After a visit to my home church in Sutherland, Iowa earlier this month, I'm convinced smaller congregations need to think "outside the box."
Sutherland is the small town where I graduated from high school with 35 others back in 1961. It was the typical Iowa farming community of about 600 or 800. Consolidation of schools was just beginning back then so the community had its own grade, junior high, and high schools. Today it has none of those! The grade school/junior high is now a senior adult center with exercise rooms, a nice swimming pool, and other amenities for the seniors who predominate in the area. The high school is now the site of a firm manufacturing stained glass.
Back in the "old days," First Church of Christ had about 125 faithful Christians meeting each week. Today there are 80 on a good Sunday. They have not lost their outreach consciousness nor are they content to float along to their demise. The worship building looks better than it ever has with a lot of upgrades such as an elevator, new paint, and a completely redone basement. Within the last year or so, the congregation committed themselves to building a new gymnasium where kids can play basketball and other indoor games. Without the schools, there were no places for the community's children to play. First Church of Christ spent over $300,000 with no help from the government or any outside sources. They are just now beginning to reap the benefits in the eyes of the rest of the community.
In addition to that, First Church partnered with a congregation in nearby Primghar (the only Primghar in the world, I might add) to provide a full-time youth minister. The two churches pay the salary and they combined their youth activities so they could make a significant dent in southern O'Brien County. The churches are looking for other ways they can work together to carry out their God-given mission. Such cooperation hasn't required either congregation to surrender their autonomy or their identities but it sure has increased their effectiveness.
It strikes me that in this day of high tech communication and ease of travel, there are many other smaller congregations that need to consider ideas that might seem "outside the box." As I write this, I am serving as interim minister for a congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is a smaller congregation, but they have an active eldership willing to minister to the needs of their flock. That's what elders should do! Because of the electronic communications media at their disposal, they are able to communicate with each other and with me as often as necessary.
I think there are lots of ways yet to be discovered where smaller congregations can work together to accomplish great work for God. What it takes, though, is an unselfish spirit and a congregation filled with humble people who have a mind to be servants in God's Kingdom. All too often smaller congregations hesitate to work with others because they fear losing their identity. In the process, they find it difficult to continue and in time they die.
Just as God wants all kinds of people in his Kingdom, I think he wants all kinds of churches to exist. I'm glad to see Standard Publishing offering workshops for smaller churches, but I suspect that in most cases those workshops will prod such congregations to become larger churches. A smaller church, when it really accomplishes God's work will grow but it may never become a "large church" let alone a "mega church." Maybe it shouldn't even aspire to! Just as every part of the body is important, even though some parts don't seem to contribute much or get much attention, so every congregation of believers is important. A smaller church is just as important to the Kingdom's overall health as a mega church. Sometimes we lose sight of the tree because of the forest, so to speak!
Mega churches and larger churches are often effective at evangelism -- winning souls. They are not all that effective in grounding those won in Scripture's essential truths. Sometimes smaller churches aren't either, but they could be. Maybe, just maybe, some of those smaller congregations survive because they continue to ground at least some believers in Word and doctrine. I learned a long time ago, it isn't the many I had in class that made the difference; it was the one student "who got it" and went out and did it that did! It isn't the multiplied thousands who make up the mega church who make a difference nor is it the tens and hundreds of smaller churches. In both cases, it is the few who live out their faith that make the difference!