Quite often I drive by the Peaks Presbyterian Church on my way to hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The little white clapboard church sits in a beautiful setting, looking up to Sharp Top and Flat Top Mountains of the Peaks of Otter, among the highest elevations in Virginia. This congregation has always been a small country church since it was founded in 1761. It has survived the Revolutionary War, the trauma of our nation’s Civil War, the Great War to end all wars, the Second World War, Vietnam, the culture wars of the sixties, and now continues its ministry today. The Peaks Church’s beginnings hearken back to a time that had a quite different understanding of church and pastoral leadership.
During the period when the Peaks Church came into existence, stability was the norm for ministers, who most often pastored the same church their entire ministerial life. A study of Congregationalist ministers who graduated from Yale College during this era shows the difference between then and now. Robert W. Lynn and James W. Fraser, church analysts, who in 1977 contributed to one of the first books written specifically about the small church, summarize the differences:
The eighteenth-century New England Congregationalists did not view the successful pastor as one who changed churches. That 7 percent with more than two pastorates consisted of the “ne’er to do wells.” The situation was precisely the reverse of today, that is, Congregational pastors of that time looked upon themselves as holding identical offices with identical problems. There were no essential spiritual distinctions between the minister who labored in a small Connecticut hamlet and the pastor of the prominent church in New Haven or Boston.1
Until the late nineteenth-century, the small church had been the normative model for congregations in any context: city, town, or country. Not until the construction of public mass-transit systems in major urban areas had the large church, as we now know it, been a possibility. Tony Pappas, American Baptist Area Minister in Massachusetts and small-church advocate, describes it this way:
So for the first time in human history, thousands of people could get to a one- or two-hour event and get home for lunch! So large churches, big steeples, big pulpits, Old Firsts came into being. As we think of them today, large churches have only been around for a little over a century–only 5% of the history of our faith.2
The large church’s development in major urban centers also coincided with the growing American industrial economy. The prototype for the megachurch was the famous Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York, which built an unmatched membership of two thousand people. The business entrepreneurs John Tasker Howard and Henry Chandler Bowen were the businessmen behind the congregation’s formation. Spiritual as well as financial incentives provided the impetus for building supersized churches. Debby Applegate describes this dynamic in her biography of Plymouth Church’s first pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, who came to New York in 1847:
On a practical level, a popular church was an excellent investment. It was exempt from taxes, its revenues were regular, it was unlikely to chisel or default, and it brought up the real estate values of the neighborhood, creating more opportunities for wise investors to make money. The church paid the owners rent or a mortgage with a profitable interest rate, and they could make extra money by hiring out the building for speeches, concerts, meetings, and other entertainments during the week.3
But before parishioners could travel by car, train, or Beecher boats to church on Sunday, churches had been small. The normative model for the vast majority of church history has been the small church, and the percentages show that this is still true today.
Of course, today is not the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, and much has changed, including changes both welcome and lamentable. If we consider the church’s position in the larger culture and the influence and power of the mainline Protestant church on society, things today more closely resemble 1761 than 1950. By this I mean that denominational Christianity has found itself in the periphery of the dominant American culture. Even our central-culture churches have found themselves at a new periphery. We have experienced a loss of social influence and status in the culture and a loss of resources. As much of a shock as it is to our system, we know that the church’s position in any culture ebbs and flows. We have little control over whether we are flowing or whether we are ebbing.
Today there is knowledge to explore that comes from healthy, sustainable, rural churches. We need to start thinking the other way around about where we are in the culture and what place we inhabit. Mainline Protestantism has grown comfortable and accustomed to the center, but we need to relearn gifts and skills from the periphery. Our social location is changing–really, it has already dramatically changed. So our learning needs to change as well.
I wish and pray for a time in the church that values and grows from the insight, experience, resources, and stories of all our diverse and varied ministries. A more in-depth collaboration among and learning from both central- and peripheral-church ways of being will provide needed perspectives and skills for living into an ever-changing future. Sharing our diverse voices and gifts can help us all remember that it is the sovereign, gracious God of Jesus Christ who is the center of our life together.
1. Robert W. Lynn and James W. Fraser, “Images of the Small Church in American History,” in Small Churches Are Beautiful, ed. Jackson W. Carroll (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 7 – 8.
2. Anthony C. Pappas, Vital Ministry in the Small-Membership Church: Healthy Esteem (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2002), 10.
3. Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Doubleday Broadway, 2006), 202.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path by Steve Willis, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating the Simpler Path
by Steve Willis
Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path bears witness to what God is doing in small churches. Steve Willis tells stories from the small churches he has pastored in rural, town, and urban settings and dares to imagine that their way of being has something to teach all churches in this time of change in the American Christian Church.
Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations
by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett
What does the church look like if we take the ministry of the baptized—the priesthood of all believers—seriously? Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett explore this question as well as the variety of ways people in small congregations—many with no more than fifty members—are living out their baptism and the impact their actions are having on their congregations, judicatories, and communities, and the institutions that educate clergy.
Entering the World of the Small Church
by Anthony G. Pappas
What does ministering in small churches require? Leaders who are willing to enter into that world with wholehearted, unconditional love for their congregations. Tony Pappas shows how to do just that in this new edition of an old favorite that broadens and deepens his classic instruction on understanding small church tribes on their own terms. Grounded in proven principles, rich with anecdotes from real-life situations, and brimming with practical strategies, this is a fresh “must-read” for every small church pastor.
Inside the Small Church
by Anthony G. Pappas
Small-church expert Tony Pappas has gathered a cornucopia of essays into an indispensable book for anyone interested in the rich life of small congregations. Drawing on classic and updated articles by a variety of writers, and adding new pieces developed especially for this volume, Pappas provides timeless ideas on learning to value, pastor, develop, and lead the small church.
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