One of the dynamics of a smaller church is an emphasis on relationships over programs. At the same time, in a smaller church, as individuals, we have a greater impact on the church (positively and negatively) with our gifts and challenges.
Karl Vater describes how some of those differences between larger and smaller churches play out, with bigger churches needing to prioritize vision, process and programs, while smaller churches need to prioritize relationships, culture and history.
He’s not saying that vision, process and programs don’t matter in smaller churches, but that due to size, the personal and relational dynamics have a larger effect. If so and so doesn’t get along with someone else, or there’s a dustup or disconnect, it can drastically affect entire ministries of a smaller church.
Churches also pride themselves on being friendly (everyone thinks they’re friendly), but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t being left out, or not finding the connection they may be looking for.
Vaters makes a critical point here: healthy relationships are key in a small church. He then moves on to talk about culture and history, but it’s worth pausing to look at this essential dynamic:
What does it take to form and maintain healthy relationships in a church?
What does it take to form and maintain healthy relationships, period?
Part of the reality of church is that the church is (or at least should be!) composed of people who are all at different points on the journey! Which inherently means that we’re not all going to have the same emotional and spiritual maturity or the same set of tools and skills for healthy relationships. We have different experiences, backgrounds and wounds that impact our ability to relate. In fact, this ministry of reconciliation – reconnecting – is a core piece of the work of the Gospel in our lives; re-forming our relationship with God, ourselves, and with each other, by the work of Jesus in our lives through the Holy Spirit.
In other words – healthy relationships isn’t just about a “spiritual” thing, but a spiritual thing that flows into our everyday lives and connections with other people.
Which would become an entirely new blog post. And it’s something that Paul writes about extensively in his letters – seriously. So much of what he has to say to churches is about the things that build up or tear down relationships. Our need for grace, forgiveness, the kind of love that wants the best for someone else. Letting go of bitterness, competition, jealousy, unhelpful ways of talking about others, and so on…
Of course, all of that flows into the next piece Vater describes as essential in a small church: Culture
Culture is what it is; some of it good, some of it bad – but we ignore it at our peril. Vaters connects Jesus’ parable of the four soils to describe the potential for what grows naturally from the soil. There may be all kinds of good intentions and actions which can get stunted or subverted (i.e. weeds and stones) by hidden bits of culture which need to be named and uncovered and let go of. It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about, or that everyone talks about, just not in helpful ways.
How can we name all the parts of our culture at MBC?
What rocks and weeds do we need to acknowledge to be freed up for all that God seeks to do among us?
Lastly, Vaters describes the impact of history in the small congregation. Not so that we can be stuck or cemented to the past, but in terms of reconnecting to the vision and passion which energized and motivated the first generations of the congregation’s life.
At Memorial, some of that history is both visionary and painful; being created out of a church split that impacted families and friendships for generations. And yet, there are certain values that called people out to forge a new community of faith with a model of shared leadership. The sense of purpose and connection which allowed this new church to thrive and grow in the community is something we need to remember and celebrate with thanksgiving, even as we acknowledge changing times and cultures and the need to re-envision ways in which we live out this ministry.
What parts of our church history (and especially vision) need to be remembered and celebrated more?