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Understanding the Rural Church (Pt 1)

Understanding the Small Church (Part One) 

By Dr. Glenn C. Daman 

When David arrived at his first church he was excited about the possibilities. The church was a small church located on the fringe of a large metropolitan area. David had received high marks in his seminary experience and was well trained for ministry. Before and during seminary he had attended a large, nationally recognized church in one of the major cities of the United States. He had spent six months on staff as an intern in order to get a feel for developing ministries and leading the programs of the church.

However, upon his arrival at the small church he sensed that things were vastly different from his large church experience. When he suggested that they remove the large pulpit for one smaller, the people reacted strongly against it. He scheduled a Missions Conference in early March, but had to change it because it was during the District Basketball tournament. Unlike the large church he served where the Senior Pastor significantly influenced all decisions, in his church he found that the congregation required that everything be voted upon, even the selection of Sunday School teachers. He soon realized that the small church functioned and acted differently.

Every church has a distinct set of cultural norms and expectations that set it apart. To be accepted as a leader of the group a person must understand, share, and affirm these cultural norms, otherwise the person will be viewed as an outsider.

The small church is different from its larger counterpart. It worships differently, it views leadership differently, it understands ministry differently. Often, leaders mistakenly assume that the principles of leadership and ministry operate the same in every church regardless of the size. This results in the leader becoming frustrated that the people are not following, and the people being discouraged because the leader is taking them in a direction they do not wish to go. Since the small church is different, we need to understand its characteristics and distinctives. While no church will manifest all fifteen of these characteristics, in most cases there will be several that predominate.

Characteristic #1: The small church is relationally driven.

Perhaps the single most important distinctive of the small church is that it is relationally rather than program driven. There exists within the congregation a family atmosphere where individuals are considered part of a bigger family, where relationships become more important than performance and organization. The small church has a place for everyone and shows concern for everyone. People are counted rather than programs and ministries. Rather than the life of the church revolving around the worship service or the programs, it centers around the relational bonds of the congregation.

This has enormous impact upon how the small church functions and organizes its ministry. Within the small church, it is not the position that gives power and authority to the individual but the relationships the person has with the other members. Consequently, the pastor is often not the primary leader of the congregation. That role is often given to an individual or family, who, by their personal interaction with others, influences the rest of the church.

Because the church is relationally driven the programs and organization of the church are determined and monitored by the effect they will have upon relationships. Opposition arises against anything that becomes a threat to the unity. People are more important than performance. The small church will often overlook poor performance rather than confront the individual and risk the relationship.

Characteristic #2: The small church works through informal channels.

Because of the close relational bonds, decisions are often made over coffee rather than formal meetings. When there are formal meetings, it is more of a social event than a business event. Goals are verbalized rather than written. Policies are based upon the effect the situation will have upon individual relationships rather than upon the organization as a whole.

As leaders, the challenge is to develop and maintain the organizational structure in a way that does not threaten but enhances the fellowship of the congregation. While policies and procedures for conducting church business are important and should be implemented, they should be communicated informally and in relational terms, rather than through formalized channels.

Characteristic #3: The small church works as a whole.

When the church acts, it acts as a whole rather than as individual parts. The whole congregation makes decisions rather than a representative few. People desire to know what is going on in every program and ministry even though they are not directly involved. The small church functions as a participatory democracy where everyone wants a voice and wants to be involved in the decision making process. Even when the vote is perfunctory, people still demand the right to vote. The ultimate decision making authority resides within the congregation rather than within the board or pastor.

This is especially true regarding the vision and direction of the church. Whereas in the large church, the senior pastor sets the direction of the church, within the small congregation the vision must arise from the people themselves. Rather than the pastor being the vision setter, he becomes a vision facilitator, one who helps and coaches the congregation as they set the agenda for the future.

Characteristic #4: Power and authority reside in the laity rather than the pastor.

The small church is owned and operated by the laity rather than the pastor. Because of this, the pastor is less important to the function and health of the small church than the larger counterpart. While the pastor may retain the title, the power of the church belongs to the people who have built and directed the church for generations. If the pastor comes into conflict with that power, then the pastor will often be asked to leave.

The pastor, to be influential, needs to focus upon being a shepherd, friend, and an advisor, rather than attempting to be the administrator and chief executive officer. To be effective, the leader needs to be sensitive to when it is necessary to exert leadership and authority and when it is imperative to allow the people to take the initiative. It is true that the pastor and boar members are ultimately accountable regarding the spiritual oversight of the congregation, and that often requires making difficult and sometimes costly decisions. Never should we compromise biblical truth in order to avoid confrontation. On the other hand, we should not blindly and authoritatively demand people to follow. Leadership is servant leadership, where we sacrifice our own personal agenda and pride for the well-being of the whole.

Characteristic #5: The small church relates as a family.

The small church functions as a family. In order to become part of the family, a person must be grafted in. This depth of relationship takes time to develop, thus making it difficult for first timers to be included. If you ask any small church what the strength of their church is, they will inevitably say it is their friendliness. If you ask people who attend for the first time what they disliked about it, they will often respond by saying it was their lack of personal warmth. This is not intentional, but a result of the close knit community that exists, where people already have their social needs met. Therefore, they do not feel any need to reach out to others. While they may greet new-comers after church, or even invite them to lunch, they have little desire to spend the time and energy to cultivate an in-depth relationship with them, for to do so would require that they sacrifice other relationships. Consequently, leading the small church involves helping people realize the importance of reaching out to new attendees with the purpose of developing close relationships with them.

While this close unity makes evangelism difficult, once a person is accepted and made a part of the congregation, it is even more difficult to get out. When a person is absent, someone will call and inquire if they are sick. They will be missed and the church will not let go of them without a fight. While it may be hard to get in the front door of the church, it is even harder to slip out the back.

Characteristic #6: Communication occurs through the grapevine.

Everyone knows what is going on because everyone talks about it. The rule of thumb regarding the grapevine is that the smaller the church and more close knit the people, the more the grapevine will be an asset. In such cases, there are no secrets within the church. What is communicated privately will be publicized openly. Positively, this means that everyone knows what is happening. Negatively, people will find out about issues under discussion before the leadership may be ready to have the information disseminated within the body. Therefore, open communication is often the best procedure.

On the other hand, the larger the church and the more socially separate, the more likely the grapevine will carry misinformation requiring clearer and more formal communication on the part of the leadership. If the grapevine become a liability to the church, then the leadership needs to develop formalized ways of communication to inform the congregation of issues before they are broadcast on the grapevine.

Characteristic #7: Traditions and heritage undergird the structure, ministry and culture.

Within the small church, traditions are more than ruts, they are the stories and bonds that tie the present congregation to the previous generations. Because the small church values not only the present membership, but also the past members, traditions play an important role within the life and expression of the church. They are not interested in the latest fad and they are slow to change for change constitutes a break not only from the past, but from the past membership. Each church has a story and each story has a person who is the hero within the story. To be a part of the church, new people need to learn the stories and value the people behind them. Each church has sacred cows that are the untouchables. They may be major issues such as a particular program, or they be as minor as the time of a service or the place of the pulpit. The reason they are sacred is because they are a connecting link to previous generations that people remember. For example, the pulpit is sacred because it was built by Fred's great grandfather who was one of the founders of the church. To replace the pulpit would be tantamount to forsaking the heritage of the church. The leadership, then, needs to identify what these sacred cows are, why they are so, and be sensitive to when and how they seek to change them.

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