Gil Rendle’s book, “Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches,” compares where the church is today with the wilderness journey Moses and the Israelites were on for 40 years.
Near the end of the book, Rendle specifically addresses the fate of the smaller church during this wilderness time.
“The small church as we know it will diminish and be reduced in numbers while a new form of small church will emerge and seek a different relationship to other congregations and denominations,” Rendle predicts.
Rendle notes there are three threats to small churches today: location, economics and a generation gap.
Many of our smaller churches were built in rural areas and small villages to provide reasonable access to people. Today, fewer people live in those areas, making it difficult for these small churches to attract new people.
With reduced numbers of people, economics becomes a problem that is often compounded by the mindset that every church must have its own pastor and its own building.
Many of these buildings have not been well maintained due to decreasing funds. One day the church will find that it cannot avoid long-neglected repairs any longer, and the bill for those repairs may be overwhelming.
The final issue is the generation gap that exists in many churches. Smaller churches find it very difficult to attract and serve the four or five generations that now exist in many families.
We have long complained about the “graying” of our churches, and that has not changed much for the past few decades.
Many of our older, smaller churches are made up primarily of the oldest two generations and a scattering of small children brought by their grandparents.
There is an obvious generation or two missing in many of these churches, which does not bode well for their future.
However, this does not mean an end to the smaller church. While many smaller churches may well close in the next few years, others will rise up to replace them.
There is something appealing to younger adult populations about small congregations. Many of them will prefer the smaller church to the mega-church, but these smaller churches will not look like the small churches of today.
They will be much more missional and outward focused than the often inward-focused small church we often find today. Many of these smaller churches will not seek a building but will be willing to meet in people’s homes.
They may not meet regularly on Sunday mornings but find other times more in line with the schedules of the participants. Their leadership is likely to come from within their congregations.
There will be less emphasis on formal seminary education and ordination, and much more interest in one’s call to ministry and ability to do ministry.
I believe the majority of these churches will be led by bivocational ministers. It may well be that there is not a solo pastor in these churches but a shared leadership.
If we think churches today are pulling away from denominations, we are likely to find these smaller churches of the future even more distant from historic denominations.
They will form their own independent networks of like-minded congregations, some of which may one day become new denominations.
Any relationship these churches have with established denominations will be on their terms, which will be a challenge to the denominations.
This will require those denominations to rethink their purpose, the way they relate to churches, their views and requirements about ordination, and their views on what constitutes a church.
Rendle predicts, and I agree, that the denominations that make this transition well will be smaller in size and much less structured than they are today.
One cannot enter the wilderness and come out the same. Churches and denominations are going to look much different when they come out of the wilderness than they were when they went in.
The ones who insist that everything must remain the same will perish in the wilderness, and God will raise up a new generation to enter into the “Promised Land.”
This is not an easy book to read, but it offers much “food for thought” that church and denominational leaders need to consider if they want to better understand what is happening in the church today and what the future holds for the church of tomorrow.
Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Ind., for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.
Dennis Bickers is a church consultant and author. He served previously as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years followed by a 14-year ministry as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.