upper room daily devotions

Thursday, December 14, 2006

the small urban church...when is it healthy?

When is a small, urban church healthy? Is it possible to have a church with under 200 members, with between 50 and 100 people in attendance, and maintain a full-time pastor and an active church program? These are questions being asked by several researchers. They have been written about extensively in the past ten years. They are in the back of the mind of every parishioner and pastor in small urban churches. However, there are almost no metrics for determining whether a church is healthy or not. Strike that...there are so many metrics out there that a church's "health meter" is dependent upon the tool used to review it.

I serve a small church, one where people come to find "tradition with a twist," and while we have some interesting "twists" on traditional Protestantism, we are still a small, urban, mainline Protestant church. Like many small churches in mainline denominations, we are "aging" more quickly than we are "getting young." Like all urban churches, we are in competition with multiple activities scheduled on Sundays - activities that tend not to be scheduled on "church day" in smaller towns. My church, like many urban churches is a neighborhood church turned commuter church. While we are surrounded by homes - single family homes, apartments, and condominiums - most of the new folks who are coming do not live within walking distance of the church. We have a lot of clear challenges that we must face in the near future. In reviewing all of the literature out there on church growth, membership, evangelism, church health, and church transformation, I am overwhelmed by the number of books, studies, and articles that tell me how to fix the church. Unfortunately, they offer differing (and often contradictory) ideas. Unfortunately, the are often based in a world other than the one that I live in.

I do not have the data to support it, but I believe that there is a vital and necessary role for the progressive, small, urban church. When so many people are rootless - living in the city without extended family, living in the city without a sense of deep community, living in the city overwhelmed by work and financial struggle, living in the city and raising a family without enough friends and family to offer enough help, living in the city as exiles from smaller towns where one's "difference" was too noticeable - small progressive churches can offer a home for one's spirit and one's family. The small church can be a safe place to unpack and undo bad theology - theology that has rubbed someone's soul raw. The small church can be a place to let go of the polish and gloss of our cities' downtown experience and bring us back to simpler ways of relating. The problem, of course, is that our challenges scare us so much that we do nothing to take advantage of the great promises that our small churches can offer. Often all we can see is the emptiness in our pews and our bank accounts. Being small is not our problem; being fearful is.

Small churches, like David so long ago, have to stand up to the giants in our midst and defeat them. I believe that we will be healthy when we begin to act and worship from a place of deep longing and deep faithfulness. We will be healthy when we have enough committed folks who have the passion to reach out in love and compassion to our neighborhoods. There are lots of metrics out there, lots of studies that tell us why the small church is doomed to fail, and lots of denominational tugging and pulling. However, almost all of them are fear-based. My challenge to my local church and to myself is to let go of the "fluff" and to act with determined faith in the coming year. Instead of looking at the bare wood in our pews, we would do well to see the Holy Spirit at work. Instead of focusing on the bank account every month, we would do well to ask ourselves if we are being good stewards. Even as we utilize tools prepared by others, we would do well to remember that our real standard is faithfulness. Perhaps this is too vague to be a good measure of our health, but I know that it's a step in the right direction.

Do you have an idea of how small urban churches might step forward into better and more robust health?

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