Friday, October 19, 2007

Too Many Little Struggling Churches?

In a recent article for JesusFirst, entitled "Where are You Going, Missouri?", Pastor Charles S. Mueller, Sr. states the following:

"Hand-in-hand with a pastor shortage is the fact that we have too many parishes that are on a subsistence level, barely able to maintain facilities, to minimally support a pastor and to share a little with others. In many areas our churches are spaced as if we were still in the 19th century serving a flock that buggies to worship or is culturally concentrated enough to walk to church.

The LCMS has too many churches that of necessity spend the majority of their time dealing with roof replacement, furnace repair and patching parking lots. Untrue? Review the minutes of a dozen or so randomly selected church councils and voter’s assemblies. What are their pressing issues? More ministry? Increasing their out reach effectiveness? Missions and other human needs? Hardly. The agenda issues are largely survival concerns using how effective the parish used to be as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. I think that will be a hard sell in heaven. But rejoice: there is forgiveness.
So what’s the solution? There is none until we acknowledge the pressing character of the moment. It’s like the 13th century recipe for rabbit stew that begins, “First, catch the rabbit.” Or, to put it another way, acknowledge the current reality."

So what is Pastor Mueller implying here? We can't know for sure since he stops just short of making the obvious conclusion. However, it appears to me that he sees a solution in closing these little struggling parishes so that more resources can be more effectively allocated to bigger and better mega churches and larger ministries. Doesn't that seem to be where he's heading with this? Or am I paranoid? (Don't answer that....)

As a pastor of a small, rural parish, I'd like to respond briefly to his observations. It is true that many of our parishes located in small towns and rural farm areas, that were planted a century or more ago, were located in these places based on the demographic needs of the times. A good percentage of my congregation is still clustered within a 5-mile radius of the church where many of the farms once flourished. The second largest segment of my people now also live in the nearby city about 7 miles to the west.

And yes, we do spend some time talking about roofs and furnaces. But to be fair I know that larger parishes must do the same. Yet does this mean that we are not "in mission" because of our attention to these realities of maintaining a building? I don't think so. Too often mission is
gauged by the number of formal programs to which resources must be allocated. Yet smaller churches are not program-oriented this way. They reach out to others, but they do it far more casually. No dollars are attached to their efforts. They simply do it on their own time. Evangelism is happening all the time in my church, but you might not know it if you were simply looking at the budget for some line item for program expenditures.

No, Pastor Mueller, I beg to differ with your observations. I know where you're going with this, and I think that you are selling many of these little parishes short. In some cases these little struggling churches are actually serving as refuges from the larger mega churches which have transformed into large corporations catering to the whims of their communities, but lacking in the intimacy and family cohesiveness of the small rural parish, not to mention a commitment to real Lutheran belief and practice. The smaller parishes are also some of the last bastions of genuine liturgical worship where you can still find a hymnal in the pew. There are people who want this, and with modern transportation being what it is (We have moved far beyond those 'buggies'!), they do not always mind driving up to 30 minutes to find such a church. I know, because a lot of my people do just that.

So let's hear a cheer for those little churches with their harvest dinners and potlucks and organs and pews and cash-strapped budgets. God still has a use for them.

O.k. I didn't respond "briefly." What do you expect of a preacher?


Elijah the Tishbite said...

Thanks for this. I'm a new pastor at a dual rural parish, and you're right on.


RevFisk said...

Pastor shortage? Then why is this recent grad without a call? ie. me)why so many on CRM?

what there is a shortage of is charity in large congregations toward small ones, willingness to give alms to impoverished brethren so they can hear the Gospel preached and receive full time pastoral care. Currently, we're stealing from the poor and giving (tm) to the rich. I do agree that many small parishes are enmeshed and spend far too much time arguing over petty expenditures.(this is why my Iastlfirst call went no where real fast.) But a little charity from the "stronger" brothers would hardly be uncalled for.

No more giving(tm) with strings attached. It might actually behoove us to forget what our right hand is doing.

For what it's worth.