Small Congregations Are Not Failing, They Are Surviving
I have served several relatively small congregations, and seem to be moving toward smaller rather than larger. Congregations of fewer than 50 in worship, often 30 or fewer, are common throughout my area of Wisconsin and across much of our country. Many of these remember “glory days” during the height of church attendance in the 50s, 60s and 70s and now feel diminished. Many are filled with members who are aging, and if they have younger adults and children, they often also have the grandparents. We, thinkers about the Church in abstract terms, often see these congregations as failing, as in need of revitalization. I have been very guilty of that. We take the need to re-energize the mainline religious bodies to these congregations as chief goals. The result is that we miss the vitality and needs and ministries that are before us.
My most recent Interim taught me an important lesson. Or re-taught me, to be more accurate. Great ideas for vitality and new ministry require a carefully and deeply prepared seedbed if they are to have any chance of sprouting. And not every congregation needs those ideas at all. I entered this long-lived congregation in a village that had become an outer-ring suburb as a place of great possibility. I saw people who seemed to hold beliefs and attitudes that were more progressive than those of the community as a whole and thought they would be ready to step forward boldly as so many of our renewal programs and initiatives were trying to encourage. But I did not look well enough at who they were and what they wanted for themselves and for their community. I tried to enfold them with the larger and stronger congregations that really could expend the energy to try a new way. And, I showered then with imagined possibilities that I as an intentionally interim pastor could not nurture. The people pushed back against most of my enthusiasms, as they should, but we were able to find some common ground for initiatives that arose from within.
A recent conversation with a member of a church I served a couple of years ago sparked a new perspective for me. “Why,” she asked, “would, intelligent, professional people who had been active in the UCC congregation leave for the non-denominational evangelical congregation down the road?” I am speculating here, but I wonder if it is because, in the current climate, our intellectual, rational, even deconstructing approach to scripture and belief, which encourages questions and the seeking of answers, just does not satisfy. Or does not satisfy enough of the people in a small community church. People are, I suspect, looking for a spiritual answer to the needs of the heart and soul. Hoping for a personal experience of the divine, the holy, the true. For a spiritual compass. Most of our progressive churches need to develop an evangelical passion out of a deep certainty of the steadfast love, mercy and justice of God to go with our progressive social ideals. We need a place for a full, devotional, personal faith that can support acting with love and prophetic power with others for a better world. In small communities especially, we do not have the luxury of being the rational, progressive church only. We need to encompass the whole range of faith needs (but without abandoning our principles or intentionality about our language).
So, as an interim minister, perhaps it is my role to search for the spiritual power already present in the small congregation I serve, to nurture that power as they answer questions from the new UCC profile: Who are we? Who are our neighbors? and What is God calling us to do? To bring a renewed dedication to prayer and discernment to the process. And, hopefully, to leave them open and faithfully ready for the new directions they will discover with a new settled leader.