Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Four Core Values of Small Town Ministry

The following article was written by Ron Klassen, RHMA Executive Director.


In every ministry, there are times of question: Should I keep doing what I'm doing or do something completely different with my life? Should I keep doing the same thing, but in a different setting?

It's possible to evaluate these questions to another level: Does God want me to keep doing what I'm doing? is there something different I could do, or a different place I could do it, that would have greater impact for Him?

When these kinds of questions surface (which they do about twice a week in small town ministry), a few core values might make a difference.

Value #1: Individuals Are Important to God
Christ's parable of the lost sheep communicates this value loud and clear. To what great length the Shepherd went to find that one lost sheep!

God doesn't view this world in terms of masses; He views this world one person at a time. The God of the universe cares about that one lost person out in the middle of nowhere, whether "nowhere" is a tribal village in Irian Jaya or a small town in our own country---the "remotest part of the earth" of Acts 1:8. The Navigators' slogan, "Reaching the world one person at a time," should not be lost in our day of emphasis on the masses.

The well-known missionary martyr, Jim Elliot, devoted his life---and eventually gave his life---to reaching the approximately 300 people in the Auca Indian tribe in Ecuador. Statistically they were an insignificant number, especially when measured against the millions of people in the cities of Ecuador. But they were important to Jim Elliot, because they were important to God.

Confident that people in small population areas matter to God just as much as the urban masses, those who serve in such places can do so unapologetically, and be content to reach people one at a time.

Value #2: Isolated Contexts Are Not Limiting to God
Sometimes we are prone to think God's hands are pretty well tied in lower population areas---that size limits what God can do. But even in small places, large numbers can be reached. It depends not so much on numbers, but on God's sovereignty.

In Matthew 9:35-36, we read that when Christ taught in towns and villages, "crowds" gathered. Similarly, though John the Baptist's pulpit was out in the wilderness, multitudes flocked to hear him.

Time and time again it has been proven that good-sized churches can be found in isolated contexts. One church, in Oshoto, Wyoming, grew to an average attendance of 70, though only 131 people lived within a ten-mile radius of the church!

The "Religion Report"1 told of a city in Russia that missionaries went to. They worked hard, but with little response. An elderly woman in a nearby village invited the missionaries to come and preach in her town. The entire village of eighty showed up, and at the end of the service all eighty responded to the invitation!

Value #3: Sphere of Influence is More important Than Population
Living in a larger context does not guarantee larger influence. A million people living in close proximity does not mean a million people will be influenced for Christ. All of us are limited in how many we can influence. What's the difference, then, if we touch one thousand lives in a city of a million or on thousand lives in a smaller town of, say, two thousand?

Furthermore, it could be argues that because a small town is a more personal setting, the pastor or missionary in that town---known by everyone in town---will have more influence among the thousand lives he touches than he would among a thousand lives in a larger context. In a small town, when the pastor is in the local cafe, he is having influence, while in a large city no one in the cafe likely even knows him or knows he's a pastor. One may actually touch more lives, and have a greater influence in the small town than in the city.

Value #4: The Ability to See Potential is a Key to Success
Looking though God's eyes, it is possible to see potential where many can see none. One pastor might look over a community and see no potential there. Another might look at the same community and be excited about what he sees could happen in that place.

Sam Walton is an example of someone who saw potential when most could see none. He wrote, "Our key strategy...was simply to put...discount stores into little one-horse towns which everybody else was ignoring...In those days, K-mart wasn't going to towns below 50,000...We knew our formula was working even in towns small than 5,000 people, and there were plenty of those towns out there for us to expand into. When people want to simplify the Wal-Mart story, that's usually how they sum up the secret of our success: 'Oh, they went into small towns when nobody else would'...While the big guys were leap-frogging from large city to large city...they left huge pockets of business out there for us."2

If Sam Walton could see potential for Wal-Mart in small towns, then can we not see potential for the churches we pastor in small towns?

1. "National & International Religion Report," February 20, 1995.

2. Sam Walton, "Made in America---My Story," pp. 109-110.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Something For Everyone

Not too many years ago there was an extremely limited selection of breakfast cereals: corn flakes, oatmeal, cream of wheat, and maybe a couple of others. Today in most grocery stores both sides of a full aisle are devoted to cereal options. We have become accustomed to having something for everyone.

This "having something for everyone" creates a dilemma for the church-especially the smaller church. The first dilemma is theological: The church is a family (1 Tim. 3: 15; 5: 1-2). Families are healthiest when they inter-mix and inter-relate with each other, rather than each member living a separate life that caters to his/her desires and interests.

The second dilemma is practical: It is impossible for the smaller church to have a specialized ministry for everyone. How can it have a youth "group" when there are only two teens? Or a "singles ministry" when there is only one single over age 25?Or a ministry for divorcees? Or alcoholics? Or offer both a contemporary and traditional service (not to mention a seeker service!) when there aren't enough people for multiple services? How, in the smaller church, are we to offer "something for everyone" to a world that has grown accustomed to an aisle-full of cereals?

Perhaps we should consider the advantages of churches that are too small for specialized ministries.

At a recent funeral service for a senior saint who had lived to be 88, I listened as RHMA's Harold Longenecker remarked about the wisdom the deceased had imparted to younger people during the latter years of his life. But in the same breath he lamented the fact that church life today is so segmented and compartmentalized that different ages don't benefit from each other's stories and experiences nearly as much as they could. 

Picture the family arriving on Sunday morning in the larger church. The kids run to different Sunday School classes. One goes to the nursery. After Sunday School one goes to children's church, another to junior church, the third remains in the nursery, and Dad and Mom go to the adult worship service. When the morning is over, they get back together in their van and head home.

With everyone having their own "subchurch" one has to wonder: When did anyone in this church last have a small-town cafe. "Do you get much rain out here?" he asked. conversation with someone 20 years younger or older than he? 

But now picture Sunday morning in the The family goes their separate ways for Sunday School but then, because there is no children's or junior church, they are together for the worship service.

Can you see some advantage to the smaller church? True, there are also advantages to the compartmentalizing that happens in larger churches. (This article is not meant to be an argument for one over the other. Both have their advantages.) But because there are also advantages to mixing ages, smaller churches don't have to view their inter-generationalism as being something for which they must apologize. Rather they should accentuate the strengths of different ages mixing together.

Consider Wednesday night. There is no kids' programa negative, right? In some ways yes. But in others not. The kids and adults interact with each other during Bible Study. This isn't all bad! And what better way for kids to learn to pray? And adults, who sometimes strive to use lofty, "spiritual-sounding" words in their praying, benefit from listening to the simple, but beautiful, prayers of children.

There is great advantage when people of all ages mix together in church. And this doesn't apply to just the formal services but to times when the church plays volleyball together (the smaller church needs every age person to make two teams!), goes caroling, or enjoys a time of fellowship in someone's home.

One youth pastor who has served in both smaller and bigger churches noted, "Teenagers who experience only the youth group and never bond with others in the church are almost guaranteed to drop out [of church] after high school. If it's only the youth group that drew them, then only the youth group can hold them. No more youth group, no more kids. That's why I worked so hard to get our mega-church kids interacting with the rest of the church. But it was nigh unto impossible. Large churches tend to have an age-division paradigm that controls everything." 1 

There is great benefit when all ages mix together in church. There is benefit to separating ages too, but if that is not a possibility in your church, don't look at it as all bad. The small-town church is one of the few places left in American society where inter-generational relationships still exist. The advantages to this are so great that the pastor need not apologize when a visiting family asks whether the church has a teen ministry. Instead he can share the advantages of functioning like a family.

A Place for Everyone

A pastor was asked a number of questions by an out-of-towner who was curious about
his church:
"How many ministries does your church have? Do you have a singles ministry?"
"Yes, we do."
"How about a ministry to the handicapped?"
"Single parents?"
"College age?"
"Wow! How big is your church?"

In most every smaller church you'll find couples and divorcees and singles and handicapped and alcoholics all inter-mixing with each other, benefitting from each other's unique situations and experiences. 

In the smaller church everyone is ministered to by including them with everyone else.
There is no handicapped class, or singles' class, or widows' classthey're all just part of the fellowship, treated like everyone else.

When you think about it, who do seniors need to be around to stay healthy? Just other seniors? It is kids that put a spark in their eyes, not to mention the fact that seniors have a lot to offer kids!

Who should singles be with? They are healthiest and happiest when mixing with couples and families. I recently visited a small-town church which has a single lady in her forties who is an integral part of every aspect of church life. She is frequently invited to church people's homes, and she invites them to hers. No way does she consider her church inferior to a bigger church with a singles ministry! There is a good big-church option just down the road a few miles in a neighboring city, but she is not even tempted.

How about alcoholics? Some time ago I talked with a young alcoholic who had made a deliberate choice to attend a smaller church where she wasn't expected to be a part of a class for alcoholics. She believed that the best way to overcome her addiction was to interact with healthy non- alcoholics.

A few months ago I visited a smaller church which had a handicapped girl in attendance.
It warmed my heart to see how she was treated as one of the bunch. Kids played with her as if she was just like them. Adults interacted with her. If she needed special help navigating her wheelchair, there were plenty of hands anxious to offer assistance. I couldn't help but wonder what advantage there could be for this girl in a church with a specialized ministry for handicapped children. I noted that these advantages extended to the non-handicapped as well, who had learned valuable lessons about people: Everyone is accepted. Everyone is included. Everyone is treated like everyone else.

A husband and wife with six children told a pastor-friend of mine that they were thinking
of moving out of their small town of 500 because they wondered if their children were missing out on benefits that might be available elsewhere. In reality, the most benefits for their children might be had right where they were! The next time someone asks what programs your church has for teens, don't apologize. Instead say, "We have church!"

1 Dave McClellan, "The Small-Church
Advantage," Group (Jan-Feb 1999), p. 34.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Obstacle

We're continuing our look at the challenges of rural ministry. Reprinted with permission from RHMA.


During the years I worked as a consultant, I was invited to assess the capability of a very small congregation to reach out to new people who were moving into their parish. The pastor was especially discouraged. He described his church as a "stubborn bunch," unwilling to change, and not at all open to new people, especially as leaders.

During the interviews I conducted with the 34 members of this church, a pattern quickly emerged; more than half the people had the same surname. In fact, I discovered that 30 of the 34 resident active members were a "Smith" by blood or marriage. Late in the afternoon I interviewed the patriarch, J. Catfish Smith. When I asked Mr. Smith whether what I had discovered about the composition of the congregation was accurate, he responded with classic understatement: "Yes, we do have some influence in this church."

The next day I met with the pastor and district committee to share my findings. When I talked about the dominance of the Smiths, the pastor quickly agreed. "He's the problem," the pastor said. "If you want to get anything done, you have to figure a way to go around him. But that's hard to do because no one will cross him."


Listening to this pastor's analysis, I understood why his efforts to introduce changes into the life of that small church were continually frustrated. He could not accept the fact that any significant changes in the life of this congregation would be established only with the patriarch's approval.

In truth, it would be foolish to suggest that a pastor could or should push aside a powerful, traditional leader like Mr. Smith. I found myself bringing this unwelcome news to the district committee gathered to help that 34-member congregation "get on with being a church." Those who prove to be effective pastors in small-town congregations dominated by traditional leaders (and there is at least one in nearly every small-town congregation with which I am familiar) rarely try to go around them. One cannot circumvent them successfully---not without great cost.

I am aware my viewpoint is contrary to the counsel usually offered: Traditional leaders from the past who stand in the way of changes are charaterized as the "old guard." They should be gently but firmly encouraged to step aside.

There are congregations with whom this approach is appropriate. I recommended it myself on many occassions when I worked as a church consultant---like for a new suburban church which had grown from 50 to 850 in 4 1/2 years. I moderated heated debates about the size to which the congregation should be permitted to grow. When I met a seminary classmate at a conference several years ago, I asked how he had managed to lead his suburban congregation effectively for so many years. "Actually," he replied, "I've been in the same place for 16 years, but I've served four congregations!" I believe congregations like these need to develop new programs and include new leaders.

People whose lives are marked by constant change are served well by congregations and leaders which are able to refocus their program. But, methods developed by leaders who serve churches in rapidly changing contexts are not directly transferable to small-town churches.


Small-town congregations are rarely situated in rapidly changing social contexts. Small-town congregations are composed mostly of the original families. Many small congregations in rural communities have lost population. Thus they are made up of people who have not experienced positive change. Members of churches in these contexts are far more skeptical about the benefits of change.

Thus, traditional leaders see that resisting change is an essential role. They protect their church against the harmful changes facilitated by cultural "outsiders" who don't see or appreciate the needs and interests of their small-town church. Even when church members find leaders like Mr. Smith difficult to deal with, they usually still affirm him because he stands between the congregation and what they perceive as potentially harmful change. They are not likely to shift their allegiance to new leaders until it becomes clear that the changes they want will not be at their expense.


No action can displace traditional leaders in small-town churches. Displacing them from offices does not displace them as leaders. Unlike leaders in large churches, their power is not organizationally based. I sometimes refer to traditional leaders as "contextually rooted" leaders, to indicate that their power stems from roots beyond the church. Their authority in the church is derived from the position they hold in the family and community. So long as their social roots are solid, attempts to replace or circumvent them are likely to fail.

Unless contextually rooted leaders in a congregation are obviously psychologically dysfunctional, the pastor who wants to succeed in helping a small-town church become more effective will not try to circumvent or displace them. Traditional leaders hold what Roy Oswald calls "reputational power." He clarifies the critical difference between those who hold formal or official power in a congregation and those who hold informal or unofficial power. An office gives the one who holds it certain rights and privileges and, perhaps, some authority, but not necessarily a lot of power. As the pastor of that 34-member church discovered, there is a difference between what one is authorized to do and what one is able to do. By virtue of his office, the pastor was authorized to lead the congregation, but he lacked the power to effect any significant change. The patriarch, on the other hand, held no office; he had no official power. But he controlled everything in the church he wanted to control. The pastor couldn't go around him.


The patriarch held "reputational power." Traditional leaders who hold reputational power are powerful because others believe they are powerful. Participants in small churches expect those who hold reputational power to exercise that power no matter who the official leaders are. I do not mean to imply they should be the most powerful leaders, only that they usually are. A pastor who wishes to become an influential leader must contend with the reality of their power.

Even Jesus accepted this reality. After His first sermon, for example, He did not confront the reputational power in the synagogue; He slipped away by merging into the crowd (Luke 4:16-30). He confronted those with reputational power only when His own reputational power was clearly established. Among His own disciples, He did not seek to displace the obstinate and often difficult Peter from his dominant role in the group, but rather worked patiently with him to help him grow in faith and effectiveness.

Working with traditional leaders is usually the best and sometimes the only way to help a small congregation become more faithful and effective. Several years ago the small congregation where I am a member joined with several others to rehabilitate some substandard housing in our area. When the work was finished, the administrator of the rehabilitation program invited a woman who holds a great deal of power in one of the congregations to become the administrator of the completed housing project. She is a woman in her 60's from an old, established family in the community. Little in her past seemed to equip her for the job. Some of us wondered whether she was qualified.

We discovered very soon that her reputational power helped her to be qualified. Late one night, shortly after she began working in the new position, the village police called to tell her they were responding to a complaint about a loud party in one of the apartment units. A sizable fight had broken out. She said she would meet the police at the scene of the trouble. When she arrived, the police advised her not to enter the apartment. She ignored their advice. She walked into the middle of the brawl and told those involved to stop fighting immediately! They did! She told them behavior like theirs would not be tolerated and that if they provoked another incident like this one she would evict them. They believed her. She has reputation power which, in the minds of those fighting, exceeds even that of the police in our village.


With only a minimum of encouragement, those who hold reputational power can play extremely helpful roles in a small-town congregation. One secret of becoming an effective pastor lies in discovering which contextually rooted leaders to support. First impressions may be misleading. It often requires patience to discern the true nature of traditional leaders.

In 30 years of working with small churches, I have found that only a few of those who hold reputational power are genuinely disturbed individuals who use their influence in inappropriate or destructive ways. Though there are clearly situations in which traditional leaders should be challenged to step down, the widespread belief that the pastor should move quickly to seek new leaders is usually not a sound strategy. It feels to the church that the pastor is telling them to cast out their parents and grandparents who, though they may be difficult at times, are nonetheless worthy of the respect given to them.

In most small churches, members have seen pastors and programs come and go. Strong characters and the leadership they offer may not always be the best, but they persist year after year. A pastor who wants to help a small church become more effective and faithful is most likely to succeed by working with, not by trying to displace or go around, its contextually rooted, traditional leaders.