Sinking Ships?

I have spent
my entire life working and living in small rural towns. There is no other place
I would rather minister then the small churches which have been the backbone of
faith for so many communities in the last two centuries. Today those churches
are facing a steady decline, both in membership numbers and community
importance.  

No minister
wishes to think of themselves as a caretaker, serving as a hospice clergy
helping a congregation to die peacefully and with grace. All of us answer God’s
call to “make disciples of all nations,” and grow God’s church in the
communities we are called to serve. Still there are times when we wonder if a
peaceful death is best for some churches that can no longer serve or contribute
to the mission field. Perhaps it is better for them to pass quietly and allow a
more vibrate style of worship to take their place.

While local
church leaders struggle to keep their places of worship integral and vital in
their communities, church leaders responsible for entire regions and
denominations have to weigh the impact of small member congregations on the overall
mission and growth of the Body of Christ. Do they see small members’ churches
as a millstone which threatens the entirety of the denomination? In battle, a damaged ship is often scuttled by their own navy because they endanger
the fleet during combat. Are small churches like crippled ships who
threaten the outcome of battle? Do they need to be sunk, and the people struggling to survive sacrificed, to insure victory?

Or are they
worth saving, worth risking the survival of larger more vibrant churches that
are better equipped for discipleship and mission? Is it better to stand together
and know that they can depend on other churches to support them?  Is our greatest chance of survival as God’s
church in the solidarity of our common faith?  And if the larger churches are brought down trying to save the small and
weak churches, then they die as Jesus did with
unconditional and blameless love.

Small
churches can only deal with the problems which lie before them, but
denominational leaders must make the decision to either scuttle those who endanger
the safety of the fleet and imperil its mission, or risk the armada in hopes
that there will be more people to serve in God’s legions.

Here are two
articles in which The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon and Bishop Scott Jones present
both sides of the debate. I hope that you will read these articles and give
them prayerful thoughts. It is, like so many issues that lie before us, a
debate we all need to engage in and seek God’s guidance for the future of our churches,
large and small, rural or urban.