Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Joy of Mini-Church: Part 1

In Leadership Journal I saw a funny cartoon some years ago. A street ran between two churches. On one side of the street was a huge mega-church and on the other side a small mini-church. The pastors of both were fleeing their respective churches and running toward the opposite church shouting, "Finally, this is what I really want!" Mega-guy wants a mini-church and Mini-guy wants a mega-church.

I am going to do a meandering series about the joys of mini-church. While I do not intend to disparage mega-churches, I do tend to view them as celebrity churches. Just as Hollywood elevates celebrities against whom many citizens unwisely measure their ordinary lives and live vicariously through "the stars," so lots of people (and pastors) in small churches get star-struck by and perhaps envious of the evangelical celebrity churches. I do confess that I've learned a lot from Willow Creek Community Church, Saddleback, Mars Hill Bible Church, Hillsong, and other big time churches. But, let's admit it, these are the celebrities among us---us, the ordinary, non-celebrity churches. The average Episcopal Church has 89 members. Most USAmerican churches are 100 or less.

Ed Dobson, long-time pastor of Calvary Church here in Grand Rapids, MI, once said at the Moody Pastors' Conference, "Big churches have big problems; little churches have little problems. So, brothers and sisters, don't envy me because I pastor a big church." I'll never forget Dobson's transparent comment.

I don't want to repeat the recurring litany (cliche) of the small church: Bigger is not necessarily better. Why? Because sometimes bigger is better. Bigness is no sin, but neither is smallness. The fatal flaw in thinking about smallness in a "super-size me" culture is that smallness means or marks failure. Or, smallness represents lack of passion, or comfort with the status quo, blah, blah, blah. Wrong!

I, like most of you, am aware that we're in a massive transitional era in church history. We're in a vast liminal space. Some enduring, cherished, yet merely human constructs of theology are being questioned, debunked and/or reconfigured. Ideas move the world. Theological ideas move the church.

These are the days of highly interactive, global, transitional theology. I, for one, like it. It does not scare me, as apparently it does a lot of my pastor-peers. Even the idea of "pastor" is being reimagined. Great. But in liminal space, the floor moves. Nothing is nailed down. Liminal space needs liminal leaders. For those who need a "nailed down" confidence--an unmoving floor-- these are frightening times. Fear provokes a plethora of panicked idiocy. My advice? Chill. As passionate followers of Jesus and the Jesus Way, we'll make it through. Not without tears and, perhaps, not without scars. Take a hard look at our Leader--the "nailed down" One.

The first joy of the mini-church: I see a gathering of people and I know all their names. I am even learning their stories--their many blessings and their heart-rending brokenness. We're here for each other and we're here for our community. We're not driven by church policies; we're driven by relational trust as we seek to love God and love people. Do we want to grow? Of course, but we will grow relationally and deeply and personally.

I do not miss the days when I looked out on a room of mostly strangers...regular attenders. As Eugene H. Peterson emphasizes: the personal name is the most important part of speech.

"The shepherd...calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me..." (John 10:2,3,14).



At 8/16/2007 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Ed Dobson's comment, "Big churches have big problems; little churches have little problems. So, brothers and sisters, don't envy me because I pastor a big church."

My older brother pastored a very large church for 30 years. Meanwhile, for the past 28 years, I've pastored a small, rural congregation that has gradually grown into a "medium-sized" church.

Years ago I envied my brother terribly! But about 20 years ago I came to realize that I was the fortunate one! A few years ago as we were talking about these things, I Iearned that while I was envying him he was envying me!

As our church grows, I find myself enjoying a lot more "security" but somewhat dreading the new problems size brings with it.

To anyone who can't imagine himself/herself pastoring a small church, I can only say that (along with the struggles and problems common to all churches) it has been a delight for me!


At 8/16/2007 11:23 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Anonymous Bob,

Thanks so much for your story, especially these words: "A few years ago as we were talking about these things, I Iearned that while I was envying him he was envying me!"

That says a lot.

God bless you and, hey!, enjoy the growth.

At 8/16/2007 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to absorbing what you write in this series...
paragraph #6 is gold.

At 8/16/2007 2:21 PM, Blogger Jim Martin said...


What a great post! I look forward to this series. I like Ed Dobson's quote. And---I like what you said regarding the first joy of the mini-church. So true.

At 8/16/2007 3:17 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

I had to go back and look at paragraph 6. So you liked the moving floor of liminal space. We are living in "the best of times" I think. Thank you for the encouraging words.

At 8/16/2007 3:19 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

are you experiencing the first mentioned joy--knowing the people by name and by story?

Thanks for liking the far :)

At 8/16/2007 10:09 PM, Blogger ben said...

John -- I am sure that I'll enjoy this series of posts. Our church is small but growing...and it sure is awesome to look out Sunday mornings and know 75-80% of the people by name, and what their stories are, etc.

How many people attend the church you've been serving with?

And, can you believe its been 1 year since you married Andi & I?? It has been a good year. Hope you and Julie are well. We love and miss you. If you ever get the yearning to visit the pacific Northwest, know that we have a spare room all set up for you!

At 8/17/2007 6:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I am really looking forward to hearing your perspective, especially since you did pastor a larger church and now pastor a smaller church. I hope you share as much as possible what it has been like to make that transition for you!

Also, it IS a good time to be alive. This transition time is exciting, both for the culture and the church, and I sense the beginning of an entire renegotiation of what constitutes a "good" and "successful" church.

Anyway, look forward to this series with eager anticipation :)


At 8/17/2007 9:02 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

ben and andie,
Time flies when you're havin' fun. I can't believe it's been a year.

I hope you'll be encouraged by this series...we have about 75 folks at Fellowship Covenant.

God bless!

At 8/17/2007 9:03 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

A tale of two eras---the best of times and the worst of times...these are good times. I believe what we consider "church" will dramatically change in the coming 10-15 years. Yahoo!!

At 8/21/2007 5:30 PM, Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

Amen, John. Such good words!

One reason I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that he was committed to being open to change with reference to his understanding of God's will, as well as what God was doing in the world.

At 8/22/2007 10:37 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Thanks for the good reminder about Bonhoffer.

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