WHAT IS A GREAT CHURCH? For many Americans, great is synonymous with large, volume equals vitality, quantity means quality. But a countertradition is quietly emerging. As more churches grow to stadium proportions, small congregations are coming to see their diminutive size as an asset for mission.
I had to learn this from experience in serving as part-time pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church on Chica go's southwest side. With 167 members and 98 in worship on a typical Sunday, St. Andrew is a small congregation. But then so are the majority of Protestant churches. Of the approximately 400,000 congregations in the U.S., between 51 and 60 percent average 75 in weekly attendance, a percentage that holds true across racial and class boundaries. Small churches are often defined as those with fewer than 100 in worship on any given Sunday.
Whereas the average Protestant congregation is small, the average Protestant goes to a large church. Half of American Protestants are members of the largest 15 percent of churches. One school of prophets continually warns us that the small church has little future. One church official put into words what many silently believe: "A small church can be defined as one in which the number of active members and the total annual budget are inadequate relative to organizational needs and expenses. It is a church struggling to pay its minister, heat its building, and find enough people to assume leadership responsibilities."
Yet small churches are not dinosaurs destined to lose the struggle for survival. And it is not true that small churches don't have the resources to do effective mission. As Carl Dudley writes, "When church size is measured by human relationships, the small church is the largest expression of the Christian faith." And David Ray reminds us that "small churches are the norm, primarily because many, many people still find them to be the right size in which to love God and neighbor. I expect they will continue to be the norm."
St. Andrew shares an all-too-common narrative about church growth and decline, and about how good Christians can build bad congregations. It is also a story of hope and renewal.
St. Andrew was founded in 1964 by a synodical outreach team. The area was growing fast and the future looked bright. The common wisdom of church developers at the time was simple: where there is a pool of white, middle-class, home-owning families with children, mainline churches are likely to grow, no matter what their theological orientation. If you build it, white middle-class folk will come.
According to this model, each congregation took a specific neighborhood as its designated mission area and built its facilities deep within housing developments, not on major streets or intersections. The result was that the church was hidden from the wider community. People were expected to walk to their neighborhood church (or drive a short distance), just as they had done when they lived in the city. But since that era mobility has rapidly increased. Surveys show that most Protestants will travel up to 30 minutes by car to attend church services.
In the 1970s five Lutheran denominations were in competition with each other. The church planters' goal was to place their particular "franchise" in growing suburbs. Within ten years of St. Andrew's founding there were eight Lutheran churches representing three different Lutheran church bodies within a five-mile radius. Today there are 40 Lutheran churches within a ten-mile radius, 28 of which are, like St. Andrew, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When the ELCA was created out of a series of mergers in 1989, people were free to attend any Lutheran church they desired. Many moved from small congregations to larger ones. Small churches like St. Andrew were vulnerable.
Statistics tell part of the story: In 1979 church attendance had reached 160 at two services. …