One of the difficulties of running a church in an undesirable area is the problem of partnership. I have noted some of these issues here, here, here, and here. Short of a gospel-centred missionary spirit, few people are going to come to towns like Oldham.
Even before we begin discussing the sharing of resources, however, there often seems to be an inbuilt bias towards the larger so-called successful churches. For example, it is not at all uncommon for systems to be setup by those in larger churches that inevitably serve churches like theirs. It often feels like those with vast resources create systems that will permit them to utilise even more whilst those with little money or people cannot access those same systems. If you create a system of providing workers that requires churches to raise up and fund workers from within in order to receive another worker, you have effectively determined that those with the financial and human resources to do this (who, by definition, need extra workers the least) may gain more, whilst those in dire need of such resources can’t have any because they don’t have the money or people to function within your system.
It is also common for organisations to give the big ‘successful’ church far more air time than those labouring in small churches. Those who lead larger churches are given platforms because they are large and notable. Due to such publicity, their adverts for mission trainees and workers and pastors are more widely publicised. On top of this, people who have heard of your church and engaged with writings by those church leaders are always likely to generate more interest. Again, this leads to larger churches receiving more workers more readily.
This same principle is often at play when it comes to conferences. Those at larger churches are often presumed to be the most able speakers whilst those from smaller churches are often overlooked. Often, this has nothing to do with the relative quality on offer and more to do with the fact nobody has bothered going and listening to what the smaller guys are like.
When larger churches are prepared to work with smaller ones, it often extends only as far as sending a few visiting speakers. The impression (sometimes) given is that the larger church is far too big and successful to have those taking their first steps into preaching ministry bringing down the quality of the weekly preaching, but the smaller parochial guys who are desperate for help won’t mind our lower quality offerings and it will help train our people for us. Whilst the sharing of speakers is a great way to partner together, and should be encouraged, it can belie a view that the small unsuccessful church is not important enough to worry about sending our best people. It was a blessing to us that this last Sunday a local church sent their Senior Pastor to preach for us. There was no sense that the small inferior place down the way could ‘make do’ with someone who has never set foot in a pulpit (not that we are against helping to train those taking their first steps into ministry, as I have explained at length here – see particularly points 2 and 3). We linked with a church recently and specifically wanted to give their green speakers opportunities to develop their preaching gifts. But it’s worth noting this was us offering, not them foisting such people upon us.
The dynamic is played out again when it comes to regional or national discussions of gospel initiatives. The large (or ‘strategic’) churches inevitably become the centre of focus. A single church, out in the sticks, several miles away from the inner city is never really going to be considered worthy of attention. Unless your view of ‘strategic importance’ revolves around little to no gospel witness in an area, places that are not in densely populated, reasonably affluent inner city areas will inevitably find themselves totally overlooked when it comes to gospel initiative. Again, it means the small churches in undesirable areas will receive no support while the larger churches, in areas where it is typically easier to build a big congregation, get even more help.
The question is how do we resource and support small churches in undesirable areas? How do we stop larger ‘successful’ churches pulling in ever greater resources that they need less than the overlooked smaller churches labouring away in areas to which it is typically hard to move people?
Let me suggest just three simple things we might do:
- Proactively advertise those churches that have no local or national recognition. It would go a small way to helping if folk had actually heard of the churches who require more people. Rather than always looking to the ‘big hitters’ to tell everybody how to do the work simply because they’re large, why not find some smaller churches to speak about their work. This means give the small guys opportunities to write articles on a regular basis, let them speak at your conferences, give them a platform so people might actually hear of, and about, them and their work and thus make it that little more likely they might possibly respond to their calls for workers.
- Proactively seek out the leaders of smaller churches. Of course folk on national executives of any given organisation have heard of the big-name speaker at such and such baptist church because they’re a big-name. Having already heard of them, these people are usually approached for regional and national roles because these are the guys we have heard of. It all becomes very cyclical. All the while, the guys we’ve never heard of – labouring away with scant resources – may be just the guy you need for X task. But how can you know if you’ve never bothered taking the time to visit the church or meet with the leaders?
- Proactively encourage people to move to smaller, rather than larger, churches. The point seems simple to me but uniformly ignored. Larger churches, by virtue of what they are, simply do not need more workers compared with their smaller counterparts. Small churches have vanishingly small numbers of people upon whom all their work rests. It tends to make sense to divert resources to the areas that need them most and, in the Christian world, this is usually smaller churches. We cannot take a business-based approach to this and say we divert resources to our ‘most successful’ areas because this rests on the presumption that unsuccessful areas, as a business decision, should ultimately be discontinued altogether. This approach would lead to the death of any gospel witness in any place where the church has not grown to whatever size we consider to be a great success. It is those areas with no gospel witness, or with a small witness that is in danger of dying because of lack of resource, that need the most resources sending to them.
In short, the plea is simple: can we start proactively resourcing small churches instead of sending ever greater resources to the large churches that need them least?
I don’t doubt that happens. I know in larger churches the work often rests on a smaller core. The issue there is not lack of resources though, it is inability to utilise the resources they have. It is also fair to say, every church has its core workers and those who are more peripheral. If these things are a percentage game, small churches will always have a smaller core than the small core of bigger churches.
Whilst not disagreeing with you I did find it amusing when a friend visited a huge church in South Korea (welcomed 1400 into membership the month he was there) and ended up taking a class in the English speaking Sunday School class because they didn’t have the volunteers! Every week he was there they were asking for volunteers….
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