Leading a Small Church, Part 1

I get emails.

1.) My congregation has less than 50 members now. It’s suffered some splits in the past but very much wants to be evangelistic and to grow. We are thinking about changing the congregation’s name to another scriptural name.

Anyway, how would you approach a possible name change so it doesn’t cause a split?

2.) They may ask me to be their minister since they can’t afford someone else in the upcoming year. What advice for the pulpit direction to help them grow and mature to the point where they won’t be shaken by “wolves” and to the point where they can lay foundations for real growth in outreach?

(Edited to delete identifying information and the writer’s distinctive style.)

Dear reader,

I’ve never been part of a church quite this small, other than as a visitor, so I can’t speak from personal experience. However, I’ve been part of churches that weren’t much bigger. And I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of small churches: small churches that stay small and small churches that grow. 

As a general rule, most small Churches of Christ don’t grow much. Those that grow tend to do so because they attract the lion’s share of Church of Christ members moving into town or by attracting transfers from other Churches of Christ in town. Very few grow by evangelizing the lost.

However, there is one class of small Churches of Christ that grow through conversion: church plants. They often start with 15 to 20 members and then take off like a rocket. Many have done remarkably well. However, some church plants do very poorly and disband after a few years. Fortunately, church plants have been studied by many researchers, and we now have a pretty good idea of why some work and some fail. And there are experts and organizations that coach plants in being effective and that have excellent track records.

Therefore, if I was charged with leading a small church — or if was just a member gifted to lead — I’d try to get my church to think of itself as a church plant and to do the things that cause church plants to succeed.

Now, what I’m about to say is likely much more and much more radical than what you are expecting. And I may be misreading your situation, as you may not be as typical as I’m assuming. But if you are concerned about a split in such a small congregation over something like a name change, your church likely needs much more radical change than a name change to be effective evangelistically.

I mean, if you think about it, very few small churches manage to grow (and even our big churches generally don’t grow much by true evangelism). And yet, from reading the scriptures, you’d think that growth would be organic — natural and nearly automatic. But for us, it’s just not. Why?

I think we don’t grow because —

* we have a legalistic heritage,

* we aren’t led by men who are equipped in leading growth,

* we confuse autonomy with isolation, and so we don’t tap into the help that’s available for churches that want to grow, 

* we are too radically individualistic to grow — so the members don’t see themselves as part of a team called by God to work together for a common mission, and

* we aren’t really about the mission of God. Well, we want to grow — we just don’t want to give up what we have to give up to grow. We are too selfish to grow — as evidenced by the fact that churches that want to change the music or change the name to grow risk church splits — meaning we put our personal tastes ahead of God’s mission.

The name thing

Members of my home congregation have been discussing for years the idea of dropping the “of Christ” to just be “University Church” — or following several congregations and becoming a “Family of God” or a “Family of God — a church of Christ.” But we’ve not done it. In our town, “Church of Christ” has advantages and disadvantages that we think largely balance. There’s just not a huge image problem associated with the name here (unlike some towns) and it’s convenient for visitors and people new to town to know our roots.

However, I know of many churches that have changed their name to avoid a local stigma and have done well with it. But here’s the key — there’s really no point in dropping the name if you’re going to still act in the ways that resulted in the stigma. I’m sure your congregation doesn’t do this, but countless Churches of Christ spend their pulpit and class time condemning other churches — even Churches of Christ — or obsessing over trivialities or acting like a church from the 1950s. If you are going to present yourself to the community as a nondenominational church, you have to give up any Church of Christ bad habits. Obviously, you must stay true to the scriptures as you understand them, but you just have to jettison the 50-year old culture we pretend is 2,000 years old.

In other words, before you change the name, do a thorough study of what you do and why you do it. Develop the attitude that we’ll surrender our preferences and comforts and our traditions and even our identity in order to reach the lost — and so any tradition or habit or practice that interferes with the gospel has to go.

When you’ve sorted through this, then you can prepare for what church plants call the “launch” — the announcement to the world that we’re here and ready to serve. That’s when you change your name. In fact, this may well be a great means of helping your members learn to think “gospel” rather than “Church of Christ.” The church can set as its vision the task of being ready to launch as a truly nondenominational church rebuilt to do God’s mission in that community.

[to be continued]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Leading a Small Church, Part 1

  1. mark says:

    It seems to me “call me liberal” we have no choice but to embrace grace as the forgiveness for doctrinal risk taking. We need to look to our distant cousins in the Christian church. We need to explore the ecumenical visions that unify people of faith and bring hope to hopeless. Our past in the churches of Christ is simply tainted by too much meanness we can no longer explain or control. Listen and read how we speak with apprehension . We are still looking over our shoulders for that hot tempered zealot who is going to do all they can to see us suffer. We are still petrified by heart clutching parents who act as though we betrayed Jesus Christ himself.

    But a day coming when we lay to rest all that burdened us. Freedom is not far off and its not just the name it’s the reconstruction of new boards, by laws, and doctrines that will lead us out of our perfectionist vise.

  2. Alan says:

    I've had a leadership role in a church of 11 , and I've had a leadership role in a church of thousands. I can say from experience that it is easier to do things like change the church name in the large church than the small one. In the large church, people instinctively know that someone has to make decisions like that. In a smaller church, everyone feels more ownership and therefore takes things like that more personally. That actually is one of the advantages of smaller churches, but it makes some leadership decisions challenging.

    I think you have to weigh th advantages of a name change against the costs. Don't do it until you can do so without paying a price in unity. It's just not worth it.

    As for how to teach the church, you need to prepare the members to become leaders. You'll need a lot more leadership as the church grows. Give them responsiblities based on their current abilities. Entrust to them what they will later entrust to others. Bring them in on your praying, meditating, and planning for the church — the needs, the teaching plan, preparing the church for works of service.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    I have tried to help small congregations turn around. I will tell you this. The thing that matters the most is how they think. If the members are older and in a rural area there is less chance that they will be willing to change. Most of the time they would rather the church close down and sell the building and give the proceeds to a brotherhood institution. On the other hand when we have started congregations with small group of modest middle aged families about 15 people it can turn into something wonderful really fast. The difference is we were not institutional loyalist and we were open minded. The best thing for most of the small congregations made up of mostly older members is to close down and start over. The first church I preached at in Bartlett TX (25 members) has been disbanded for 10 years. I am keeping a list of all the congregations that closing down. Would you believe that over 150 churches of Christ closed their doors permanently in TX this year? If the people are not willing to change the way they think; leave it alone.

  4. Todd says:

    My wife and I were missionaries working with a small congregation in Virginia. We started with 30, grew to 70, and then wound up a dissolved Body. When you work with a small church it is vital that everyone buys into the vision of saving souls. If there is a single family who feels that "ownership" or "control" is an issue success will be very difficult. It is hard to keep bringing in new people when an older believer keeps picking at how they dress, talk or raise their kids. It will be even harder if existing members feel threatened when new members are growing spiritually or when the new believers are moving into leadership.

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