Church: Choose Your Future: What Options Are There for a Small Church?

a review article

Small churches have numerous options for the future — some more attractive than others, some more workable than others. Some small churches will be able to do things that others cannot, due to their circumstances and personnel. The options are described in Lyle Schaller’s 142-page paperback The Small Membership Church: Scenarios for Tomorrow (Abingdon, 1994).

Schaller writes, “Most congregations are really confronted with two choices: change or gradually fade away” (page 21). “Small churches have a bright and promising future—if they are willing to adapt to a new role in a changing culture” (page 12). But he warns, “Small churches cannot enjoy substantial numerical growth without making what many will identify as unwelcome or disruptive changes” (page 13). “Change is more difficult in smaller congregations than it is in big churches” (page 20).

First or second commandment?

Schaller describes a major choice that small congregations face — to focus on each other, or to focus on God. He describes it as first-commandment churches and second-commandment churches. The latter pride themselves on loving each other; the former look more to spiritual needs. “The best small churches are organized primarily around the principle of loving your neighbor…. By contrast, the best of the larger churches are organized primarily around the first great commandment” (30-31).

Or to state it another way, churches that focus on loving themselves do not attract as many new members as do churches that focus on relationship with God. Don’t people want to be loved? Of course they do. The problem is that small churches love each other so much that a visitor generally feels like an outsider.

“The churches most likely to reach newcomers to the community are the first-commandment congregations that concentrate on identifying and responding to the religious agendas of people” (34). “Congregations that are primarily organized around nurturing interpersonal relationships and/or building a sense of community are less likely to attract strangers” (35). “Most unchurched individuals who do become regular churchgoers are attracted to first-commandment parishes that focus on meeting the religious needs of people” (111).

“In the small congregation, the Sunday morning schedule and program are usually designed with the members as the number-one constituency” (16). “By contrast, most large and rapidly growing churches think in regional, not neighborhood, terms and focus more on people’s spiritual and personal needs rather than on established kin or friendship ties” (19).

Many small second-commandment congregations place the greatest emphasis on God the Creator…. If the goal is to reach the generations born after 1955, place a greater emphasis on Jesus the Savior” (116).

So the choice set before us is this: “Do we want to be a healthy second-commandment congregation that places at the top of the agenda the quality of the relationships among our people? Or do we want to transform ourselves into primarily a first-commandment church that concentrates first of all on identifying and offering a meaningful response to the religious needs of people we have yet to meet?” (82).

Then he again warns that this change is not easy — it could involve “internal conflict over identity and role” (82). This requires a leader with vision, but “most small congregations have failed to create a congregational culture that is compatible with this leadership style” (85).


Large churches “assume that competition is the norm,” whereas small congregations tend to “believe that cooperation should be the norm” (62). The choice we make will affect our future. “Intercongregational cooperation in programming [i.e., worship, teaching, youth ministries, etc.] is rarely compatible with numerical growth” (71, 77). “Instead of recognizing the need for change, a cooperative arrangement often promises that yesterday is a viable model for tomorrow” (75).

If the goal is growth, Schaller gives this advice: “Concentrate on matching the local competition in quality; in publicity; in creating additional entry points for newcomers to welcoming places in your fellowship; in identifying and responding to the religious agendas of skeptics, pilgrims, searchers, agnostics, seekers and others on a religious quest; in serious and in-depth Bible study; in the ministry of music; and in the proclamation of the gospel” (74).

Congregations need a mission strategy. Although they are willing to accept anyone, they need to focus their evangelistic efforts. The question is: “Who are the folks your congregation is seeking to reach?… The goalless congregation that is drifting into tomorrow usually answers that question in these terms, ‘Everyone’” (81).

No congregation has to save everyone on the planet. “No one congregation…is obligated to be all things to all people…. Therefore, who are the people your church will seek to reach, serve, and challenge?” (86). Will we scatter our seed everywhere equally, or will we focus our efforts? “The first-commandment church is far more likely to follow a marketing strategy” (87). They seek to identify needs of the audience, not just what they are already doing (which is based on their own needs). “In marketing the beginning point is on the needs of the customer, not on the product” (102).

Schaller says that churches have a choice; they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. What do they want to be in five years? The choices we make now will affect our future. “The most productive results probably will come if identifying a future constituency is the beginning point for the discussion” (100).


From other books…

Weaknesses of small churches

“Many small churches do not have any noticeable social ministry. They are concerned only with their own doings….. Congregations who care only for themselves are becoming smaller and smaller. Eventually their place will have no meaning, for they have not shared it with anyone” (Carl Dudley, Making the Small Church Effective [Abingdon, 1978], 99, 103).

“The small church cannot grow in membership size without giving up its most precious appeal, its intimacy” (Dudley 49). “They cannot receive new members without losing touch with those whom they already know” (50). “Members of the congregation must want to grow so much that they are willing to give up the satisfactions of knowing, or knowing about, everyone else in the congregation” (51).

“A large proportion of the minister’s time and energy must be reserved for face-to-face contacts with potential new members and new members. Obviously that reduces the amount of time the minister has [available] to spend with members. This is one of the basic prices of church growth, and one that many members are unwilling to pay…. Some of the oldtimers may begin to feel neglected” (Schaller 1982, 72, 82)

“Even though new people are seen as desirable to help carry the load, there is also the fear that they will take control and change things” (Ron Crandall, Turn Around Strategies for the Small Church [Abingdon, 1995], 73).

“Adoption is a serious problem in many congregations where new members are kept on the fringes for several years, or even longer…. Most congregations cannot adopt members until they take pride in their own congregation’s ‘story of Christian witness’” (Dudley 58, 57).

“For some congregations, memory has been their strength and inspiration. For others, the weight of the past has become a millstone and a source of despair… Some history can be a burden, and some can be oppressive…. What is nostalgia for some people may be nauseous for others” (Dudley 83-84).

“What we ‘choose’ to remember may be our deepest longings for what will unfold in the future… Our memory tells us more about who we are than who we were, more about our hopes and fears for the future than what really happened in the past” (Dudley 86).

“We can identify five major problems faced by churches and their pastors as they seek to move from a survival mentality to renewed investment in ministry and evangelism. The problems are: (1) low self-esteem and apathy, (2) lack of vision for the future, (3) lack of concern and love for ‘outsiders,’ (4) finances and stewardship of resources, and (5) issues of power and interpersonal conflict” (Crandall 61).

“Negative self-image is the number one problem facing smaller churches” (Crandall 42). “The lower our self-esteem, the more likely it is that we will concentrate on ‘our problems’ and on institutional survival rather than on the potentialities for ministry” (Schaller, quoted in Dudley 20). “In most numerically growing churches the members are enthusiastic about (a) their faith as Christians, (b) the congregation of which they are members, and (c) their minister” (Lyle Schaller, The Small Church Is Different [Abingdon, 1982], 70).

“Small congregations prove particularly susceptible to social conflict…. [Some congregations] seem to chew up pastors” (Dudley 132-33). “Sinners in your congregation will, at times, reject you and your ideas for no good reason” (Bierly 30). “Wherever two or three are gathered together, problems develop” (Eugene Peterson).

“It is rare to find a small congregation that has experienced substantial numerical growth, and sustained that growth, without the benefit of a long pastorate” Schaller 1982, 71). “Smaller congregations tend to seek to grow by following the attraction model, while the proclamation approach is usually found in larger congregations” (Schaller 1982, 40).

Denominational tensions

“Small church leaders [tend] to see the denominational structure as bureaucratic machinery that squeezes people for money…. They show distrust of and hostility toward the hierarchy…. Small-church pastors and denominational officers often find it convenient to distrust and dislike each other. In many situations, each provides a convenient scapegoat for the other” (Dudley 158, 160).

“Small-church pastors and denominational executives have more in common than they have to divide them. They are both ministers (administrators) caught in the middle between the same irreconcilable expectations…. A first step toward the resolution of the denomination/small church problems lies in the simple admission that each will serve the Lord better when both agree to disagree honestly, openly, and without personal innuendo, in a spirit of Christian love. They have more to offer when they share their differences in perspective and resources. Neither alone can deal with the problems that confront small churches and concern the whole church of Jesus Christ” (Dudley 160-61).

“Denominations can serve congregations in two general ways: by a wider perspective on their ministry, and by specific resources for their mission” (Dudley 161). “Pastors and congregations in smaller denominations benefit even more from the counsel and programs of their denominational leaders than do those serving in larger denominations” (Crandall 164).

“Financial subsidies and high morale rarely go together!” (Schaller 1982, 60). “Denominational subsidies tend to produce dependency, passivity, low morale, and self-centeredness” (159). “The largest number and the heartiest of small churches are in those denominations where funds are simply not available” (Dudley 167).

“A growing portion of small congregations will depend on bivocational pastors and bivocational ministerial teams” (Schaller 1984, 13). “Effective pastoral service in a small church requires a different set of gifts, skills, priorities, and personal characteristics than are required to be the effective senior pastor of a large congregation” (14). “The smaller the congregation, the more influential are the volunteer lay leaders in formulating policies” (14). “The traditional dream of ‘having our own pastor’ who does not have any outside demands on his or her time is not a realistic goal for at least half of all the Protestant churches on the North American continent” (Schaller 1982, 88).

Twelve Emerging Turnaround Strategies

Listed in order of importance:

  1. Enhance congregational confidence and hope for the future.
  2. Stimulate concern for unreached persons in the community.
  3. Engage in proactive and effective pastoral leadership.
  4. Encourage an open, loving atmosphere in the congregation.
  5. Clarify your own personal vision and be an example.
  6. Help develop a clear, shared, congregational vision.
  7. Work and pray for spiritual renewal among the members.
  8. Provide high quality preaching and inspirational worship.
  9. Lead the effort to reach new people and grow.
  10. Emphasize and practice prayer.
  11. Develop new programs, especially for children and youth.
  12. Plan to take risks and take them. (Crandall 22-23)

Handling conflict

“Some of us, especially the relational types who like small churches because relationships are highly valued, tend to function like turtles, teddy bears, or foxes. We handle conflict by avoidance, submission, or egalitarian compromise. The first approach will never be a leader for change. Change produces conflict. To avoid conflicts is to abdicate leadership. Pastors can function this way and be loved, but they cannot lead a church out of trouble.

“The second approach sounds most ‘Christian’ to some ears…but teddy bears will always be eaten by sharks. And there is a danger in giving too much away to sharks. Shawchuck and Moeller write: ‘When “I must win” individuals are allowed to rule the church, anger builds in others, people feel coerced, and a dangerous dependency on the strong-willed individual develops.’ This is true whether the shark is a member or a pastor.

“The compromise suggested by foxes solves all problems in the same way: ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other’…. Such an approach may work well in some situations, but it can also destroy the dynamic and responsive life of the church as Christ’s body, which does not exist simply to make everyone happy, but to serve the purposes of the risen Lord.

“The recommended approach is that of the collaborative owl…. First, generate as much useful information as possible about all sides of the issue. Second, help the group see where they agree not just where they don’t. And third, bring all who are involved into the decision-making process and motivate them to personally commit themselves to the final agreement. This is indeed hard work” (Crandall 80-81).

Seven characteristics of growing churches

  1. Bible preaching.
  2. Emphasis on evangelism.
  3. A fellowship circle as large or larger than the membership circle.
  4. Opportunities for members to express their commitment through using their gifts.
  5. Leadership emerging from among new first generation members (not the children of older members).
  6. Specialties in ministry beyond the traditional.
  7. A minister who likes people and is happy as a pastor. Schaller, quoted in Crandall, 175

Two approaches to volunteers

“As pastor, I need to ask myself why I want people to be involved in the ministries of the church. The first possible motivation is employment: I want them to help me achieve my ministry goals…

“The second possible motivation is empowerment. In this model, the pastor serves the members of the church. The pastor is motivated by a desire to see them find fulfillment in Christ by helping them discern God’s call and develop their full ministry potential. When people know I am more interested in helping them fulfill their potential than in getting them to help me reach my goals, they feel valued, not used…. People should never serve programs; programs should be tools that enable people to better fulfill their calls” (Ron Klassen and John Koessler, No Little Places: The Untapped Potential of the Small Town Church [Baker, 1996], 91-92).

“I want to get over using the word volunteer and start using the word disciple” (Barbara Florey, quoted in Crandall 121).

“The most important decision about children’s classes is not the curriculum — it is the teacher. People remember the teacher far better than they remember the lesson material…. To a very substantial degree the teacher is the curriculum” (Schaller 1982, 113). “In a growing number of small-membership churches, the Sunday school is perceived as the most important single channel for reaching and attracting the new generation of parents” (118).

“If adults teach by who they are and by what they do, an adult class may be the critical element in developing a strong Sunday school in the small congregation…. Perhaps the best beginning point for strengthening the children’s division is to have at least one male-dominated adult Sunday school class meeting in a very conspicuous place, so the children can see that participation in Sunday school is appropriate behavior for adults” (120).


“There is no need to tell anyone how much to give, but there is a need to tell why to give and how to make stewardship decisions…. Focus on financial stewardship as a spiritual discipline and not primarily a way to raise money or pay bills” (Crandall 77-78).

“It usually takes four to six years for complete turnaround to come in most churches. Giving is not only linked to spiritual renewal and vision, but to trust. Trust takes time” (Crandall 79). “It takes about five years to lay the groundwork for an effective ministry in the small church” (Klassen and Koessler 35).

Author: Michael Morrison

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