Large churches are known for their excellent programs. They have the staff and resources to put into preaching, music, and Christian education, which small churches find impossible to match. This can lead to a sense of discouragement among members of small churches. How can we even begin to compete?
Small churches tend to sell themselves short. We fail to recognize our distinctive strengths such as our intimate fellowship and lay leadership. Another characteristic of small churches is that we are generally more resilient and can weather leadership changes better. We might think of these differences as the distinctive characteristics of a supermarket versus a farmers’ market.
In this respect, adventurous small churches that recognize their strengths may be uniquely positioned to respond to the increasing number of people who are frustrated with their experience of church and looking for alternatives. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope have done qualitative sociological interviews of such people who have dropped out and say they are “done” with church.
These “church refugees” are actually deeply committed and engaged Christians who have become completely disillusioned with the institutional church. Common frustrations are that most church resources are consumed by all those programs and that the church bureaucracy severely limits participation by ordinary members. Josh and Ashleigh offer four strategies for reengaging such people that can fit nicely with the vision of engaged and forward-thinking small churches (Church Refugees, 113-128).
Their first strategy is to “invite participation within limits.” We should trust our community and give people resources to participate meaningfully with minimal oversight. The second strategy is to find ways to “undermine bureaucracy.” Put timelines on positions and committees to avoid unhealthy concentrations of power. Encourage specific projects that capture people’s imaginations but be careful about developing them into programs.
A third strategy is to “be truly relational.” To that end we will devote staff time and resources to knowing and supporting people rather than creating and maintaining programs. Do things with people rather than for people. Finally seek to “impact your community” and allow yourself to, in turn, “be impacted.” To do that, we will want to be involved locally at the grassroots level.