Cornerstone is part of the fastest-growing group of congregations in America: the minichurch. According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100.
That’s a marked change from two decades earlier, when the 2000 Faith Communities Today survey found the median congregation had 137 people and fewer than half of congregations had fewer than 100 people.
So reports Bob Smietana for the Religious News Service. A recent study (the National Congregations Study) found “shrinking attendance figures” and a “median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%.” Half of all congregations decreased by 7%. The average congregation in America is small but “the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.” American churches are “being sorted into two kinds of churches—megachurches, and minichurches…”.
Now, it may be that “minichurches” are not ideal. As one who was a layman in the Reformed churches for a number of years and then a pastor in the Reformed churches (since 1987) I have seen and pastored my share of Reformed churches. The building pictured to the left was the renovated Standard gas station at the intersection of I-29 and I-35 in Kansas City, Missouri where my congregation met while I was there. We could hold perhaps 70 people. Most of the time we were about 40 or so. It was an intimate setting. The good news is that I knew everyone in the congregation fairly well. I have been gone since 1993 and I can still picture each face, where they sat. I remember well those who came and left and those who thought about coming but never did. I was in the homes of our members. I attended Kiwanis with some, high school football games with others. We developed a bond. There was a sense of community but it was a challenge for newcomers to become integrated into the life of the community. We all knew each other so well that anyone who visited was significantly behind the relational curve. How should the congregation relate to guests? If we paid too much attention we were in danger of smothering them but too little and we were in danger of being “cold.”
Then there was the little matter of surviving. If I told you our annual budget you would not believe me. The people gave sacrificially but we were really small. 20% of our tiny budget went toward the mortgage payment on the building. 65% of the budget went toward my salary (with no benefits). Were it not for the kindness of Richard Barr, who gave us a quarter of beef most years, and my in-laws who gave us cars and cash, life would have been very different. As it was, in the kind providence of God, we got by.
Most confessional Reformed congregations are small and many of them feel bad about it. Perhaps some of them should feel a bit guilty? Some of them are small and they like it that way and they do not much care if newcomers find and join them. Our congregation was anxious that the gospel should go out, that people might come to faith and join us. We wanted to grow but it was very hard to do that. Thankfully, the congregation has relocated, renamed itself (Northland Reformed Church, pictured left) and has grown. I have been a part of other small confessional, Reformed congregations that very much wanted to grow. Some times, in those settings, I have felt guilty that we were not growing. In Kansas City I read the church-growth literature and incorporated it into outreach and life of the church—more than I should have. I have perceived that sense of guilt, that sense of failure even, in more than one smallish confessional Reformed congregation. “What are we doing wrong?” The church growth gurus told us that if we only employed the right methods growth was guaranteed. They were wrong. That is not how it works. We do not live in a mechanical universe such that, if we punch in the correct code, we get the desired outcome.
For all our ostensible sophistication, Christ is still King over his church (and over everything, albeit in distinct spheres). It is still the case that it is only and ever the elect who come to new life and true faith. God does not tell us who the elect are and we dare not guess so we follow his command and example and we preach the good news indiscriminately to everyone, calling all sinners to repent and to trust in Jesus the Messiah. We invite them warmly and sincerely to join the great throng of the redeemed as pictured in the Revelation, from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).
In the providence of God, however, the visible, institutional Church is subject to the historical, social, economic, political, and cultural trends. Sometimes those favor the church (or appear to favor the church) and sometimes they do not. After Constantine, it became legal to be a Christian. After Theodosius I, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. This was a dramatic change of fortunes. In some ways it was a blessing but in other ways not so much. Certainly, when the church was being hunted and persecuted by the pagan Roman authorities and hounded by the local synagogue, it was not pleasant but the church flourished unexpectedly. The church as it came West, with the support of the Empire and with the aid of local tribal chiefs, nobility, and regional kings, incorporated a great number of people rapidly without much catechesis and, frankly, with little sense that many of the new members actually believed. The parallels between the church growth movement and the spread of Christianity in Europe are genuine. The megachurches began developing and growing in the late 80s and early 90s in part because they were seen as culturally significant. They became places to be and to be seen. They too incorporated a lot of people quickly with the aid of the upper classes and influential people. As in the early medieval period, catechesis was brief or non-existent. The congregations had little idea whether people believed or not. The goal was to incorporate as many people into the church as quickly as possible. Beginning with Bob Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral (now defunct and the campus hosts a Romanist congregation) the promise was that Christian instruction would happen during the week.
Smallish confessional Reformed congregations should not necessarily feel guilty about being small and socially insignificant. That has been the lot of most of the church for most of its history. The Roman empire, whose approval so many craved in the 4th and 5th centuries, no longer exists. The church continues. The Enlightenment did its best to destroy the church and, outwardly, in Europe and in the American mainline churches, it succeeded but the church still exists in Europe, the UK, and North America. It is flourishing in Africa, South Korea, and in many other parts of the globe. We dare not say too much about the church in China but Tertullian was right: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Pray for your brothers and sisters under Islamist and Communist oppression.
Those confessional Reformed congregations that are warm, welcoming, hospitable, well-ordered, and law-and-gospel-preaching are doing what God has ordained. The growth of the congregation belongs to the Lord. Look at the state of some of the megachurches that were touted as models to be followed back in the 80s and 90s. Would you really want to be Mars Hill, Willow Creek, or Harvest Bible Chapel now? Where there is indifference to the lost or smug satisfaction, well, the only thing for that is repentance but where the ministry is gracious and faithful then the leadership and the congregation should be at peace. Rest in the providence of God. He has you right where he wants you. As it turns out, for the moment, you are a trend setter. I served with Norman Hoeflinger for two years. Once he said to me, “You know, if we just stay put, maybe people will catch up to us?” It turns out that Norman was right. Apparently the world has caught up to us—for the moment. The next thing we know, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and ordinary means of grace ministry may become all the rage. Stranger things have happened.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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This is a wonderful, encouraging article, especially for pastors of small reformed churches. I have forwarded this on to my pastor friends in such churches as you described. Thank you for your thoughts on this and many other subjects.
As a member of Northland Reformed, I was quite surprised to find us on the blog. It’s been a crazy time here, we’ve baptized 10 babies in 12 months!
That’s wonderful! Praise the Lord. That is an answer to much prayer.
I was an avid charismatic. But by the grace of God, I am now attempting to influence others in the Church to learn and to benefit from the rich heritage of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Catechism, etc. So … your hope of these riches becoming valued and ‘all the rage’ may perhaps not be that far off.
Our LORD knows how to make hearts hungry for Him, and how to keep hearts sound through sound doctrine.
We have hope in Him and His providence.
In Christ Jesus,
Thanks for the encouragement.
Encouraging article. I’ve been in a small URCNA for 21 years. We grew to 60, or so, and due to people exiting California we shrank to 40. The pastor is experienced, passionate for the gospel. an exceptional preacher of the word, and works harder than any pastor I have known. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more loving congregation. But, we can’t seem to grow. We tend to all center our lives around work and the church, so most have exhausted the pool of people we can invite to church. We’ve engaged in joint NAPARC community reach-out events.
My greatest concern is for the pastor and I pray for his encouragement continually, as I sense he takes the lack of growth personally. I suppose all pastors do. One of the contributing issues locally may be that the NAPARC churches don’t always follow the rules pertaining to the starting of new congregations in a town which already has NAPARC churches. We have two PCAs, a URCNA, and a RPC.
We do need to pray for our pastors. I think you’re right. It’s very easy for a pastor to measure his worth by attendance.
Buildings, bodies and budgets; it can be frustrating for sure, but I would not trade in my congregation of <20 where I know each and every one, who show up most of the time, even during the week for history and theology study, for a larger body with less consistency, even if I must supplement my income to make ends meet. Whenever I get discouraged by the lack of physical growth, I can always turn instead to the individual growth of each and every member, and be thankful for the sanctification of the actual saints I have actually been called to serve, trusting always in the Root that has promised to produce the fruit. May He be glorified wherever His body resides, no matter the size, until He comes again.
Thank you for writing this. I needed this today!