Among the final essays I wrote in college the following was one that managed to find its way into a filing cabinet full of college-type things. There were notes on the book of Acts (thank you Dr. Julio Vena) and a picture of me in my cheerleading garb. The reason I’ve chosen to reproduce this particular work here, in this format, is because as I sit in my recliner on the long-side of a ministry career I look back at the words I wrote and realize how startlingly accurate I was. It’s startling because I had absolutely zero practical experience in a small church environment but by and large nailed the internal culture point by point. Here’s to research papers.
I’d be more than interested in any feedback on this essay. Consider this was written in 2002, I was 23 years old. That being said, the content:
Typically the term “small church” is defined by an average weekly congregational attendance of 200 people or less. This is the type of church that is most commonly found around the globe and it needs to be understood. The small church will be explored in three areas. The first is how the small church is different from the larger church. The second is how a Christian education program my look in a small church. The third is the concept of the total ministry of the church.
What makes the Small Church Different?
Schaller identifies twenty distinctive features of the small church. This author, however, will highlight the six that he feels to be the most pivotal. They are: the role of the laity, the need for generalists, the relational nature, the ‘kinfolk’ ties, the absence of committees and the ease with which one can comprehend the organizational structure of the small church.
Role of the Laity
The laity serve a vital role in church functioning. Each member of the congregation usually gets involved in the everyday functioning of the church. This is due to the fact that that in the majority of small churches there are few seminary trained ministers. Even when there is an ordained and well educated minister in the small church, he will typically have a notably lesser impact in the direction the church will go when compared to the congregation at large.
As a result of the laity playing such a prime role in the small church the importance of volunteers necessarily increases. Typically, the only way for laity to get involved in church functioning is to volunteer for ministries such as janitorial duties, maintenance of the real estate, the calling of the sick, the visiting of the shut-ins and the teaching ministries to name but a few.
The Need for Generalists
In the large church staff members are expected to have one or two areas of expertise, but in the small church, staff members are rewarded for having multiple talents such as, “The preacher who can finish cement, the Sunday school superintendent who can lead group singing, and the treasurer who can teach the high school Sunday school class.”
Relational Nature of the Small Church
People in small churches tend to focus more on interpersonal relationships than those in large churches. This has the potential to raise the degree of politicking than in the larger church although this is not always the case. More likely, the interpersonal nature tends to make those in the small church have a greater sense of family and belonging than those in a larger church.
Kinfolk ties tend to be more important in the small church. People are often put on boards or committees because of who they are related to or who they are married to. This can be a negative consequence. There is the possibility for a very positive effect to come out of close kinship ties and that is the “dropout rate” can be much lower than a church where most of the members are not related. In a small church if a member stops attending the Sunday morning services, one of their relatives is likely to take note and later approach them to find out why they did not attend the service. This has the great potential to raise the accountability factor among members.
Absence of Committees
In the small church individuals, not committees, often do the the work. When a need arises in the small church it is less likely to be passed on to a committee and more likely to be passed on to an individual. This significantly shortens the time it takes for a particular need to be met and increases the amount on personal care and concern with which the need is met.
As a result of the lack of committees, the small church will tend to operate as a participatory democracy. That is, the final authority is vested in the congregation. In larger churches this simply would not be possible, but the nature of the small church makes it very profitable and even rewarding to operate as a participatory democracy.
Easier to Comprehend
The small church tends to be much easier to comprehend on all levels. As Schaller puts it, “In the typical small-membership congregation, a member can invest an average of four to six hours a week and be reasonably well informed about nearly every aspect of that congregation’s life and ministry, including the present condition of most of the members.”
Some of the implications can be that (a) the lay leader will have an easier time leading than he or she would in a larger congregation, (b) this is one of the reasons why small churches tend to stay small, no one wants to lose touch with the pulse of the congregation and (c) the grapevine will be more reliable than it would in larger churches because each person will remain in contact with everyone else.
Breakdown of Christian Education Program in a Small Church
The C.E. program in a small church is going to be different than a C.E. program in a larger church. At this point this author will outline a somewhat typical Christian Education program in a small church and point out the differences between it and the large church C.E. program.
A typical C.E program will divide itself into age groupings much like a school does. These age groupings can be seen as follows: infants and preschoolers, elementary age children, Junior an dSenior High and lastly, Adults. The degree to which these age groups are separated is contingent upon the philosophy of the C.E. coordinator, but nevertheless, these divisions ought to be implemented if even in their basic form. Each age group has very particular needs that must be met. Whereas there are other methods in practice today that meet the felt needs of each group this is the most widely practiced and agreed upon method. Other methods take more time and energy to construct, such as the meta-church model.
Infants and Preschoolers
In this age group children are growing at a colossal rate. One year can mean the difference between crawling and walking, between gurgling and saying a few words. It is very important that C.E. classes be set up in such a manner as to cater to each child’s developmental needs. In a small church this can be very difficult due to the possibly small numbers of young children in attendance on a typical Sunday morning. However, no matter how difficult the task may be, these ages must be viewed as distinct and in need of special attention. This age group of infants and preschoolers is typically broken up into smaller groups such as: infants, 2-3 years old and 4-5 years old. The small church can excel in this area of C.E. because of the ability of the C.E. Coordinator to hand-pick those that will do the best possible job in caring for this age group. The reason he/she will be able to pick those best qualified is that he/she will most likely know first-hand the spiritual gifts and special abilities of most, if not all, members of the congregation.
Infants (ages 0-1)
At this developmental stage the key concept is care. Those that work with infants must be the most caring people the C.E coordinator can find. Here, physical needs dominate the scene. The worker must know how, when and how much to feed an infant that is hungry. They must be able to comfort the infant when the parents are away. They must be able to provide the physical security that infants need.
Toddlers (ages 2-3)
At this age the toddler needs to have reasonable freedom. The functional word here is _reasonable_. Toddlers need to have boundaries, they still need to feel secure and safe much the same as an infant, but they must at the same time be allowed to explore that which they safely can. Freedom includes not only physical freedom, but mental and social freedom as well. They need to have the option to meaningfully interact with other children as well as pose real questions that are given real answers.
The toddler’s program can include things that cannot be included in the infant’s. Things such as basic Bible stories and simple pictures and songs can be taught and used when people work with toddlers. The toddler’s imagination is starting to develop and the worker should make sure to utilize this new source of discovery. They will also start to ask some tough questions, typically phrased in the question, “why?” To this the worker should answer simply and honestly. The worker should never tell the child a falsehood in hopes of the child accepting the answer and being quiet. Even though the child may not yet be able to understand the many facets of the question he/she is asking, one they may look back on the answer given and understand it at that later date.
Workers in this age group must be comfortable with routine because that is what the children like. Routines make the children in this age group feel secure. This means that the workers should try to wear the same type of clothes every week, if not the same actual clothes. If the worker needs glasses but has contacts too, they should either wear the glasses every week or contacts every time they are around the children, they should not switch back and forth. This can be an area of difficulty for many adults because they like to change the way they look every so often, but to the toddler this can be very disconcerting.
4-5 year olds
Children at this age are curious learners. They want to understand the world they see around them. But they have not yet developed to the point where they can think abstractly, they still think of things in literal terms. When they hear the term, “the blood of the Lamb” they will not be able to make the connection between the wooly quadruped bleeding and the sacrifice Jesus Christ made when He died on the cross. This literalness of thinking is not necessarily a bad thing. The children can be taught the literal stories of the Bible and they will learn them in very real ways such as Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath. These stories can be taken literally while still having a figurative meaning the children can apply later in life when they have reached the appropriate developmental stage.
Children love repetition much like the toddlers do. Here, just as with toddlers the workers must be able to be repetitive in their lessons as well as their teaching style.
Children at this age are just starting to understand that they can relate to Christ and that there is a need for them to rectify their relationship with Him. However, they should not be pushed into making this decision because they have the extreme desire at this age to please adults and if they accept Christ as their personal savior because they want to please the teacher and not because they want to have the relationship with Him it may very well be false acceptance.
Children at this age also want to exercise personal choice. They do not want to be forced into a situation or decision and it is important for the worker to understand this when constructing his/her lesson for the week.
Summary of Infant Through 4-5 year olds
In general, this age group needs physical and sensory experience; this is where most of their learning will take place. children in this age group love repetition and tend to be literal thinkers. They are very cautious about their world and a large portion of their learning is done through play. these small people should not be viewed as little adults, they have their own special needs and characteristics. They need to be taught that they are God’s creation and that they are special to Him. The most notable way workers can minister to children in this age group, though, is by loving and caring tenderly for them.
Elementary Age Children
This age group is sometimes placed in one category in small churches due to the low number of children that may be within this age range. When this is the case, the ages of the children usually vary from 6-11 years old.
Children in this age range tend to be _very_ active. Those that work with this age group must be able to handle stressful situations and very energetic children. Once again, the small church has a hand up on the larger church because the C.E. coordinator will be able to hand-pick the workers that demonstrate the personality traits necessary for working with this age group.
Children at this age are just learning self control, and the worker must encourage the children to try to control themselves in the best way they can. It is during this age that most children are capable of starting to align their lives to that of Christ. He is very real to them, they can tell right from wrong and are really starting to identify with other Christians. The are still thinking literally, but they have a strong desire to learn the language, lore and beliefs of Christianity. The workers have an amazing opportunity to encourage children at this age to ask questions about and memorize scripture.
At the older end of this age group, the children want to be respected as individuals. They small church is a great place for children to feel accepted and to identify themselves with their religion due to the intimate nature of the small church.
Junior and Senior High
Those in this age group tend to be between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. This is when the workers must really become flexible. The differences from one individual to another in this age group can be drastic. Since the individual students can very so greatly from one another, the methods that those who work with this age group use will be the only matter that is given attention in this essay.
The worker must find ways to attract the youth to come to church. Whereas in younger years the children have no choice but to come to church with their parents, now the youth have the ability in most situations to abstain from church altogether. Typically the thing that will attract youth to the church is the sense that they belong and are accepted there. There is no better place to feel accepted than in the small church. There is also no better place to feel rejected either. It is up to the worker to make the environment conducive to unity. When, where and how the youth meet is totally up to the discretion of the worker, but the main thing that must be present in the program for junior and senior high youth is the concept of unity. The youth must be allowed to fail, they will fail just as everyone has failed in life at one point or another. The worker must be sensitive to the fact that some of the youth that are attending the church have grown up there, while others have not. The program must be accepting and nurturing to both.
Youth at this age tend to be rebellious for the first time in their life and the worker can easily take that rebellion as a sign that he/she has failed their job. But this should never be seen as the case. Any teen that does not leave the church by the time they graduate should be seen as a victory.
If there is one principle that must be remembered when designing a C.E. program for adults it is that they are still growing and changing. They need to be challenged and pushed to new heights and lengths of understanding. Adults should never be seen as necessarily stagnant.
Typically adults are broken up into three groups: young adult, middle adult and senior adult. The division of age-based classes must be ascertained by the C.E. coordinator when looking at the number of adults that attend the church. Classes should be large enough to be practical and small enough to be comfortable.
Young adults really want to belong to a group. They want to feel accepted for who and what they are. They want to be part of the group too, they do not want to stand on the sidelines and observe, they want to participate. They also want to know how faith can be related to their lives.
To this age group, interpersonal relationships are a must. Without these, they are typically not interested in attending the church anymore. They have a lot to share with the group too and they do not want to be strictly lectured to, they want to participate.
This age group is often the one that is neglected, but they need just as much attention in a C.E. program as every other age group. It is important to get the senior adults involved in actual ministry. The small church can encourage this lay ministry by organizing programs such as “adopt a grandparent” or groups that meet to participate in different hobbies and crafts. Most of all, it needs to be realized that senior adults must feel wanted just like the young and middle adults do. They have a lot of experience under their belt and it would be foolish for the C.E. coordinator to not utilize this vast source of ministry.
Total Church Program
The C.E. program cannot be seen as a separate entity that exists and lives apart from the church as a whole. The C.E. program must be fully integrated into every aspect of the church. It tends to be easier for the small church to organize an integrated C.E. program than a larger church largely because of the presence of lay volunteers.
The mission of the church must not be forgotten in the midst of the C.E. program, that is to make disciples. A disciple can only be made when the total person is involved. There must be four elements in every church according of Graendorf, they are: instruction, worship, fellowship and evangelism. The small church must implement these elements just as the large church must. These elements can be implemented in every age group and to all persons in a much less complicated manner in the small church simply because of the size and number of people involved in the process.