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Journal

Small Urban Churches: Accepting Reality Without Giving Up

Mark Junkans

I love Ed Stetzer's article about small churches.  In many communities, there are limiting realities that keep a church from growing beyond a certain size.  In my context, the urban and immigrant communities of Houston, we knew that small would be our normal church size when we began.  There are several factors that contribute to this, and I believe, allow us to not be ashamed when answering the "how big are your churches" question.  Here are a few of them:

1.  Transient Communities

Stetzer address this in his article 

"Persistent turnover is a reality for some smaller churches because of their location. Churches near universities and military bases almost have a new congregation every three to five years.

Think of the kingdom impact these small churches have as they invest in and train students and soldiers before they are launched throughout the world."

In most of our immigrant communities, households tend to move around a lot due to a combination of economics, immigration and opportunity.  A ministry in a transient community will work very hard to make new disciples, only to see them move to a new community or back to their home country within 6 months to a year.  This trend is also prevalent among young urban dwellers moving into lofts, university students and other mobile demographic groups.  A ministry among these people groups will have a difficult time growing beyond a certain size because their disciples are always moving somewhere else.  Stetzer continues:

"Small churches that recognize their calling in transient places focus on discipling those God has given them knowing that He will plant them somewhere else. These are healthy churches on mission for the glory of God."

One of the blessings of this type of ministry is that the ministry can continually be training and sending out missionary families that are equipped to reach a new community.  It may not grow the local ministry when the move, but it's not a loss for the Kingdom.

2. Stagnated Communities

Another issue with long-standing urban communities is one of stagnation.  Existing families are often stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, and new families aren't moving into the community at a high rate.  Ministry in this type of community takes a very long time to develop and grow.  It takes years just to build trust in the community, and those that do live there don't immediately jump up and down with excitement when a new church puts up a sign and begins worship.  They've seen ministries come and go, and yet their community is in the same condition it has been for decades.  

Ministry in a stagnated community is difficult and long-term, and most church planters either aren't willing or financially able to dedicate years of unglamorous and seemingly "unsuccessful" work before they decide that they are called elsewhere.  Sometimes just surviving in an urban community takes more entrepreneurship, creativity and dedication than most Christian leaders are capable of mustering.  Stetzer sums up this idea with this sentence.

"Where there is little community growth, there may be little church growth, but that shouldn't keep us from trying."

3. Sustainability

Because of the social dynamics and economic realities in an urban/immigrant setting, a large congregation sometimes just isn't sustainable.  It takes a tremendous level of administrative skill to maintain a large congregation in such an unstable and dynamic environment.  This isn't unique to urban settings, by the way.  The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study (NCS) http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/.  Few if any small urban churches are able to financially support their pastor because the median income of the members is at or below the poverty level, and because new disciples aren't as faithful in their stewardship.  This makes it even more difficult for even a talented leader to grow, manage and sustain a large congregation in this setting.  It also takes great financial resources to purchase or lease and maintain a larger facility, which is a limiting factor in church growth in this setting.

4. Re-definition of "Successful"

After explaining the ministry of one of our urban churches and how many new believers had been baptized in the past year,  I was asked by the pastor of a large congregation "but are they successful."  While he didn't say it directly, what he really meant was "are they becoming a large church?"  I wanted to say, "are you freaking kidding me? One young, small urban church has helped rescue people from drug addiction, gangs and domestic abuse, and has baptized almost 20 adults last year.  You're asking me if they're successful?"  I controlled myself and simply responded "yes, they are very successful."  I know how much work it took for just one of those individuals to come to faith and to begin following Jesus.

Given the reality that the vast majority of our churches won't become large congregations, we still have to gauge whether we're achieving our outcomes of growing the Kingdom of God throughout the city.  The marks of a successful church, for us, are three-fold.  1. They are making new disciples, 2. They are multiplying, 3. They are making an impact in their community.  No matter the size, we expect to see new followers of Jesus, daughter churches and spin-off ministries and tangible blessings in their surrounding community through the work of their members.

For the Church Leader

If you're a pastor, denominational leader or mission developer, you probably need to re-examine the process and system you currently use to begin, support and fund new missions in these settings.  Accept that fact that the normal size for a new mission church in an urban or ethnic community will be small, but that fact doesn't diminish the missional importance of this work.  A lot of leaders I know throw up their hands and say, "it's not possible because they'll never become self-sufficient, so we don't do it."  Yes, it's true that a new church in this setting that begins with a full-time, full-salaried worker will not likely ever become self-sufficient.  So let's abandon a ministry model that doesn't work in this new reality without abandoning the mission of Jesus.  

Whatever system we establish needs to account for this reality, and empower disciple-making, multiplication and community impact.    A system must be set up to support smaller, self-sufficient and sustainable ministries that are able to multiply themselves.  You're a creative person, or at least you know someone who is.  Isn't it worth it to try and find a way to reach the unreached who are all around us?  Who knows, one of those churches will grow beyond your wildest dreams, but don't expect it to be the norm.