While sitting in on one of our Michigan District’s Circuit Winkles, and over a steaming cup of predictable “church coffee,” I heard a most intriguing statement come out of one of the pastors in attendance: “My church is a micro-brewery.” (Now, I’m all about new funding models, but even I thought this might be a bit over the top! But I will admit I do like a good micro-brew, especially if I can drink it in the fellowship of some great Christian friends!)
The pastor who spoke was Rev. Paul Monson, serving the good people of St. Augustine Evangelical Lutheran Church in Troy, Mich. When prompted, he went on to explain with great passion:
“From where my congregation is located, I can just about throw a rock through the glass of three mega-churches. I thank God for them! We will never be a mega-church; and will never be able to offer the programs that they do. But they are not the ‘competition.’ They are like Budweiser® or Coors®. We’re a micro-brewery. And if you look around, micro-breweries are a booming industry. They do just a couple things really well; and people are standing in line to get in. Micro-breweries don’t think about competing with Budweiser®! Each has their own niche; and focus on their craft. They don’t get mad that people drink Budweiser® or Coors®. They don’t spend time and energy bad-mouthing them, or trying to mimic the giants. They just identify their unique place, reach into their community, and serve a great product to people who become committed customers.”
In a recent e-newsletter, Rev. Dr. Peter Meier from the Center for US Missions shared several insights regarding small congregations. I’ll highlight just a few:
- Today, 58% of congregations in the US have fewer than 100 people in weekend worship services, up from 49% five years ago;
- Small churches sponsor 1 in 5 church plants. 21% of churches planted in 2008 say their sponsoring church had an average attendance of less than 100;
- Among Americans, 88% would consider attending a church of fewer than 100;
- Millennials looking for personal relationships are receptive to small churches where they can get to know their neighbors and become personally involved.
“There are just some people who will never be at home in a mega-church,” said Pastor Monson in a subsequent interview. “I don’t know … call it ‘ministry to the introverts,’ or whatever. All I know is that my greatest evangelism happens in the local gym where I work out. It’s what Rev. Greg Finke talks about in his book, Joining Jesus on His Mission. So, as I said, my competition is not the mega-church, but it’s the general unbelief caused by sin and Satan in the lives of people.”
One of the challenges facing small churches, however, is sustainability. As Michigan District Congregation Mission and Ministry Facilitators, we have adopted a definition of a “healthy church (ministry/congregation):” A Healthy Ministry is one that has identified its ministry focus, is effectively achieving its ministry objectives in its context, and is self-supporting independently or through mutually beneficial partnerships.
That sounds a lot like a micro-brewery!!!!
We need to recognize that some smaller congregations used to be larger congregations (regional breweries) and therefore have larger buildings than their micro-brewery can use or afford. In addition, many of these once larger congregations still have the remanence of programming from the former “glory days” that can no longer be funded in a new “micro-brewery” model. These will be ongoing challenges for some; and will demand prayer, spiritual conversation, and missional decision-making.
However, far from giving up, I encourage Spirit-empowered creativity! How can a congregation harness every asset and focus on reaching the least and the lost that do not yet know and trust in Jesus as their Savior, nor know the hope of eternity or the joy of fellowship with the people of God in community?
It comes down to passionate and creative leadership. Pastor Monson is quick to point out that he hasn’t figured it all out. His micro-brewery is still trying to find its niche and developing its craft. However, he’s on to something when he says, “We need to find a way to release the people. In order to reach the lost, the sheep (members of the congregation) have to be led by a shepherd who has a passion for the lost. God’s anger with the shepherds (Ezekiel 34 and Luke 15) was not about their doctrine, but about their failure to run after lost sheep!”
So, how can a smaller congregation do ministry like a “micro-brewery”?
- Know your assets.
- Know what you do really well.
- Consider other Christian churches not as “the competition,” but as “just something different to reach different people with the Gospel.”
- Know your community (ministry context) and seek to focus what you do really well to what people really need.
- Work to deploy all your people, and every other asset, to the singular task of “being Jesus” and sharing Jesus in your community. Especially focus on lay-leadership development.
- Intentionally seek mutually beneficial partnerships, especially with sister congregations, for even greater impact and sustainability.
- Make the tough decisions needed to develop a business and ministry plan that is sustainable. Realize that some former programming may need to be jettisoned in order to get to scale as an effective “micro-brewery.”
- Be more concerned about “Kingdom expansion” than “congregational growth/survival.”
Suggested reading to stimulate sanctified creativity:
- A New Kind of Big, by Chip Sweeney
- Breaking the Missional Code, by Ed Stetzer and David Putman
- Joining Jesus on His Mission, By Rev. Greg Finke
- The Once and Future Church, by Loren B. Mead
Photo (c) Clara_Gabrielli/iStock