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Time to Rip a Hole in the Roof

By Carl K. Ellis
Carl offers a challenge to the Small Membership Churches of the Great Plains. Reflecting on current systemic concerns, this article provides both analysis and hope.
Approximately 70 percent of United Methodist Churches average less than 100 persons in attendance. At the same time average worship, on any given Sunday in churches with less than 100 in worship, accounts for only 30 percent of those in attendance at United Methodist Churches.  The suburbs are showing the greatest potential for growth and our denomination is allocating more and more funds toward new church starts.  Small membership churches, in the plain states, also feel the pinch from dwindling resources to fund schools, hospitals, and other government programs.

Many who live in rural areas feel deserted by our state government and the denomination.  We wonder if anyone cares about rural and at times slip into feelings of despair and hopelessness. However, if we were to think about the United Methodist system we would realize that small membership churches take up at least 70 percent of the bishops, district superintendents, and conference's time.  They give the same amount of time to programming and appointments to each small membership church as they do to the larger churches.  In fact, the larger churches experience longer pastoral stays than the small membership churches and thus, proportionately require less time of the district superintendent per member. 

Yet, the biggest problems small membership churches face is not with allocation of money or time from our denomination but from within.  For example, if we look at the congregation we would discover that the average age is around 70 years old.  If we begin to project the future, with current ages, we know that many of our churches will die in the next 10 - 20 years.

Some churches and pastors want the bishop and district superintendents to fix the problem by sending the perfect pastor or if a pastor to the perfect church.  The problem will not change until both pastors and churches decide to change from within.  Gil Rendel suggested that churches don't need quick fix changes (also known as technical changes) but to begin asking adaptive questions, "Who are we? What has God called us to do?  And who is our neighbor?"

I worry most that small membership churches have forgotten their importance to the community they serve.  I am thankful for large churches and their ability to reach many people for Christ.  But, I also know that my faith development was because of the nurturing support I received in the small membership church.  Because I was average I would not have been selected president of the UMYF, asked to lead worship or preach a sermon at age 17.  I have witnessed many people, like myself, who have blossomed because they were not lost or overwhelmed by hundreds of people, rather surrounded by members of a small membership church.

Because I believe so strongly about the importance and role of the small membership church, I worry that the small membership church will not change and will slowly die one member at a time until none are left.  And rural communities, inner city neighborhoods, and even suburbs will lose churches that have an important role in the faith development of many who need a smaller community of faith.

Sometime ago I was meditating on the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1ff. The paralytic is brought to Jesus by his four friends.  Unfortunately they were unable to get their friend through the front door to see Jesus.  The friends believed that it was so important for their friend to meet Jesus they ripped a hole in the roof.  And when Jesus saw their faith he healed their friend.

I think we can learn at least two lessons from this passage.  First, as a member of the Kiowa United Methodist Church suggested to me, we all want four friends like those who brought the paralytic to Jesus.   We all need four friends who are unwilling to give up and keep trying no matter what the obstacle.   In small rural communities, the inner city, and some suburbs the small membership churches will always be needed.  There are people in those communities who are searching for true friends and the love and hope that only Jesus can give. 

The second lesson we learn is that sometimes we have to rip a hole in the roof so people can get in to find and experience Jesus.  We know most small membership churches have plenty of seating and there is no need to rip a hole in the building.  But, maybe we need to rip a hole in the roof and rethink our hymn selection, order of worship, and sermon delivery model.  Most importantly we need to ask ourselves if we are good enough friends with those outside the church that we are willing to develop a worship service and sermon which serves more than our preferred style and current way of worship. And then most importantly are we willing to change with a happy heart?  Are we willing to rip a hole in the roof so that those who have less means than us feel welcome?  And more importantly do we realize they have something to teach us about faith?  Each church needs to begin thinking about those things that prevent people in their community from coming to Jesus.

Small membership churches are dying.  But they are not dead!  Like days of old, God is ready to breathe new life into our churches.  We need to believe in our friends and neighbors and rip a hole in the roof of our customs and practices so our churches can grow.  We need to have faith in God and be willing to ask God to help our churches to be open to every person in our community.  We, the people that make up small membership churches, can choose a new direction.

A number of years ago Bishop Jones challenged United Methodist of Kansas to a Big Holy Audacious Goal (BHAG).  Now is the time for small membership churches in Kansas and Nebraska to rise and accept the challenge and commit to growing.  I believe that most of our small membership churches could grow an average of at least two worshipers a year for the next ten years.  In ten years each church would be an average of twenty members more than they are today.  And if five hundred of our small churches decided to accept the challenge we would experience an increase of 10,000 persons a Sunday in Small membership churches.  Wow!  With God's help we could attain our goal.  To attain this BHAG we would have to pray, roll up our sleeves, and work together.  Churches, rather than looking for the perfect pastor, would begin working at being a growing church in Christ.  And pastors, rather than looking for the perfect church, would work at being better leaders and pastors.  Churches would take advantage of conference programs such as Lay Speaking Courses, the Certified Lay Ministry Classes, District rally's, Webinars, and other conference resources. 

I don't know about you, but I am committed to the small membership church.  I know that our Bishops, District Superintendents, and conference staffs are committed to small membership churches as well.  In the Kansas and Nebraska area we have many who are committed to working with you to help your church grow.  The Center is proud to be one part of helping churches find new life. I hope you will log on to the Centers Web site http://www.kswestumc.org/smallchurches  to see the programs we are working on to help you grow.  As we grow the website, we will begin sharing other resources available to you and your church to accomplish a positive growing strategy for sharing the Gospel.  We pray you will hear God's call to "Make disciples of all people."  May we be good friends and rip a hole in the roof so that all might know Jesus.

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