Like many small towns in America, my hometown has a church on just about every corner. The only reason many of them still survive is their age. Most were built in the early- or mid-20th century and some in the 19th century. The property has been long paid for and the few members that remain are able to sustain the meager cost of overhead.
The majority of these churches were built during a time when folks walked to church, and so many have no parking lots. Street parking is adequate for the few in attendance.
Being uncertain of the statistics, I am fairly sure that there are thousands of small churches with less than 20 weekly attendees. Some have seating capacities of hundreds or more. Many meet in beautiful structures, built at a time when craftsmen were artisans and the materials used were to last until the Lord’s return.
They are hollow shells of fading memories, glory days of long past. Yet, when I walk into these enduring structures, maintained by a few faithful, I sense life. I hear hymns of old; I see altars once filled with the repentant; there are tear-stained pews that rejoiced with weddings and mourned at funerals. I see children scurrying to Sunday school classes taught by anointed lay teachers. I see history waiting to be revived. But how do we awaken these sleeping giants of the past?
I recently read this tweet by storytelling executive Rick Rekedal: “Whether you have a product, a service, or property, it is so critical to ask, ‘Who’s this for?’ not, ‘How can I market this?’” May I add “a church” to his list by likewise asking, “Who is this church for?”
How can a small-town church be revived?
1. Bloom where you’re planted.
If you were and are a neighborhood church, reach out and be a good neighbor. Make sure that the church facility is maintained and well-kept. Make it available to the community: Boy and Girl Scouts, civic meetings, etc.
2. Invest in not only maintaining an empty building, but also in filling it with people.
Most people no longer walk. If available and affordable, invest in parking. If an older community, invest in handicap accessibility: parking, entryways and restrooms.
3. Relentlessly invite people to church.
Preach and teach it continuously; model it; reward it. The key here is “relentlessly.”
4. Be hospitable.
The greatest asset of many small churches is that the members of the congregation love one another. The greatest problem with many small churches is that they love one another, but only one another. Assign friendly greeters. Have a welcome counter with clear information and directions. Have clearly marked guest parking. Instruct members to make sure that the pastor is personally introduced to their guests. Hospitality must be taught and practiced.
5. Make sure that the messages are relevant for today by answering questions people are asking.
Stop only reaching the reached and teaching the taught. Focus on winning souls and making disciples.
6. Tough changes may be in order.
I was recently in a small church whose pastor was in his 80s. He told me the only reason he was still pastoring: “I cannot afford to retire.” In many instances, there is no simple answer to this kind of dilemma, but one: growth. Change what needs changed when able. Set goals for change.
7. Consider adopting a new church plant.
Do this either by letting them use or rent the facility, or by merging with them. Like all mergers, there is risk involved. However, in a diminishing church, there will have to be risks taken.
No matter what methods are implemented to grow the church, each will require a change of some sort. The small church must be willing to change everything and anything, except for one thing: the gospel of Christ. It is and will always remain the power of God unto salvation.
Therefore, preach the gospel. Build the church. There is strength and influence in numbers: “Five will chase a hundred … a hundred will chase ten thousand” (Lev. 26:8).
Tony Foglio is a pastor, church planter, businessman and author of Discover the Bible: Journey Through the Bible As It Was Meant to Be Read (Thomas Nelson, 2004). For more information, go to DiscovertheBible.com.