What am I up to?

Recent weeks have been quite busy. I have curtailed my online activity as a result. From dangerous falls to driving near misses and fender benders, and on to exhaustion from busy days at work, illness, and church duties, my mind has been active, but my ability to write has been limited. Simply put, I am very tired when I get home. Yet here I am now, forcing myself to write something, anything, to placate my nearly dormant blog.

What is happening with me now, you wonder? Here is what is on tap for the coming weeks.


  • I plan to write a guest post for discipleblog.com at the request of Karl Bastian. I do so with fear and trembling, recognizing the incredible responsibility I have to write with integrity and excellence. This is why good editors are so needed!
  • I also plan to continue exploring issues related to smaller churches and children’s ministry. I began a discussion over at kidology.org entitled “Serving in Smaller Churches.” It includes a poll which I invite you to participate in, regardless of the size of your church. I also have begun reading Dr. Rick Chromey’s book Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church (Standard Publishing: 2008). It is likely I will write a review of it on this blog when I am finished.
  • I have been participating in the Children’s Ministry Think Tank over at ministry-to-children.com. It has been a learning experience for several reasons. I am trying to get a handle on discerning what would be most helpful for the readers of that site. I don’t think I have nailed it yet, but I am learning from the other writers. Mostly importantly, I try to be faithful to the Lord in crafting my responses, but also true to my own voice and background.


I am in the process of planning summer ministries, specifically a neighborhood family carnival, which is in dire need of attention right now, and VBS, which is faring a bit better. I also need to begin giving serious attention to fall ministries, especially the launch of VIP. I have a basic game plan, but details need to be worked out. One thing I have decided: brand new parents deserve and need attention right away, and I want to be a part of that in terms of encouragement and support. I am most concerned about continuing the outreach to the local children in the neighborhood through the summer and beyond.

Social networking

I am fairly active on Facebook, a very annoying site which also has a few upsides. The main upside is that it has allowed me to connect with people in my church with whom I normally do not have much weekly contact, other than hello and goodbye. I do not spend a lot of time trying to seek users out whom I have known in the past, or who I want to network with professionally. Yet some of them seem to find me, and that is a bonus in its own right.

My only other active network is Kidology, where I am a member and CP team member (fancy term for saying I interact with users and occasionally provide content). I am also a member of cmconnect.org, a great free site, but I rarely use it. I just don’t have time for one more social network.

I dropped twitter last week because it was more of a drain than a blessing. I understand its potential value, but I don’t have time to utilize it in a way that is worthwhile. Hence, I opted out.

So, there you have it. Just a little slice of my life. There is more, of course, but I doubt my readers will be interested in reading about my poetry or novel writing or recent cool counter-espionage spy dream….

Small Churches: rethinking and creatively re-engaging the mission.

Most of my church experience has occurred in smaller churches. I have served on staff in two such congregations for the last 17 1/2 years, 13 at my current church. The first church grew from about 25 to over 150 in a 13 year period, the last 4 1/2 of which I was the Children’s Director. My current church has declined from 430 to about 230, although we are seeing significant growth in our children’s ministry and as a result our influence on two apartment communities.

As a result, I have a passion to encourage, challenge, and even prod my colleagues in ministry who share the joy (or not so much, as the case may be) of ministering in the small church context. What follows is a brief list of challenges I would like to posit to leaders, asking them to consider their own situations and their own attitudes.

1. Never look down on or think too highly of your situation because of your church attendance or membership numbers. Leaders are notorious for comparing numbers and secretly giving themselves a high five for not being in as dire straights as the next person, or unduly punishing themselves for not measuring up to someone else’s apparent level of performace. Enough already. Here is the real question: is your church healthy? If it is healthy, it will grow naturally. If it is not growing, that does not mean all is lost. Also, are you healthy in terms of your relationship with God, your leadership, and your preparedness to lead your church into the coming years?

2. Your situation is unique and it is common. It is unique because your church has you, and it has all those who serve alongside you, plus the unique and precious people for whom you are responsible both within the church, and within your sphere of prospective influence. It is common because every church enjoys these kinds of opportunities, and wrestles with these kinds of uniquely tailored challenges.

3. Large churches are not the enemy, nor do they necessarily sell out the gospel to draw in crowds. Are there some that seem to emphasize style over substance? Maybe. Why not let God deal with that minority? The sooner we focus on our own assignment the better. This will help us to avoid compromising the message which God has called us to communicate to the lost. And the sooner we treat large churches with respect, the more credibility we will gain as a witness in the community. Also, some large churches are very open to being an encouragement to their smaller counterparts. Be friendly and you might make some friends.

4. In one sense, smaller churches are the norm in the USA. The median church has about 75 people worshipping on Sunday mornings. However, 50% of churchgoers attend larger churches (350 or larger). See these facts and other data at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s Fast Facts About American Religion. I recently heard one stat that there are about 4,000 churches per year which close their doors for the final time. We are not keeping pace through new church plants, and large churches are not necessarily seeing the entire benefit from transfer growth. Many people are leaving the church altogether, either to start house churches, engage in a different religion, or simply check out of any kind of organized religious life.

5. We have an opportunity to rethink how we minister in various areas of focus (ie, children’s ministry, youth ministry, families, singles, seniors, men, women, etc) and how we do church. Indeed, we have an opportunity, even a responsibility to rethink how we do life together in the context of a broken world which sees us as irrelevant. They gain this perspective based on our past behavior which typically is a pretty fair predictor of future behavior, unless of course we rethink and creatively re-engage the mission to which God has called us.

Understanding Ministry Reality

One of the great challenges which causes many churches to have problems is a lack of understanding about current ministry realities. This is true of children’s ministries in particular, just as it is true for the entire church. Put simply, we who are in leadership are tempted to ignore early warning indicators. We assume things are fine, or we choose to gloss over developing discontent because to admit the existence of problems seems like a personal attack on those who have the most ownership over current reality. Or it might feel like we lack faith in God’s ability to grow and strengthen the church. Or it could simply feel too daunting to confront what a growing number of people, even leadership, suspect is happening at a deeper level.

Understanding current ministry reality is a necessity for leaders of congregations. Despite any misgivings we may have, there really is no option to taking an honest, multi-disciplinary appraisal of our situation so that we can place our fingers on the pulse of where we stand, plus gain a diagnostic appreciation of all the supporting dynamics which flesh out the ministry’s status.

Such a diagnostic should not be seriously considered only after it is apparent there are problems. Here me out on this, those of you who are in growing and apparently successful ministry situations. Your day for soul searching may be closer than you think. Consider the brand new automobile you may have purchased at some point in your life. Remember how you vowed to follow every manufacturer’s recommended maintenance guideline? Now, 60,000 miles later or so, did you do it? If so, I commend you! But if you are like me and you let some of those recommended diagnostics slip past their recommended deadlines…. Well, the point I am making is that we know we are supposed to do regular check-ups and maintenance on our vehicles even if they obviously are running well. Most of us do not have the prescience or expertise to know what is happening underneath the hood based on cursory observations. Is the church any different?

Whether our churches are growing, plateaued, or declining, we need to evaluate current realities. Leaders who are willing to be honest with themselves and their congregations take measures at appropriate times to appraise current realities so that their core teams can then work with them to focus on needed areas for growth and improvement.

There are tools and resource people available to help you do this. In the weeks ahead I will be assembling an arsenal of existing and original tools to help mid-size to smaller churches in this way. If you are interested in a consulting relationship in the days to come, don’t hesitate to email me directly to inquire. I am not opposed to helping leaders of larger churches, but I must point out that my entire experience is in smaller congregations. Typically, if you are in a church of 1,000 or more I probably would refer you to someone who has that kind of experience.

Ethos in a Small Outer-Urban Church

In the coming weeks I will be exploring new ground (at least for me) concerning the life and ministry of small churches and what this might imply for children’s ministry, both on campus and in terms of our support of parents as they learn how to teach their own children intentionally. I believe it begins with this question of ethos. It is not enough to introduce a new program and say, “Have at it!” Underlying assumptions of how people perceive their roles must also be considered and addressed. Plus, we need to allow people the time to process not only what we are asking them to do, but why. If they buy into the rationale, then they will opt into the suggested course of action, adding to it their own helpful feedback for improvement.

Consider my church. It is located in the Lents neighborhood of southeast Portland, Oregon. This community experiences an uneasy balance between the outer urban neglect so typical of eastside neighborhoods and the sporadic suburban shine of commercial development striving to revive rundown areas without engendering gentrification. Shiney new retail outlets provide new lighting for ubiquitous 82nd street prostitutes, not that they want the additional glare. Meth neighborhoods and gang activity co-exist in close proximity. New residences also are springing up, although the building has come to an end for now due to the housing market crash.

Into this milieu the church attendees come from a variety of areas, mostly outside of Lents, but not entirely. Some are thoroughly suburban in lifestyle and perspective from all over the tri-county metroplex. Others live in rural areas. Many drive in from the denser urban core of Portland. There are apartment dwellers, single-family home owners, condominium owners, and so on. They are conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, Independents, and non-registered. Some are actively Pentecostal and charismatic while others have no interest in charismatic theology. There are a mixture of philosophical worldviews, including elements of modernism and postmodernism. Some swear by Obama, and care about green initiatives and social justice, while others lament his presidency and the rise of big government (while also caring about social justice just as much as their counterparts). We are a hybrid mutt of a faith community which worships Christ Jesus together, not relying on our own strengths, but on God’s alone. The ebb and flow of our interactions give expression to our collective ethos as a small outer-urban church. The dictionary defines ethos in the context of sociology as follows

Sociology. the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period: In the Greek ethos the individual was highly valued.

ethos. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethos (accessed: March 24, 2009).

The push and pull of the varied experiences and beliefs which comprise our individual backgrounds forms–at least in part– the basis for how we make decisions, and how we generally choose to interact. Obviously (or is it obvious?), we seek God and pray alone and together to understand his leading. But our backgrounds play a profound role in how we understand each other, how we interpret mutual communication. The assumptions of our separate backgrounds intersect in such a way that they are either affirmed, refined or set aside based on how we choose to respond to different ideas, both through Scripture reading and prayer, and through interpersonal and group conversations.

Ethos is a singular potent force for good or for bad in the life of the church. This is true for churches of any size, but this blogpost seeks to explore the unique needs of the small church. It raises a few questions. Who affects the ethos of the church? Why? While opinion leaders clearly have a marked impact on the overall sociological dynamics of a congregation, I suggest that groupings of people also are important. Families. Social networks within the community of faith. Elders. The marginalized. Children. Parents. Tithers. Vocal complainers. Power-brokers. Humble elderly widows.

Going a step further, what are the assumptions of your church? What are those beliefs and behaviors which truly reflect the character of your people in their everyday lives and not just on the weekend? Is there cause for concern? Is there reason to rejoice? Do people engage in Christ-honoring ministry on their own initiative separate from the direct oversight or initiative of church leadership? If not, why not? Do people tithe and give joyfully? Who is expected to teach children the content and practical application of following Jesus? The church? Parents? Both? Is this a cause of tension in your church? If yes, why? If you are not sure, what are you doing to find out?

In one sentence, how would you describe the ethos of your church? Not your mission statement. Not wishful thinking of a preferred future. Rather, what describes the character of your church’s people and the content of their behavior and conversation without the benefit of any marketing filters which would edit reality? Is it harder than you thought? Easier? Would a fair and unbiased unchurched community member near your church agree?

More to come soon as we engage the conversation  concerning small churches and their ministry to children and families.

Key questions about children’s and family ministry in small churches

Here is a list of questions concerning children’s and family ministry in small churches with which I am currently wrestling.

1. If the average size church is about 125 people, and a church that size typically only has a volunteer or part-time children’s ministry leader, what does this imply for the prospects of establishing a more formal family ministry focus* in the church, much less a strong children’s ministry? As a corollary, is a formal family ministry focus even necessary? Why? Why not?

2. Do we know what the spiritual and practical needs are in the homes of families we serve? If not, how do we learn without prying? To what extent do we rely on God’s discernment? To what extent do we simply ask and find ways to observe?

3. How might we navigate an emphasis on family ministry while also embracing a strong missional focus to the local community which reaches out to unchurched kids? How might family ministry become missional?

4. To what extent is discipleship mission? As a corollary, is discipleship something that only happens when a person is a believer (by evangelical standards, having prayed the sinner’s prayer and begun a life in Christ)? Or, is discipleship something that begins at the first moment God begins to work on a person’s heart, often through the ministry of a believer? Is it an either or situation? Why?

5. What metrics should be defined to indicate optimal children’s and family ministry operation? Are they the same for large churches and small? If not, then what is different? Why? What is unique about the small church context? How should this inform tactical considerations as the small church positions itself for patterns of numerical growth? How should it inform their leadership when they are in numerical decline?

6. How should sacrament play a part in the life of a child? What might evangelicals learn from liturgical groups in this regard? Likewise, what might liturgic groups learn from evangelicals?

7. What is worship? Where should it occur? How should it occur? More specifically, by whom, if at all, should worship be directed? Why? Is it possible for true worship to occur outside of the sanctuary of a local church? Why? Why not? To what extent can it occur within the home of a family?

*By formal family ministry focus, I am meaning attention has been given in terms of paid support staffing and/or budgeted programming.

I will be adding to this list soon, but this serves as a beginning discussion generator to stimulate thinking.

Learning to Make a Missional Impact through the Small Church

When considering the missional impact of churches it is wise to note that although bigger is not always more effective or life-changing, neither is smaller always more intrinsically humble or relational. There are many large churches from whom we in the small church world could learn a thing or two about authentic connectedness. Likewise, there are small churches who are making a gospel impact which is mutually local and global in scope. The main difference is that we hear more from the large churches since they naturally tend to draw more attention from the publishing and media outlets. But not always. Group, Standard and several others have given attention to the small to average size congregations, noting their special challenges as well as their unique ministry approaches. This is encouraging to me, a bi-vocational blue collar laborer and children’s pastor who struggles to learn the best practices for ministering to today’s local culture. As I continue with my literature review, I will be bringing some of these resources to light, highlighting contributions which I appreciate.