This past weekend we had our annual children’s program. In small-town church life, this is one of the biggest services a year. I remember years ago, while church planting, when a good pastor friend of ours told us about how they focused on the kids. Their yearly children’s program grew so much that they actually had to tell regular attendees to the church to stay away on the week of the program, unless they were working or greeting. Can you imagine telling people to stay home or go to a neighboring church just so people who normally are not in church could have room.
Our service this year didn’t push people out of the building, but it was wonderful to see families who normally are not in church in the service. It was great to see both parents of children, who don’t even live in the same town, putting aside differences and coming to worship and see their children. One grandparent even told us how much they appreciated that we kept the focus on the story of Christ, and on the kids. She said her own church had been making the services more about the adults and they were happy to see the children running the service.
Over the years of ministry I have had people help my wife with the kids and say how much they learn from the kids. We are reminded in Isaiah 11 of when God will restore all things to the place it was before sin entered the world. In reference of course to Jesus, verse 6 says “a child will lead them.” However, many people play down children, or push them off to the side. I am often reminded that we can learn a lot from children. Especially, about peace, love, and faith. After all, Jesus even said we should have the “faith of a child” (Matthew 18:3).
Never underestimate the power of your children’s program. More important, never underestimate the power of God’s work through the children of your church. You may be surprised by how much they can lead others to Jesus, and just how much you will learn from them.
Keep building your ministry to families on the whole family approach, which Jesus has for all of us. May God bless your ministry Journey.
Today I had lunch with a fellow pastor of a larger church. During our conversation he asked me if I had ever been asked advice from another pastor in my type of setting, I responded “yes, I have.” Then he surprised me by telling me he was going on a mission trip and one place he would be stopping was a church of only nine people, then he said, “What do I do?” This took me back to a friend that called me and asked the same question about six years ago, he was trained like most of us by different pastor’s and profs, that had served in a larger church setting. Nothing he had been told seemed to work, he had no staff, little funds, no space, and the people seemed to resist any changes that he wanted to bring to the church. I pondered my response to him, and I have decided to write a three-part blog about what I have learned over the years I have served in a small church setting.
Part 1. Learn:
This may sound odd to you, but the greatest thing we can do when serving ether in a larger congregation or a smaller one is to learn from our people. We learn by listening to what they say, and looking for areas that seem to be of concern to them. Remember, many smaller churches have a history of changing pastors every two to four years, they have not really had a chance to every develop a vision for their church ministry. In my own experience, I went to a church that was 115 years old and I was the 84th Pastor, you do the math. The fact is that they would often say to me, “We are a good place for starting pastors.” When I asked about their missional vision, they had no idea of what the vision was. So, I spent the first two years learning about them, which also allowed them to learn about me.
I didn’t just look at old glory day records, I talked with people that remembered them. I also conversed with them about why those days had ended. This does not mean that I am not a progressive pastor, I am, but I also know that people will resist change that seems to exclude their wishes and likes. Many of the prior pastors where young, just out of college. They were pastors that wanted to make the next mega church. This isn’t a bad thing, but it cannot be done by excluding the current church body. So, I took some time to learn my congregation.
I also learned about the social needs within our community. Here are some of my findings see if they reflect any in your situation. I found a high divorce rate, high unemployment, high drug and alcohol consumption, and a high school level or less for the average education of the people. Learning this helped me to understand how to speak to needs within the community and how to better communicate to the people.
I became involved in the community watch program as this town was so small it did not even have a police officer. I started volunteering in the local school system to learn what the younger members of our community saw as important within the church. In all of these things, I learned about the people of the community in which I served.
I learned very quickly that the members the congregation did not want two things to happen, (1) they did not want any “big church pastor to tell them what to do in their small church.” It was not that they didn’t like the larger church. They just did not like be treated, or what they saw a being treated, like dumb people by those in a larger church. (2) They didn’t want the pastor making big plans and then leave them with the continuation or problems.
When you are called to a smaller church setting, be prepared to commit to seeing it through. I stayed ten years at my last church assignment, and many changes were made. This included me teaching them to stop saying “we are a good place for starting pastors.” Instead they began saying “we are a good place to pastor.” But it all has to start by being still and listing.
Most of the Bible is filled with tribal languages, especially through the Old Testament. Abraham was the leader of a small tribe, which would grow with his children and grandchildren into what we know as the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus comes on the scene and calls twelve men and a group of women together to continue his mission into the world. The day of Pentecost comes and we find that about 120 people were gathered together. This, in reality, is a tribe. It is a group of people joined together in all aspects of their lives, and working for the common goal and mission.
Early Church gatherings and church formations throughout much of history have operated much like the tribal system from which Israel formed. A leader or a handful of leaders formed a church, what some might call a small group today. That group would grow, but in most cases because they were meeting in homes the group size eventually was forced to split. When we read Paul’s writings to the churches of the New Testament. These writings are often to a group of leaders, who likely had churches throughout the cities and provinces that he was writing. It would have been impossible for a persecuted church to gather inthe hundreds and thousands in one location without drawing the unwanted attention of Rome. We have to remember that at the time Christianity was considered illegal atheism to the Roman Authorities.
Following this beginning, the Church Universal grew through people carrying God’s word, in small groups, out to the world. Churches were established in villages, towns, cities, and rural areas of the world. These establishments started much like they do today, with a handful of people joining together for study and encouragement, again what some would call small groups. Family leaders brought their families together, and out of these groups a church formed. Even the early beginnings of American Christianity, from the small tribe of pilgrims to the many established churches that popped up with settlers as the nation grew, was built upon the joining of several families in a common focus. This is still the basis of a majority of the churches in America, where most churches remain under 150 people in weekly attendance. In fact, if you seriously study the growth of small groups in the mega-church movements you will find that successful growth beyond the 150 mark entails some sort of formation of groups of tens, the twenties, and even fifties, for deeper study and fellowship. This is because people tend toward a deep relationship in a smaller group, and most of us have deep relational needs. It is how we are created to live and work by God.
Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fisher-Wright have written an organizational leadership book entitled, “Tribal Leadership”. It is a great book for learning about the dynamics for leading and strengthening your leadership as a tribal leader. I would encourage anyone interested in tribal leadership or who leads a small group or smaller church to look into the thoughts of this book. In the beginning, of their book, they describe some information about what tribes are. Here are a few descriptions they give:
“Human beings form tribes”. (Introduction)
“Every organization is really a set of small towns. We call these small towns tribes.” (p.3-4)
“A tribe is a group of between 20 and 150 people.” (p.3-4)
I found the number “between 20 and 150” very interesting. I’ve been told for more than twenty years of pastoral ministry that a small church is a church under 150 people. I have also been taught that in most cases a person can only effectively pastor about 150 people before they must call on others for help and expand the pastoral care. It was refreshing to see in print what God was already laying on my own heart, that I must change my ministry from being worried about super growth, numbers, or trying to lead a corporation. A few years ago I fought my own ego and the pressure of many in the background in which I find myself ministering. I began seeing that the smaller or small-town church isn’t a bad thing, its simply different than the larger church focus, of most books out on church health. I began to see that, like much of the Biblical history and much of human history, we in small town ministry operate more as a tribe than a corporation.
I am being encouraged through this book on “Tribal Leadership”. I am starting to see some better ways to lead the tribe in which God has called me to lead. I am also understanding in my experience more and more that, like Abraham, Jacob, and others in the Bible, I am not some general out in front of troops or leading from behind to get people to do what I want to be done. Instead, I am living life with the people. I am going through the trials and problems with them. When they hurt, I hurt. When they cry, I cry. When they celebrate, I celebrate. I know many larger church pastors say these things about those they lead, but the reality of psychological and personal dynamics show us that it is impossible to really know thousands of people personally at a level that makes us a family with them. A tribe is, in essence, the agreement of a group of families to form a united family group. In the smaller church the pastor, and more often the pastor and spouse, are called to be the leader of that family group, that tribe.
I want to encourage others who are on this same journey, in a similar call to the smaller parish life. Yes, there will be painful experiences in your ministry. Yes, there will be times you hurt so badly and hope so hard that you loose sleep over those whom you have let into your heart. It is the risk of being in a family. The risk of being a part of a tribe. Stopping thinking that you are leading some business organization, and start simply living life with the tribe God has called you to. You may not have your name on the cover of a major leadership magazine or ever speak to hundreds of thousands of people. However, you will know the joy of seeing children grow into adults who carry God into their own families and daily lives. You will be blessed to have a family unit far larger than just you, your spouse, and your children. You will find ties that really can last a lifetime. In the end, you will not know just how many people you have affected within the greater community that you have become a part of. This is especially true if you can help to bring true Godly love and unity into the DNA of your tribe.
I pray that God blesses you, as you lead the tribe you are called to lead. I pray that God gives you the daily call to be the leader who unites and encourages the tribe toward greater things in His purpose within the community that you are called to live.