In a recent edition of the Methodist “Circuit Rider” (Aug.-Sept., 2013), William Willimon shocked readers a bit by writing his brutally honest assessment of the small church as having a “deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers.” Ouch.
Willimon is widely respected as a Duke University professor of Christian Ministry Practice, while also serving as a Methodist Bishop. In this article, he suggests that the endurance of small churches is not something for Methodists to be especially proud of:
Eighty percent of these small churches have not made a new disciple in the past two years. Their median age is higher and their diversity is lower than our larger churches. Because of the rapid decline of our medium size churches, we gain five times more small, dwindling congregations each year than we plant new churches. Virtually the only membership growth we are showing in our denomination is in our larger congregations.
I am tempted to rush to the defense of the small church here. Some are located in places where demographic change alone makes it very difficult to attract new members, for example. I want to defend all the fine Christians in small churches who may not have won a new disciple in the last 2 years, but who have done other heroic things for the cause of Christ. I want to remind him that a few large churches are pretty dysfunctional, too. Should they also be condemned?
But Willimon, more than blaming the small churches themselves, seems to blame the Methodist hierarchy, which offers “the world’s most expensive program of subsidy for small churches” (through the equitable salary system) and forces pastors to serve small churches “even when those churches show few visible marks of a faithful church.”
And on this point I think Willimon is on to something. We are sentimental about “the little church in the dale” that has become a languishing club full of old friends. This is not the highest purpose of the church, and we should be cautious about investing in such churches at the expense of more creative models of ministry that can nourish deeper discipleship.
But, while judicatory life support for dying churches is probably not wise, Willimon’s criticism of the small church is a poor way to come at the issue. He might also implicate clergy, who sometimes protect their income sources from evaporating. Or he could point at the seminary, which offers little or no training for clergy who will be guiding churches through closure in the next ten years.
I think it must be difficult to straddle the worlds of academia and judicatory. In the one setting, we are bathed in images of what the church can and should be, while in the other setting, we are drowned by the reality of what it actually is: the cracked earthen vessel that houses the treasure.
Rev. Willimon might do well to read the text for this week from Exodus 32:7-14. Like God, he is tempted to condemn all those “stiff-necked people” who never live up to God’s expectations. But like Moses, I keep remembering an old promise God made, and I want to hold God to that promise, to not give up on us, any of us, even the insufferable, stiff-necked ones.