When you have a healthy congregation, some young families and children, then training more elders or adding some fellowship groups seems a logical next step. But what about small, struggling assemblies that have been in decline for years? Is there hope to grow again or would it be better to just disband? The bottom line answer is: Yes! The Lord is faithful and miracles still do happen. But the cost may be high in the loving efforts of His people and the willingness to part with some traditions that may have outlived their usefulness.
1. We need to be honest about where we are and how we got there. This is not a call to morbid introspection and dwelling on past failures. But an honest humility is the right place to start, as the Lord promises to revive the spirit and the heart of those who are humble (Is. 57:15). Perhaps there has been a lack of pastoral care or shallow ministry of the Word. It can be instructive to take note of the things which sounded so promising and were tried but simply haven’t worked. I would avoid listing things that may be only superficial factors like “the neighborhood of our chapel has changed.”
2. Be wary of quick fixes. It took years for the church to come to this point and things won’t be repaired overnight. Some answers sound spiritual: “Keep your eyes on the Lord” and “Prayer is the answer.” True, but in most of the small, struggling congregations I have known, there are wonderful prayer warriors who have remained cheerful through years of discouragement just by keeping their eyes on the Lord. These and other spiritual maxims have a place in a healthy Christian church, but the real problem usually has an intensely practical side to it. Consider for example that well known passage in Revelation 2:1-7 in which the Lord rebukes the Ephesus church for losing their first love. What counsel does He give them? “Repent and do the first works.” Not “Pray,” or “Sing of your love for Christ,” but “Repent and do the works you did at the first.”
3. Consider what the real needs are. In seeking to encourage one small, struggling assembly recently, I asked them to think about the following point. If those people who visit you occasionally (neighbors, family members, acquaintances) were asked to make a list of the things that would be most important to them in a church fellowship, how would it read? Remember, the list is not about what you would want nor even what you think the Lord requires. Nor is it judged by whether those people are saved or lost. This is an exercise in looking at the church through the eyes of people who are outsiders and need to know the Lord better than they do now.
An objection may arise in the minds of some readers. “Brother, don’t you know about those ‘seeker-sensitive churches’ that build the church around what the neighbors want, with lots of entertainment and watered-down sermons?” Yes, I do know and those things are surely not the answer we seek. But let’s be like Paul who rejoiced whenever the message of God’s love was proclaimed (Phil. 1:18), rather than the Pharisees who found fault with anything that was not centered about themselves.
Back to our list—what would be on it? To be realistic, it probably wouldn’t start with the “breaking of bread,” or “solid Bible study.” A clear presentation of the gospel? Nope, none of those. Probably the top item would be: “A family that loves me and accepts me for who I am.” Interesting, because that would probably top the list of another group of people: those fringe believers or “pew warmers” who come to meetings but never get involved.
So here is the next question: without compromising our convictions can we build a more loving, accepting family spirit into our Sunday routine? Maybe we can. Not by adding more time to the meeting schedule but by making better use of the time we already have.
4. Take a hard look at priorities. We have now come to the heart of the matter. Before we can equip the saints or win the lost for Christ we must show them that we care for them as people just as the Lord did. How about taking advantage of the intimacy that our small size affords and creating a family atmosphere right in the Sunday morning schedule, say, after the breaking of bread? The requirements to get started are modest: some tables and chairs and 20 or 30 minutes of time. Someone will need to provide leadership. An elder with a smile and a winsome spirit would be a good choice. “Pick up your coffee and pull up a chair for a few minutes!”
If you’re wondering where that 20 or 30 minutes can come from, here are some questions to help: – Is the breaking of bread the right length of time for your group? When you had 200 people, a full hour was needed. But is that still the case? Do a few participate repeatedly to fill up the hour? – For assemblies with adult classes, are two teaching meetings really needed? Both wisdom & courage are needed to discern between principle & tradition!
5. Making it work. One major challenge will be to change our way of thinking about the folks sitting around the table. We must not view our visitors or fringe believers as people who could help us grow. Also, we must resist the temptation to divide them into the “saved” and the “lost” and then treat them differently. Instead, adopt this mindset: all present are needy; each one needs to draw closer to the Lord. Christ’s love is irresistible and can open the way for His Word to do it’s work in hearts.
The options for starting conversations are limitless.
– Does everyone present know everyone else? Especially the children? Where do they go to school? What do they like to do in their free time?
– Who has a prayer request? Is anyone witnessing to a friend? Who saw God work in a special way this week?
– Does anybody have a question or suggestion for the elders? Who can repeat a memory verse? Are there sick people we should be praying for? Who is corresponding with a missionary family and has some news?
Be brief, keep it moving, don’t be preachy, try to involve the young people present. Whenever a need is mentioned, stop right there and see what can be done in a practical way to help. Don’t hesitate to use some of the Lord’s resources to enable ideas to become reality.
Faithfully pursued, a family time of love and care can bring life to a small, struggling assembly.