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What Does the Future Look Like for Smaller Churches?

Our nation is dotted with smaller churches. 
Some have very effective ministries while others struggle to keep their doors open. 

Some are led by student-pastors and others have found bivocational leadership; growing numbers are finding it difficult to find pastoral leadership.

Even finding good lay leadership is a struggle in some of these churches as their membership ages and people do not want the responsibility.

Those churches with healthy leadership and ministries will do quite well, but what about the others? What lies ahead for them?

One obvious option would be to close.

For some churches it is the best option. Such churches could probably contribute more to the kingdom of God by becoming a legacy church than to remain open as long as they can pay their light and heat bills. 

For more information on legacy churches, I recommend reading “Legacy Churches” by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond.

A second option is to have several churches served by one pastor.

The United Methodist Church has been doing that for years. We have proposed this to some of our American Baptist churches in our region, but it has not been met with a lot of acceptance.

There is a strong tradition of our churches having their own pastor, and that tradition has been difficult to overcome. This is unfortunate because it can be a viable option.

A third option is to have smaller churches merge congregations.

Those suggesting this option assume that once the churches merge and become larger, they will be better able to attract leadership and develop more effective ministries. 

Unfortunately, mergers are much more complicated than many people think.

Often, when two or three unhealthy small churches merge, you have one larger unhealthy church. Mergers do not solve underlying issues in a congregation.

A common problem is that these merged churches continue to function as two churches that now meet at the same time in the same location. The congregations never truly unite, and an “us vs. them” mentality takes over.

Another issue that arises is where the merged congregation will meet. It’s often best if both churches sell their facilities and purchase a new one. 

Otherwise, the congregation that keeps its building may feel their vote counts more than the other congregation who has been merged into their church.

There is a fourth option that I think needs to be explored more than it has. Some smaller churches have become satellite sites of larger churches in the area.

These churches are able to keep their property and much of their identity, but they often benefit from having more experienced leadership and more resources than they would have on their own. 

Many have live worship leadership in their own building, but at a prescribed time the teaching pastor appears on the screen to deliver a message.

They will often have a site pastor who may be a layperson who is gifted to provide pastoral care and local ministry.

There are challenges to this option – for instance, a preference for an in-person speaker rather than a live video feed.

While understandable, I have to wonder how many people who would object to having their pastor preach on video never miss a Charles Stanley sermon on Sunday morning before they go to church.

I believe that once people got used to having their minister deliver his or her message on a screen, they would find this is a not a problem.

A second issue would be that the satellite church would have to be very careful about timing with a live video feed.

Some churches get around this problem by using a video from the previous week’s message so they can play it at the appropriate time.

While there are other challenges to this option, there are also a few advantages. The quality of the sermons could be much better because many pastors of larger churches are usually good communicators.

A second benefit would be the additional resources the smaller church would have available through their relationship with the larger church. For example, additional training opportunities could be offered by the larger church.

Smaller churches are going to have to begin looking at some of these options as it will become increasingly difficult for them to continue as they have for decades.

Changes are coming whether we like them or not. The wise churches will be those who recognize this reality and begin transitioning to a new model that will make the most sense for them.

Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Ind., for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.