Positive Growth for Small Churches

By Jim Czegledi

How do traditional mainline churches attract new generations of believers when they are not mega-style, seeker-driven churches? The answer does not always lie in new or radical models of ministry, but in a rediscovery of the type of ministry that has served the church for many years. A sense of piety and community can be expressed in ways appropriate and relevant to younger people today.

Many mainline churches find it impossible to relocate to areas of population growth or to radically transform into seeker-driven, program-oriented churches. Nor is it fair to suggest that all younger people want that style. Many want the orthodoxy, the sense of tradition and rootedness, that mainline churches offer. They want meaningful ministry – relevant preaching, nurturing fellowship, and Christian education for their children.

No one-size-fits-all answers will solve church growth problems. Each congregation is unique and presents different challenges. Every church has its own particular culture (who it is), congregational system (how it does things), and community context (where it is). The potential for evangelism in every congregation depends on the grace of God and the faith, gifts, and cooperation of its members. It also depends on the health of the culture and systems and on the possibilities presented by the community.

Pray first, because ministry is a spiritual enterprise and no one does it alone. Ministry at the best of times is not an easy enterprise, and these are not the best of times for many mainline churches. Reaching baby boomers and baby busters requires great amounts of effort, vision, flexibility, and interpersonal and communicative skill. Though difficult, it is not impossible. Church leaders need to rededicate themselves to quality and excellence. Ministry requires hard work. The Spirit of God guides the process, and the Christ of the Church redeems and renews all who labor in it. A larger question looms: What will young people find once they do return to church? Will they find a welcoming, nurturing, healthy congregation? Or will they find one fractured by conflict and hampered by a lack of vision?

Begin with a balanced approach. A holistic view of the church regards all people and every generation as valuable. It reflects Jesus’ desire for his church to be one (John 17). The Great Commission challenges the church to make disciples of all nations – all people, not just Builders, or Boomers, or Busters. In this intergenerational (whole people of God) approach, children have a vital role in the life of the congregation and a place in worship. The church values them as role models for the Kingdom of God. Youth are integrated into the ministry, meet in youth groups, teach Sunday school, sing in choirs, greet, usher, and are contributing members to the fellowship. Older people serve as faith mentors or spiritual coaches to the younger. They also serve as surrogate parents or grandparents to younger people who often have families far away or estranged from them. The church acts like an extended family, respecting everyone’s differences while serving the higher purpose of advancing God’s Kingdom.

Strong leaders. Younger people expect their leaders to lead. How can we do this best? Christ entrusts people with the responsibility of church leadership. This implies teamwork – a community of contributors with leaders who present a clear vision of the goals toward which people work together. Traits that foster this type of church leadership include ability to exercise leadership, openness to change, willingness to learn new skills, high energy, willingness to share leadership authority, and ability to take the heat for leadership decisions.

All are seekers. The balanced approach to ministry recognizes that everyone has a faith journey. While members may be at different stages or on different levels, all travel on a faith pilgrimage. Transformation comes as a result of Christian formation. The goal: to develop and nurture the formation of Christian character through preaching and study. “Journey” theology understands faith as a process leading to maturity and perfection (Phil. 1:6, 3:12). The Bible abounds in “journey” imagery, from the children of Israel’s Exodus to the spiritual development that Paul addresses in the New Testament. The journeying process emerges as important as the destination.

People want meaningful worship. They want a worship experience and preaching that address human need, while helping to answer the questions they ask. While the problems and needs of younger people differ in degree from those of other generations, they do not differ in kind. Everyone has human needs. These needs focus around issues of origin, purpose, identity, alienation, self-fulfillment, and destiny. Meaningful ministry makes the gospel relevant to people’s needs by addressing the questions they ask. Relevant worship and preaching are biblically based. Blending styles of traditional and contemporary worship or having two different services helps to satisfy different needs. But more important, effective churches make the content of the gospel communicate with relevance to everyday life. Worshipers need to leave church with a positive experience, a word of hope, and help with living the Christian life in a complex and stressful world.

The key to balanced ministry: Deal with diversity. Leadership and differing opinions, competitive visions, and personal agendas always presents a challenge for the church. How can people who think, believe and act differently find unity? Unlike any other institution, the church’s charter demands seeking and embracing diverse people. Only through Christ’s spirit and fellowship can different people find commonality. This constitutes the difficult work of ministry. How can it be done?

Resist viewing ministry in either/or terms. Seek both/and approaches. It is easy to see the Christian life and ministry in simple either/or terms. We may view Christian faith as a dichotomy between the poles of law and gospel, judgment and grace, mind and heart, spirit and body, transcendence and immanence. The same thing applies when dealing with diverse people. The dichotomy can be seen between traditional and contemporary worship, new and longtime members, modern and postmodern worldviews, narrative and expository preaching, tithing and giving. The balanced approach manages these polarities by living within those tensions. It is both/and, a balancing act.

One way to live in this tension leads us to approach issues from both sides. For example, when preaching, we can describe grace as meaningless without the law. Grace has no meaning unless God makes demands on us. When dealing with congregational issues, look at both the polarities (spend/save, loyalty/distrust, hymns/choruses, individual/community) and generate a list of scenarios based on these outcomes. Diversity cannot be solved or resolved. (This is what separates it from conflict.) At best, we can manage it and develop leadership amidst its complexities. Emphasizing one approach is not always right. However, we make a mistake if we always compromise and try to meet in the middle. These complex, changeable polarities demand more than a simplistic solution. We often express diversity in terms of problems and solutions (what we need), as affirmations (what must never change), or as chronic unresolved conflicts.

Leading amidst diversity is the key to ministry in the third millennium. Balanced, holistic ministry focuses on all people, maintains the creative tension between poles, and provides meaningful worship. This gives an effective approach to mainline churches serious about reaching younger people.