Imagining new Methodism: A denomination that prioritizes small churches

August 25th, 2021

These days, we hear a lot about the need to imagine how The United Methodist Church will be different in the years to come. On the one hand, the whole of society will be reshaped by the realities of COVID-19. Already, companies are transitioning to more remote work, customs like handshakes are no longer a given, and churches have figured out that they must employ a variety of techniques, like live streaming, to provide access for worshippers.

At the same time, our denomination is coming to a watershed moment. Whenever the delayed General Conference takes place and the inevitable divorce happens, both the new Global Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church will have to build new organizational structures to support their ministries.

In the midst of that reorganization, I hope we will prioritize small membership churches, building our new denomination around the reality that these churches will make up the majority of its congregations.

My own work and research frequently bring me into conversation with many small, rural congregations, who often feel minimized and castigated in our system. Too often, we treat these churches as problems to be solved, and we spend our time trying to make them bigger. There are reasons for this. On a theological level, we have held tightly the belief that congregational growth is an indicator of discipleship. On a practical level, larger churches provide more financial support to the denominational agencies, including Annual Conference offices.

This can leave us with a skewed perception that these larger churches are more vital, more faithful, and more important than the plethora of small membership churches. These smaller churches internalize this, try to find paths to grow, and eventually burn out. In reality, small congregations can be quite vital and faithful simply by embracing their smallness and using the gifts of the small church to form disciples in meaningful ways.

From an organizational perspective, there is a severe mismatch between the systems of our denomination and the makeup of the congregations within it. While some Annual Conferences have a large number of large churches, most do not. And, at the denominational level, it remains true that most churches are small.

Simply put, there is an overreliance upon a minority of congregations, which inadvertently problematizes the majority of our small membership churches, perpetually trying to reform them into something that they were never meant to be. Unsurprisingly, this can create frustration and resentment between small membership churches and the larger denominational structures.

So, what would a denomination that embraces small churches look like?

First, it would be a denomination that embraces a contextual understanding of vitality. In my recent book, Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations, I look at how rural, small-membership churches can claim their own form of vitality. They embrace their natural gifts in order to become places that are formed around their theological identity, commitment to the community, and steward their resources well.

Second, it would be a denomination committed to creative evangelism and discipleship formation. As I show in Reclaiming Rural, small, rural congregations often do this by embracing their role as anchor institutions, driving meaningful change in their community. In the process, they invite people to participate in the kingdom of God. While it may not boost Average Worship Attendance, it does create new disciples.

Third, it would be a denomination that understands it can increase its membership through meaningful relationships in small churches. This is not a foreign concept; early Methodism grew precisely because small churches multiplied into more small churches. Other denominations also embrace this tactic, splitting churches as they grow in Average Worship Attendance to start new church plants – more churches, rather than larger churches.

Fourth, this denomination would recognize that small churches in impoverished areas have a special role to play in forming the imagination of people in those communities. In many impoverished communities, if you ask a student whether they want to go to college or become a doctor, they often say no. As sociologists point out, it’s not because they don’t want to become a doctor, but rather they do not have any way of imagining the process of going to college, taking the MCAT, attending medical school, and doing a residency. Churches are one of the few places in many communities that can bring people together in order to foster this imagination. We should value, prioritize, and support that, recognizing that sometimes, when we close churches, we close a center of community imagination.

Finally, it would be a denomination that recognizes a need for a renewed understanding of stewardship. Mergers and cooperative alignments are not just a way to solve the problem of low average worship attendance, or to combine resources to get a full-time pastor. Instead, they ought to be ways of furthering a missional objective, derived from the needs of the community’s context. Additionally, given that so many of our congregations lack the resources to have a full-time pastor, we will need to understand new ways to offer quality theological education in affordable and accessible ways. If we need more bi-vocational pastors, our ordination and educational processes will need to adapt to that. These changes reflect healthy practices of stewardship, understanding how our resources might further our mission.

It’s well past time our denominational structures reevaluate their relationship to small and rural churches. Frequently, we resist this by pointing out that although most churches are small, most people attend larger congregations. While this is true, it is also true that small churches are more stable, and as overall worship attendance declines, the share of those who attend small churches continues to increase, while the share of the population attending larger churches decreases.

In this age of reimagining, we should stop asking churches to adjust to the denomination. Instead, we should encourage the denomination to find ways to serve churches as they are, recognizing and building upon their existing strengths. It would be an important step toward fulfilling our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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