christ church, and public services of worship were conducted at a tennis club. However, the residents of the subdivision in which the tennis club was located objected to the parked cars on the street leading to the tennis club and the growing congregation was forced to find a new meeting place. A member of the congregation offered to lease two offices to the congregation and to tear down the wall separating the two offices to create a larger space for worship. When the congregation outgrew this space, it moved into a storefront and eventually leased the storefront, an adjoining office, and the apartment above the office. The congregation lost this space to the local school board when the landlord raised the rent and the school board leased the space for an annex to the kindergarten across the street. The congregation was near completion of its first building, and the school board graciously allowed the congregation to meet in an old gymnasium next to the kindergarten until it could move into its own building. To use the offices and the storefront for church services the congregation was required to obtain permits from the local town council and zoning board. In the case of the storefront, it had to lease additional parking space at a local car repair shop in order to obtain the needed permits.
North Cross had originally met in the chapel of a local funeral home. Since the Louisiana State Conference had purchased land for the new church and the congregation was already in the midst of planning its first building and raising money for the building, the board of a local maritime museum permitted the congregation to use its conference rooms and some empty offices on Sunday mornings for church services, Children’s Ministry, and a nursery. The Church of the Beloved began as a home fellowship, meeting in a private home. It moved to a large empty house on some property the husband of one of its members was developing into a subdivision. The congregation presently gathers for worship on Sunday evenings in the sanctuary of a local Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod congregation. The Church of the Beloved, which had been growing at the time of the Robinson consecration, is about the size it was at the outset.
The cell group church, home fellowship, or house church are three possible non-traditional forms that small membership churches may take in the suburbs. A cell group church, also known as a cell church, is a church that consists of cell groups—small groups that meet in private homes and at other venues for worship, prayer, Bible study, sharing, and fellowship. These small groups are also involved in community service and other forms of ministry and evangelism. Each cell group has its own leaders and trains its members to become cell group leaders. A cell group church may meet once a month for a worship gathering that involves all the cell groups. It may also meet once a month for a church-wide social gathering. New folks enter the church through a cell group and their main participation in the church is in the cell group. Newcomers who attend the monthly worship gathering are invited to attend a cell group near where they live or work. Discipleship and leadership training is done in the cell group. Bible study in cell groups is applicative. The primary focus is not acquiring knowledge about Scripture but applying what a particular Scripture passage teaches personally in one’s own life and collectively in the life of the cell group; in other words, being doers of the Word, not just hearers. A cell group church grows by multiplying cell groups. Cell group churches are common in Singapore where meeting places for churches are in great demand.
A home fellowship is a small membership church that is using a private home for its meetings. Once it outgrows the home, it will move to a new and larger venue. The Church of Beloved moved to a large empty house. For its weekly worship gathering it used “Rite III” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It gathered for the Liturgy of the Word in the living room and then moved to an adjoining room for the Liturgy of the Sacrament. It used the other rooms in the house for Children’s Ministry.
Some small membership churches will buy a large house and use it as a permanent meeting place. Before any church chooses this option, it needs to investigate local zoning regulations and to obtain the necessary permits. It may discover that the local zoning board or the residents of the neighbourhood in which it is located are opposed to the use of the house as a church meeting place. The neighborhood’s residents may object to cars parked in front of their houses and may call the police. A small membership church will need to address these issues before purchasing a house in a particular neighborhood. A small membership church with aspirations to grow may not wish to restrict its growth by purchasing a house. It may choose to lease it. In this way if and when it outgrows the house, it may move to a new and larger venue.
A house church differs from a cell group and a home fellowship in a number of ways. Unlike a cell group, which is a part of a larger congregation, a house church is a congregation. Unlike a home fellowship, which will move to a new and larger venue once it has outgrown the private home in which it is meeting, a house church will form a second house church if it outgrows the private home in which it meets. One house church will meet in the original venue and the other will meet in a new venue. The two house churches will then form separate congregations in a house church cluster, which is like a mini-denomination. Each house church will have a pastor-teacher and elders. Some house churches do purchase a house as a permanent meeting place.
A number of dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia have established what are called “Ministry Districts.” These districts are usually found in scarcely populated rural areas and consist of a number of widely scattered small membership churches. These congregations contribute to the stipend of a Ministry District Priest who serves all the congregations in a Ministry District. The size of the geographic area in which the congregations are located, the distance of the congregations from each other, and the number of congregations in the Ministry District determines how often the Ministry District Priest will conduct church services for a particular congregation. On the Sundays the Ministry District Priest is conducting services elsewhere a licensed Lay Reader conducts services for the congregation. The Lay Reader is licensed to preach. A congregation may meet in a private home or at another venue. While the congregation may use a house for its meeting place, it is not a house church, as the House Church Movement understands the concept, since it does not have a pastor-teacher and elders of its own. It may have its own Lay Reader, its own Vestry, and representatives on the District Committee.
Two and sometimes three congregations, each with its own meeting place, may be organized into a Parish rather than a Ministry District. These congregations will contribute to the stipend of a Rector. Ministry Districts are usually found in rural areas and multi-congregation Parishes in suburban and urban areas. In the latter arrangement one or more medium-sized or large congregations may be involved.
The disappearance of other community-based institutions makes the small membership church even more important today than in the past—not only in rural communities but also suburban and urban communities. Cultural, demographic, and economic changes have greatly eroded the informal social support networks in these communities. This includes the family. There is a vacuum that other organizations will eventually fill if the small membership church fails to do so. These organizations are likely to be secular or non-Christian religious organizations (e.g. Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Muslim, and Wiccan). It is only a matter of time before they recognize that there is a vacuum to fill if they have not recognized the existence of this vacuum already. High fuel prices, ill health, advanced age, reduced mobility, and lack of transportation will prevent one part of the population from attending the mega churches that have sprung up in recent years. While a number of segments of the population are attracted to the megachurches, other population segments are not.
Even if the social needs for small membership churches that I have identified did not exist, there would still be great spiritual need for these churches. A growing segment of the US population is unchurched. Some of these folks come from church backgrounds. A good number of them do not. They have never heard the gospel and have no previous experience with Christians at prayer.
When the Church was only the disciples that Jesus had gathered around him, he commissioned the Church to go into all the world and to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. He told the disciples that, when they had received the power of the Holy Spirit, they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. We are not only to witness to Jesus in our immediate circle of family, friends, and colleagues (Jerusalem) but also to the folks who are like us (Judea), to the folks who are not like us—those outside our community, our racial-ethnic group, our age echelon, social-economic group, those outside the mainstream of our culture, in a sub-culture of their own (Samaria), and to the whole human race (the end of the earth.)
All kinds of churches—and all sizes of churches—are need to carryout this task, which is why we were called out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light. Talking to folks about Jesus is as much declaring God’s excellencies, showing forth his praises as anything else. God gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. If that is not one of God’s excellencies, I do not know what is.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 9:15 AM