When I first started preaching, I cut my teeth on these three churches. I remember one Sunday in the summer of 1987 when I was supply preaching to cover for Pastor White. (Actually the Rev. Dr. Gerald C. White, an Old Testament scholar, the pastor who both confirmed me and introduced me to New Testament Greek.) I showed up at Ness for the 8 am service. Six men and one woman were in attendance. "Olga, our organist, is sick," they said. "Can you lead hymns?" So the woman and I sang the hymns and one of the men mouthed the words. Every verse to every hymn. We got through it, but it was a relief to head for Norman for the 9:45 service, knowing that Mabel would be there to play. I arrived at Norman and found out that Mabel was on vacation, and "Olga from Ness was going to fill in but she's sick. Can you lead hymns?" So we sang, again a cappella, every verse of every hymn. When I arrived at Faaberg for the 11 am service the first thing I did was check to make sure that Dorothy was there to play the organ!
Life in small congregations is different. The members live in constant awareness of the debt they owe to their parents and grandparents who established the church, who donated land and raised money for the building, who faithfully met in freezing buildings during the winter months, who scraped and saved to donate toward the new furnace. These same members look ahead with some fear that they won't be able to continue as a church -- that they will be the generation who allow the church to close its doors.
I served two congregations in Williston, North Dakota, from 1998-2003. During that time, I asked each congregation the same question: "Where do you see this church -- what do you hope -- five years from now?" At the church in town, still a small church but one that was only about fifteen years old, the question sparked lively conversation. Plans and possibilities flew around the room. When I asked the same question at the church council meeting of the country church, an older congregation whose roots go back to 1903 or 1904, the question produced dead silence. Finally the council president asked, "Why would you ask a question like that?" One of the other council members responded, "I just hope our doors are open." This was a church that had about 40 faithful people show up each Sunday for worship, a vibrant Sunday School with a dozen kids attending, and had $20,000 in savings!
Small church life is challenging. Small churches usually can't afford a full-time pastor, and often have to make stop-gap arrangements with lay preachers or a rotating schedule of preachers from other congregations. Preachers are expected to lead worship, and members handle everyday tasks like visiting sick members and tending to the administrative needs of the church. Often members of small churches feel inferior to the big churches -- the ones whose pastors write best-sellers, post sermons on the internet, who lead thriving Bible studies and take mission trips to exotic destinations like Zambia or Kazakhstan or Argentina. Small churches don't usually have a "youth group." Sunday School means grouping kids together from three or four grades with one teacher. It's a constant struggle to pay benevolence to the denomination. When the local high school asks for a donation toward the prom fund, it's a major discussion at the next church council meeting.
For all that, I believe small churches are a key ingredient in the future of the church.
In fifty years, I believe there will be four kinds of churches in this culture.
1. The regional center church that is big, has a multiple staff, and serves as a hub of ministry with lots of spokes extending out into the community, quite possibly with multiple worship sites and lots of cutting edge technology serving their ministry.
2. The church plant, which is a church that has a full-time leader but can't afford him / her. They are a mission funded by another church in order to reach people in a specific geographical area, and are growing from tiny toward self-supporting.
3. The small church which meets its own needs and is served primarily by gifts of its members. So this small church will not wait on an ordained pastor, but will meet for worship which is led by one of its members. Worship will be less formal and sermons will look more like a Bible study or conversation around the biblical text. Membership will be less than 50 and probably less than 30. Members will have a high commitment to their church, by which they will mean the people. Buildings will come and go, and most meetings will probably happen in the home of a member.
4. There will be a dwindling few hangers-on, still trying to make it as what they will call a "traditional" congregation, by which they mean that they own a building and employ an ordained pastor and have a membership of less than 200. Economically they will be headed the direction of the dinosaurs. A few will have enough endowment funds or wealthy members that they can live this way, but the basic problem with these churches is that they are primarily concerned with serving the needs of their members, so they will not gain life or vitality -- they cripple themselves by their insistence on outmoded models of church and put self interest ahead of their God-given mission. Most of the churches that continue in these old models of how to be the church will die out within the next 20-30 years, but some will hang on beyond that.
I have the utmost respect for so many small churches that continue to struggle, and sometimes thrive, in the context where God has planted them. I think a dependence on pastors is the biggest obstacle in the life of so many of these churches, and the future will require significant changes in leadership for these churches to continue.