December 17, 2017

Setting Priorities in Small Church Ministry

Don Johnson

One reader sent us a note concerning this series of articles. With her permission, I am going to quote from her note in this article (and one other) to further the theme of small church ministry. In particular, today I’d like to talk about setting priorities in the small church.

Here is my friend’s comment:

We’ve attended churches as small as 75 and as large as several hundred (passing 1,000 not long after we moved.) There is definitely a cozier feel to small churches. In the one we attended, there was no 10% doing 90% of the work: everyone was actively involved except for the very elderly who couldn’t be. While that is healthy, it also makes it hard to start any new ministries. The pastor there wanted us to start a new children’s ministry because we had been involved with it in another church, but everyone was already ministering in several different capacities, so that ministry was understaffed the years we were there. The smaller numbers also made it harder to have the funds to do necessary projects around the church or mission or outreach projects. Plus when anyone moves away, a gaping hole is left behind. When our family moved due to my husband’s job, two other families moved shortly afterward, a real blow to a small church. On the other hand, fellowships were easier: that church had a potluck the first Wed. night of each month, and everyone pitched in to set up and then clean up. At bigger churches, anything like that gets much more complicated.

I suspect that most small churches will try to involve every able-bodied and spiritually-minded member in some ministry or other. Every pastor and every church will have to work out their own priorities when it comes to which ministries are important to make a part of regular church life. I suspect that we can probably all think of more ministries that we could do than we have people to do them. Certainly, then, the problem is not lack of things to do (or ideas of things we could do).

The first thing that we should establish in the small church is this: what must we do? What is the bare minimum we need to do as a church in order to function as a church? These questions may seem foolish at first glance, but perhaps the problems some experience with burn-out are the consequence of trying to “do church” according to the expectations of larger congregations.

When we look to the book of Acts, the church in its simplest form is described this way:

Acts 2.41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.

What aspects of church life do we see here? Discipleship (“continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine), fellowship, worship (“breaking of bread” = communion service), and prayer. At its core, church life should be organized around these four activities. As more people (and workers) come, specific ministries can be added or expanded, but all should be related in some way to these.

Our first priorities as a church should be gathering for the worship of our Lord and Saviour. This gathering of necessity must foster fellowship, discipleship, and prayer within the communion of the body of Christ. How many meetings are necessary to accomplish this? How often? I would think at least one meeting per week (gathering on the Lord’s Day, Rev 1.10) is probably the barest of essentials, though more weekly meetings would seem to be in order. If you met once monthly instead, could you really say your gathering was a church? I would struggle to see it as such.

Would one service a week be enough? While for a very small group, just starting out, this might be all that could be managed, I don’t think it is really enough. We need no less, but we really need more instruction and fellowship than one service can provide. However, the fruit of discipleship should produce more evangelists among us and through that beginning church life, a church should grow. More hands can be employed for more services and for improving the services that already exist. And thus a functioning local church is born.

Let’s say, however, that we are talking about a church of around 75 people, our correspondent’s example. A church of that size should have a fairly full church calendar – enough people to provide for some specialization in children’s ministry and music and several services a week, including a mid-week service (something I find particularly refreshing spiritually). The various special ministries such a church gets involved in would depend on whether the needs are being met for the basic requirements of the church calendar and the skills/gifts of the available workers. Some ministries may be a part of the church life for a time (say a specialized “Children’s Ministry” as per the example), but must it continue forever? If available workers move away, what then? Unless someone is able to replace those departing, perhaps the time for that ministry is at an end.

This is how I look at ministry beyond the minimums of worship, discipleship, fellowship, and prayer: these other ministries may enhance the basic ministry but they don’t supersede the basic ministry. Their use should be flexible, as a church is able to provide them, with the consciousness that changing times will bring changes to these ministries. Sometimes the time for a Youth Group, for example, will pass. In our church, we have had no “youth” for a number of years. One of our children has just recently reached the age we would call “youth.” It seems kind of pointless to have a youth group of one. Nevertheless, our young lady is being involved in the ministry herself, and we continue to minister to her in various ways.

Churches of every size should be constantly assessing the ministries they are involved in. What are the priorities? How do the things we are doing lend themselves to fulfilling these priorities? What should we do to meet new needs within the framework of our priorities in the future? Each church will need to carefully consider its ability to carry out every ministry it is involved in and, honestly, there is nothing wrong with finding that a particular ministry has served its purpose and has come to the end of its useful life in your local church.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Previous articles in the Small Church series:

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