The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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Over the past several decades a powerful narrative has taken hold in the mainline church. The story attempts to relate and explain two facts in our communal lives. First, membership in mainline denominations has been in steady decline. Second, much time and energy has been devoted to theological debates about scriptural authority, sexual ethics, the lordship of Jesus Christ, etc. The narrative tells a story where the second of these facts is the cause for the first. As the mainline has wrestled with these issues it has lost members and its congregations have gotten smaller. But research on congregations would suggest a different, more complex story is required. That story must account for three other facts:
1. It is not only mainline churches that are small. Currently in the USA, “the average congregation has a worshiping attendance of seventy-five persons.” That average includes all denominations and non-denominational churches, both conservative and liberal. (If it seems too low, that may be because “the average person who attends worship now goes to a congregation where the average attendance is four hundred people.” Both numbers are from research by Mark Chavez of the National Congregations Study, cited in Rendle, Journey in the Wilderness, 22.)
2. The small size of some churches is a result of membership decline driven largely by three demographic forces. Population shifts (both rural and urban) have reduced the number of people in communities from which once larger congregations were able to draw. Churches’ commitment to a model of dedicated facilities and full-time pastors becomes less economically feasible as membership declines creating financial pressures that further decrease membership. And perhaps most importantly, the increasing generational spread in the American population (from roughly three to five generations) means that all churches have a harder time spanning generational differences. If congregations lose the youngest generations, they simply cannot continue for long into the future as membership losses begin to be driven by deaths. (See Rendle, 133-135.)
3. The small size of other churches is an intentional choice. One characteristic of what Rex Miller calls the “Digital Paradigm” of communications is the formation of “microcommunities.” Such communities are usually assembled through means such as social media, are more interactive than passive, led by sharing within the group rather than by trained leaders, and shaped by shared, immediate experiences (see Rendle, 73-77). If churches under the “emergent” and “missional” labels adopt this model of “microcommunity,” it will likely to lead to Christian communities that will always be smaller and lack commitment to the dedicated facility/pastor model.
A story of the church’s recent past and near future that accounts for these facts will relate a different role for pastors. It will tell how a majority of pastors engage in shared ministry with smaller, tight-knit communities. Both missional and economic reasons will root them at least as much in the broader community as within the microcommunity of the congregation. Larger churches aren’t going away anytime soon and will continue to be home to most Christians, but most pastors will be serving in smaller congregations that make up the majority of churches.