Churches can be natural community centers. Some are so large that they have enough gravitational pull to draw people from a wide radius to programs and church ministries in a centralized location. They have lots of mid week programs at the church building. they make an impact across communities because of their sheer size and ability to offer lots of programs.
Other community center churches are modestly sized but they’re situated in the heart of a small town or community and a good portion of the congregation comes from this community. They don’t have the biggest programs, but they make an impact in their neighborhood because they are a natural part of the community.
Not all churches are community centers. Some churches are what I call “small and scattered.” A small and scattered church is under 150 people and the majority of the congregation doesn’t live in the community where the church worships. Some significant portion of the church drives more than 30 minutes to get to worship.
For instance, the church I pastored was about 75 or 80 people. We had people from nine school districts, six counties, and if you drove for the northernmost house to the southernmost it’d take 90 minutes. From the eastern most to the western most it’d be about the same. Seven households were within the same school district as the church building.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the small and scattered church is the inability to bring friends and neighbors to worship to hear the gospel preached. If you have to drive thirty minutes to church, getting your non-Christian neighbor to worship or experience the life of faith with your church family is going to be tough. And if few people live in the neighborhood where the church worships, it’s hard for your church to have a significant impact on the neighborhood. If the neighborhood around the church building wouldn’t miss your church if it disappeared, then you’re not making much of an impact in the neighborhood.
So, how can a small and scattered church be healthy? I promise, it can and I’ll provide some strategies below. But first, what makes a small and scattered church? Here are a couple reasons that small and scattered churches exist:
Theology: Some people have sincerely held convictions from Scripture about worship, church governance, and other theological matters. They will travel to be able to be part of a church they feel is faithful to scripture.
Family Ties: Some people travel to the home church - they live in the same region they grew up in and they’re willing to drive thirty minutes or more to worship with their family on the Lord’s Day.
Pastoral Ties: I knew a family that went through a major crisis and a particular pastor walked them through that crisis. They were willing to drive past a couple churches of similar theology and style to be at that church on the Lord’s Day, including the one I pastored. I wouldn’t begrudge them that personal connection.
Mission: Some people travel for church because they are committed to a specific mission or vision of church life. Even if they don’t live in that place they’ll travel to get there to support the mission.
It’s a waste of time to try and convince people to just go to the church closest to home and closest to their convictions. Small and scattered churches exist and they have to be faithful to Jesus. They can be healthy churches - just like the big churches with gravitational pull and parish churches in the heart of local communities. They can make an impact.
Here are some strategies for the small and scattered church to be faithful to the mission of Jesus and advance the kingdom of Jesus:
Make Much of the Lord’s Day: In most churches the Sunday services are the heart of the church’s ministry. In the scattered church it might be the only time that more than 50% of your congregation is going to be in the same place at the same time. So, make much of the Lord’s Day. If people are just punching the clock and the parking lot is empty within 15 minutes of the end of the sermon you’re missing out. The Sabbath is for rest, worship, and works of mercy. So, feast together and enjoy fellowship. Have a low key pot-luck of brown bag lunch. Don’t rush out of the parking lot. Serve together - pick a local ministry or non-profit and occasionally serve there after or before worship.
Rally Around the Locals: If you want to reach the people in the neighborhood where the church worships, rally around the portion of your congregation that lives in the neighborhood. Equip them for ministry and look for ways to support them. Get them resources. Ask them to help you connect to their neighbors. Follow their lead on meeting community needs. Leverage their relationships.
Clarify Your Parishes: If the majority of your congregation lives far from the church building, map out everyone’s homes. Figure out if there are any common communities. Are there pockets where a couple families come from? Can you roughly draw parish lines like “North, South, East, West”? Clarifying your parishes helps you activate your people for mission in the next couple strategies.
Raise Up Parish Leaders: If your church can identify a couple parishes look at your roster of leaders and see if each parish has a couple leaders. If not, pray and disciple potential future leaders so that each parish has some leadership from the church.
Decentralize Your Ministry: You know it’s hard to get everyone back to the church building for mid-week prayer, youth group, or service projects. So, stop fighting a losing battle. Encourage parishes to gather for prayer and bible study on their own. Help parishes serve their community. Encourage each parish to hold fellowship events that non-Christian friends can be invited to.
Plant a Church: You’re already a small church. I think the future is small churches. Give me 10, hundred member churches in a school district on mission with Jesus rather than another big box church. So, instead of trying to keep all the good theology and fellowship to yourselves, start thinking about church planting sooner rather than later. Figure out which parish is most in need of a gospel preaching church, which has some committed leaders and members, and prayerfully start thinking about sending them off. If you’re stuck in a scarcity mindset (we could never lose them), you’ll never plant. But if your God is big enough to rule heaven and earth, and big enough to give you your daily bread, then trust him to advance his kingdom through planting churches.