|Small churches confront challenges, seek to revitalize|
Chebon Kernell served Pawnee (Okla.) Indian United Methodist Church. Today, 76 percent of the denomination's churches have 200 or less members.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
By Linda Green*
June 24, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Bishop Kenneth Carder tells the 2008 General Conference that "rural congregations are among our greatest assets for evangelical and missional renewal." A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The United Methodist Church must focus on small and rural churches and not simply go where the wealthy are to build new churches, says a small membership church leader.
"Small churches are the backbone of the denomination," said the Rev. Julia Wallace, director of ministries with small membership churches at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
"It is no accident that we have a church every three to five miles. At that time we wanted to get the church as close to people as we can. Our job now is keep church as close to the people as we can," she said.
Today, 76 percent of the denomination's congregations are small churches, which are defined as those having 200 or fewer members and fewer than 120 in worship.
More than 40 people working with small churches across the country participated in three June 2 telephone-conference conversations to learn about revitalizing small churches and ministries from the Rev. Terence Corkin, a small church expert and top executive of the Uniting Church in Australia. The pastors, district superintendents, directors of connectional ministries, lay ministers and community developers also discussed emerging issues and challenges facing small churches.
"It is important that we have conversations with people who are trying innovative things and are learning leaders," Wallace said. Issues like deployment of pastors, budgetary constraints, the use of lay pastors versus ordained pastors, lay ministers and licensed local pastors are issues that the Australian church overcame to be effective in the towns across the countryside.
"I see the Uniting Church of Australia as being 10 years ahead of the curve from us because it is already dealing with some of the dire issues that we will be facing," she said.
Differences between countries
Corkin, who served for 20 years in rural ministries before he became top executive in the Uniting Church eight years ago, described the similarities and differences between rural churches in the United States and in Australia and the changes small churches are encountering.
"We have significant experience of congregations that are self-supporting with a very modest amount of external relationship with the wider church in ministry personnel," he said. The congregations are "stand alone" and are linked together in various ways for mutual support and resource sharing and grouped into about 30 presbyteries, comparable to districts in The United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Julia Wallace
Corkin described the Uniting Church as a union church formed in 1977 with Congregational, Methodists and Presbyterian churches. "It is a church that understands itself as a national church in that it has a sense of place and presence across every part of Australia," he said.
The church's presence is expressed through indigenous ministries, remote area patrol ministries and community services and through the nearly 1,800 congregations and 1,500 ministers in active service. Some of the congregations are linked, with one minister serving more than one locale.
In many rural areas in the United States and in Australia, there is a drift toward reduction of services and diminishing capital, aging people and increasing poverty which impact the ability to sustain congregational life, he said. Rural areas also have itinerant populations of people who come in to farm the lands, work in the mines or other industries and then leave.
"I do think a characteristic of small churches at this present time is their morale is not very high," Corkin said. "They have a memory of being bigger or something else. Some have memory of another time and are conscious of the changed circumstances in which they live."
Measures of viability
One of the biggest issues facing small churches is money. Many lack the resources to pay clergy salary, building maintenance, insurance premiums and other operating costs, noted the teleconference participants. Some churches already know they will not be able to pay the heating bills this winter and will not be able to open their doors.
In The United Methodist Church in the United States, self-sufficiency and financial vitality are sometimes measures of a congregation's viability.
The Rev. Terence Corkin
Viability, Corkin said, is not measured by a congregation's capacity to raise enough funds to pay a minister. While church officials may use it as a strategy to discontinue churches, "it is not one that we believe is an adequate indicator of vitality," he said.
There are numerous churches that cannot pay a salary but are well-connected to one another and "are very effective in bearing witness to the hope that is within them and inviting people to respond to the Christ that they know," Corkin said.
The faithfulness of the church should be the measure, he said. The faithfulness is evident in how the church works in partnership with God and participates in the mission of God, he said.
Assets for evangelism
The reality in the United States and in Australia is that churches are different communities even if they are only 20 kilometers or 12 miles from each other. The churches, he said, regardless of where they are located, provide different missional opportunities.
"Rural congregations are among our greatest assets for evangelical and missional renewal among the people called Methodist in the 21st century," said Bishop Kenneth Carder during a rural life celebration at the 2008 General Conference.
Corkin agrees. "God has raised people up to call his own in these communities and they are going to be there whether there is a roll of members or if we are prepared to support a building continuing to be there."
"We don't make the church," he said. The church exists because of the saving work of Jesus Christ to confront and call people into new life and those people are called into new life in community.
Wallace spoke of a church of eight people who feed 150 every day. The church's feeding ministry launched a partnership with others and caused all involved to think about ministry in new and different ways. "They have learned to be that community which pulls other faithful people together to be in relationship with the homeless.
"They had to figure it out. I think people today want to figure out how to be church," she said. "People want opportunities for ministry."
Using all gifts
The use of teams for ministry is critical in revitalizing small churches in the future, Wallace said. "We must move away from being dependent on one person, whether that is a clergy pastor or a lay pastor," she said. "We must begin to celebrate being the whole people of God in that place and use all of the gifts we have been given. The days of clergy dependency are forcing us to now rethink of the way we are going to be a church."
Revitalizing existing churches and planting new ones is the focus of Path One, an organized strategy team on congregational development under the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
Path One seeks to help the church start 650 congregations by 2012. The emphasis on church growth aims to return the denomination to its evangelistic heritage of starting a new congregation every day.
"The time for revitalization is a reality," Wallace said. "We happen to have everything we need."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Small Membership Church
United Methodist Board of Discipleship
Uniting Church of Australia
United Methodist Rural Fellowship