By Eddie Pipkin
On my recent multi-week road trip, I stayed at a wide variety of places, some decidedly more upscale than others. I spent time in a little cabin/lodge, nicely appointed motel “suites,” on a luxury air mattress, crashing on a couple of couches, and I even had my first Airbnb experience (a historic room in a former TB hospital in Saranac Lake, New York). Like the generations of Pipkins before me, I am a frugal soul – not cheap, folks, frugal, there’s a difference! – the balance is always finding a reasonable place to lay one’s head for the night with the least possible expenditure. And that’s how I ended up one night at the Super 8 motel in Frederick, Maryland, the best $50 motel experience EVER.
Here’s the ministry tie-in: You do not have to be the JW Marriott of ministry to give people what they need. Not every comfortable and interesting place to call home (even a very temporary home) has to be a mega-hotel. Not every nurturing faith family has to built on the mega-church model.
I was staying in Frederick on my way between two stops, and I just needed a place to grab some sleep and a shower, so I started searching the hotel apps for a deal. It is almost impossible to find anything below $75 to $80 anymore, so when I snagged a $50 room right off the interstate, I knew I had either snagged a bargain or booked a dump. Well, I scored! Here’s what I found:
- A large, clean room.
- A comfortable bed.
- A strong, hot shower.
- Room amenities that included a microwave, mini-fridge, coffee maker, good TV, etc.
- A viable AC unit.
But additionally, I had some unexpected surprises:
- A great complimentary breakfast, including scrambled eggs and a waffle station!
- A super friendly staff who went out of their way to help me with a couple of things.
Now, this property was a little scruffy, I will admit. The carpets might have been a slightly worn, the paint might have needed a touch-up, and there was no fancy lobby hangout area with fresh-baked cookies. If you like to travel in style, this was probably not the place for you. But for me (and the traveling construction crew with whom I shared waffles), it was perfect. This business got all the basics right! They achieved excellent results by maximizing their available resources! They treated people well (demonstrating the value of relationships)! They understood the needs of their congregation (oops, I mean, customers) and the mission for which they existed!
Local congregations should have such goals. When congregational leadership has a clear understanding of their unique ministry context within their communities – when they build their identities by faithfully embracing these contexts and maximizing their congregational gifts – great things happen. As ministry leaders we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to complete with the “megas,” which have been the dominant ministry influencers in the past generation. But the majority of churches in America are medium-sized and small congregations which not only can’t compete with mega-congregations, they should not even be trying to.
Much of our fretting has been over modernizing the worship experience, but there is always a tension with carrying things too far:
So the bad news is, the church can’t compete with Hollywood. Or Disneyland. Or Broadway. Or Friday night high school football, for that matter. We can’t even compete with own smart phones and iPads.
But the good news is, we don’t need to compete with any of those things. Because the church has no competition.
The church needs to do what only the church can do.
Jesus told us to show the world we’re his disciples. Not by putting on a better Sunday morning show, or by making higher quality movies. And certainly not by sticking with the old, stale Sunday morning show, either.
It’s never been easier to leverage technology and creativity to make the worship experience relevant to contemporary experience, but it’s probably also never been easier to get distracted from the true purpose of all this effort (spiritual growth and discipleship development). Perfecting the balance involves a clear understanding of our customer (oops, congregational) needs, especially the spiritual needs of the rising generations, as noted in this article by Carl Vaters that argues “Why Small Churches are the Next Big Thing”:
Millennials don’t want a big Sunday morning stage show as much as they want genuine intimacy and relationships.
So how can churches provide this?
Simply put, churches can start small. Small doesn’t mean cheap, shoddy, lazy or low-quality—at least it shouldn’t. But what Millennials mean by quality will also be different than what their parents meant.
Too often, for Boomers, quality has meant excess. Glitz. Over-the-top. Bling. For any kind of church, however, quality can be summed up in one word: health. Health starts by getting the basics right.
Focus on doing the basics with quality, just like our friends at the Super 8. We’re likely not going to be able to offer music or message that competes with . . . well, even with the entertainment machines in our own pockets . . . but we can do these things competently and with confidence. And absolutely we can do these things with context in mind. For many congregations, however, there is not even a basic agreement on what the ‘basics’ are, or what their ‘context’ is, much less a coherent strategy on how to provide them with consistent excellence. Platform level experiences.
If you are part of a smaller congregation, take heart! Not only can you do the basics well and with enthusiasm, and not only are you positioned to have an independent personality that moves beyond that big mall cookie cutter feel that sometimes defines the “megas,” small churches are in many ways perfectly positioned to be inventive and responsive in ways that are perfectly suited for this moment in time. In reading this article on “11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future,” I was struck by how small churches are excellently oriented to take advantage of these strategies:
- Focusing outside the church walls. Smaller churches are often more intimately connected to the daily rhythms of life in the local communities. They often have more obvious links to local community leadership, making ministry partnerships possible. They often have shared history they can leverage for future endeavors.
- Quick Decision Making. Smaller churches often have less clogged and bureaucratic leadership structures. If you can get together on a shared vision, you can make ministry decisions in a streamlined fashion (instead of the months-long processes frequently present in large congregations).
- Flexibility. Likewise, the ability to make decisions more quickly means you can be more limber and responsive. You can adjust to the needs of the people to whom you are ministering more easily.
- Willingness to Embrace Smaller to Become Bigger. You can leverage the power of smaller, more intimate gatherings to grow relationships and connections. “Megas” with thousands in attendance on Sunday morning spend a lot of their time trying to replicate the very intimacy that smaller churches naturally have at hand.
- A Quicker, Lighter Footprint. You can move your smaller groups into ministry outside the church walls efficiently.
If you’re waiting for millions to build your building, you might wait forever. Get innovative and start looking at portable and non-traditional ways of growing your ministry.
- Valuing online relationships as real relationships. Technology (like social media platforms) doesn’t require a large staff or big budget to be used effectively. The young adults in your congregation already know how to manage these platforms and would love to help you do so. You have powerful resources available to you for developing relationships for pennies on the dollar.
- An openness to questions. You can build authenticity through small gatherings that encourage people to fully explore their questions. There can be a real sense of interaction, of give-and-take, even in worship settings.
- Valuing experimentation. You can be entrepreneurial in approach, giving individual disciples empowerment to experiment in Spirit-led directions.
- “For You” versus “From You” thinking. This is a matter of having “aspirations for you congregation.” As you engage one-to-one with members of the community, you can share a vision for what life in your faith community offers them, how you hope to see them grow and will partner with them in that growth. This is an intimate approach that is difficult to replicate on a large scale (which for newbies often feels like a multi-level marketing scheme in which they are being recruited to fill roles required by the institution).
- A tailored experience for a sacred message. The Gospel message is timeless, but the ways it can be customized to meet the unique needs of unique communities and individuals is unlimited. Smaller congregations can provide a means to personalize their approach in ways that larger institutions find difficult.
Churches that decide they will hold the message sacred but tailor the experience to an ever-shifting culture will be more effective.
For many who are out there searching for a community of hope and connection, smaller churches offer just what they’re looking for, and larger congregations could do well to “think small.” There are enough people out there and enough churches in their communities to find a place that’s just right for everybody. A final thought from Gilford T. Monrose:
Church is more than just entertainment, having large numbers of people attending services or hearing messages of empowerment from the pulpit that makes one feel good. Church is the lifeline of any society. Church is a unique place that should instill change in people’s lives. So what do people need from church?
Irrespective of church size, each church can provide effective small group ministries and outreach services, even smaller churches can have and should have specialized small groups. This momentum can then spread out beyond the walls of the church and be incorporated into the community where the church serves. To the best of its ability, the church can provide services, counseling and advice to those in need.
The key is to know your identity and faithfully embrace. Let us know how we at EMC3 Coaching can help.
Wow! Do we ned to read this and LISTEN to the message. Clearly written and makes sense. I think we’re trying to hard to satisfy one group’s needs over another (Millennials vs Elders). Our community outreach is good but our Sunday morning attendance is small which some can’t understand that it’s OK. For those that are worshipping here it is their lifeline. For the groups that use the building, AA and NA for example, it is their lifeline. All good. Numbers aren’t important, lifelines are.
Thank you for this well thought out, well written parallel to real life.