It seems like every time I turn around I hear how the"emerging" or "emergent church" is the magic bullet that will save institutionalized Christianity. Just a few years ago all of the literature produced for churches was on church growth. Now the trend is toward smaller, more experiential, and ritual based communities. Through all of these conversations, I have become increasingly interested in the potential role for small churches in the urban environment. While there clearly is a place for the large, growth-oriented church, and while there is a newly developing place for the emerging church movement, I believe that there is a resurgence of interest in the small church in urban neighborhoods, especially if the small church can find a way to embody a message of justice.
I currently serve a small church that seems to function in between the Alban Institute's categories of "family" and "pastoral" size churches. With a membership of 112 and around 70 in worship each week, Woodland Park United Methodist Church is bucking many of the trends established by small urban churches. Data indicate that churches need at least 80 people in worship each week to be able to afford a full-time pastor. Data also show that small urban churches are in decline. The church I serve doesn't follow either of these trends - at least not yet. WPUMC is an active, vibrant church that is intentional in providing for families and its dedication to justice and radical hospitality. Unlike some churches that focus on social justice to the exclusion of spiritual and family needs, WPUMC has a deep desire to provide for people who have never been to church or who are returning after a long absence so that they will find a place to ask questions of faith, find healing, and provide for the spiritual needs of the whole family. Those who are coming and staying at WPUMC want a small church where the whole family is known, where their gifts are wanted and needed, and where they can find a community with a level of intimacy not found in other organizations in our society.
For years I have noticed that small churches live with a stigma of "not being successful." However, I think that in urban contexts in which so many of us are transplanted from other regions of the country (even the world), where we work in large corporations, where our children attend large schools, and where everything we do is on a large scale, the small church can provide a sense of family and belonging that other organizations cannot provide. Additionally, small churches that retain the liturgy of their traditions extend to people returning to church a feeling of the familiar that is often desired by them. I also think that small churches that maintain "traditional" architecture have an additional gift for their communities. I know the popularity of warehouse churches and coffee shop churches and the resurgence of house churches, but even so some people desire traditional architecture for their churches. There is something powerful about set apart space that we call sacred and establish for the worship of God. There is something familiar and understandable about entering a different world on Sunday (or whenever we worship) that acts as though God's kin-dom has already come.
Small churches that maintain liturgy and architecture and that also embrace a message of inclusion and justice can be a new locus of spiritual life in our urban centers. WPUMC is striving to be one of these places. We have many of the struggles of small churches (money, leadership, diversity), but thus far we have been able to provide a place for people to come and experience tradition re-interpreted, allow the time and space for people to ask fundamental questions of being and faith, provide a home where all people can belong, and maintain programs and strucutres that encourage the entire congregation to pursue justice.
This is just the first of several ramblings on the power and place of the small urban church. In future blogs, I will cover the function of liturgy, the importance of justice, the power of asking questions, and the value of children. One of the drawbacks of the emerging church is the narrowness of its scope. I certainly applaud the movement on many accounts, but it doesn't provide the necessary familiarity for multiple generations to meet together in worship and prayer. It is still the traditional church that does this, and I believe that there is something incalculably important about having 9 month olds and 90 year olds in the same worship.
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