Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
Mark 16:15 (Longer ending of Mark)
Clyde and Nannie Mae lived about a mile and a half to the west of the church. Harold and Louise lived about the same distance to the east. Their homes more or less formed the bookends of the church community. The overwhelming majority of the church members lived their lives within a fat three mile oval that encompassed these two houses. Very few of the church members had roots outside the immediate community.
This was my first full-time appointment as an ordained minister. The people taught me how to be a pastor and I loved the members of this church with all my heart. Whenever I am back in that part of the country, I still make a point to visit my “family in the faith.” When we see each other, we hug each other tight even after 25 years of separation.
When I worship with my old congregation, everything seems pretty much like it was 25 years ago, except for the fact that they’ve built a bigger fellowship hall to host those great church dinners. That, and the fact that many of the saints I knew now rest in the cemetery next to the sanctuary. Taking their place in the pews are their grandchildren and great grandchildren, whom I knew as toddlers and teenagers. Although the suburbs have encroached on their pastures and fields, only a few newcomers to the community have found their way into life of the church.
This little church was born in the 19th century as part of a wonderful mission strategy for the time. A large segment of the population lived on farms. Transportation consisted of one’s own feet and perhaps a horse-drawn wagon. Churches were sprinkled throughout the countryside like salt on a steak. Pastoral leadership was supplied by itinerant preachers or circuit riders. The strategy of planting hundreds of small congregations made the gospel and the life of the church available to all. What was a great mission strategy in 1810, however, is not necessarily a great strategy for 2010.
There are thousands of little churches just like this scattered throughout the United States. For the most part, they are still what one church growth author calls “single cell” churches. Everyone knows everyone else. The feeling of “belonging” runs high for those who are members. Resources are scarce and the pace of change is slow. Programs are few when compared to the “big” church down the road. Most of the church members’ energy goes into caring for each other, conducting fellowship activities and maintaining the physical and organizational structures of the church.
How can these churches function in a global mission strategy in today’s world? What kind of role can they play? I don’t think the answer is found in shaming them or trying to make them into something they are not. It’s easy to see the weaknesses of small churches; it’s harder to see their strengths. Most of them have existed in something like their current form for over a century. Only a few will successfully become something other than what they are – a single cell church in which everyone knows and loves everyone else – and what a wonderful thing that is!
Still, every Christian congregation is – or should be – a participant in Christ’s great commission. It is significant that most congregations of the early church were actually much like the small country church in structure: relatively small in size, single-celled, spending a good bit of their energy in caring for their own members and looking after their own affairs. They met in homes, not in mega-structures. While members of the mercantile and political classes traveled more than we might think, I imagine that most people of that era lived relatively settled lives. From these small, settled churches, the Christian faith spread until it conquered most of the ancient world.
What’s the difference between now and then? The members of those ancient small churches never lost sight of the fact that they were part of something bigger. They commissioned some of their members to go out into the world to proclaim the gospel and plant churches. They prayed (and paid) for those individuals who went “into all the world” in Jesus’ name. They were the platform from which missions were launched. They were the sustaining base which supported the mission effort.
Even today, members of small churches should see themselves as part of a worldwide mission. They should picture themselves as members of a connection that continues to fulfill Christ’s great commission.
What should members of small churches do? Continue to tell the story of Christ’s mission in the world. Challenge young men and women to consider a mission endeavor of some sort – whether across the world, in a distant city or in your own backyard. Adopt missionaries or mission programs as your own and develop a “personal relationship” with them. Pray for them and contribute to their work as you are able. Keep the mission of the church highly visible and personalize it as much as possible.
Here’s an even more shocking idea that strikes even closer to home. If your church has reached its maximum size as a single cell church – and it’s not reaching the new people that are moving into your own community – consider urging your denominational officials to plant a new church in your area and then do your best to support and promote it! I can even picture members of a small church going door to door to pass out promotional fliers for the new start-up or making phone calls for the new congregation.
Ultimately, it’s not important that your own congregation grow; it is important that Christ’s church grows. In the words of an old Gaither song, “Forget about yourself, and concentrate on him, and worship him.”
Assisting in the growth of Christ’s church – wherever that growth occurs – ought to be an occasion of pride and excitement for all Christians. It ought to be a part of every Christian’s vision and self-understanding. Being a member of a small church does not exempt anyone from the Great Commission.