I am painfully literal here. Churches I’m around designate 11 am to noon as “the worship hour.” Difficulty may arise if the beloved pastor attempts to expand the worship hour to the worship hour plus five or ten minutes. While in my stage of life, senior and getting no less so, the 9:30 am service we attend is a great Sunday schedule. Several times annually my church has just a single Sunday morning service at 11 and it seems like most of the day is gone by then. I love the earlier service.
So, your humble, semi-retired pastor who isn’t in the pastorate these days takes a trip to the beach and (gasp!) leaves on Sunday morning. Skips church! Lawd! What kind of miscreant is that? Well, one that can make his own schedule and sometimes takes some Sundays off from being in a church.
Last Sunday I happened to be travelling during the designated worship hour, mostly in rural central Georgia. I passed several Baptist churches during my drive. Like most of my pastor colleagues, I notice the churches, observe their physical appearance, and even make a quick mental count of the number of cars parked.
Here’s a small, rural church, a nice red brick sanctuary with a couple of small wings in the rear. Typical church building. I bet they have room for 120 or so in their main worship service. Let me count the cars…ten vehicles. Using the old axiom that Baptists arrive at church two to a car on average, that’s twenty people. I bet they are mostly old, enjoy their time together at church, and sometime wring their hands over the future. But there are thousands of SBC churches this size and they can hang on for a long time. God bless them.
Here’s a larger church building on the highway just outside a small town. I’ve been by this church a number of times but never during worship time. Based on the appearance of the building, I always figured the church to be a thriving congregation. The building is large enough, I estimate, to seat 250 or so. It’s well maintained. Has a big, electronic church sign. There are less than 20 cars in the lot. Maybe 40-50 souls. Ouch. Nothing wrong with a small church but this one is seriously undersized for their church facilities. Wonder what is talked about in their deacon’s meetings? “We just need to get us a crackerjack preacher that can attract people” maybe? It would be interesting to know more. One thing strikes me as pathetic on this church. It’s the expensive sign. “All welcome” it says, all lit up. Worst evangelism/outreach program in history but maybe the intent was good, just uninformed and not accompanied by anything active. Just a passive, inert object.
Aha, another small rural church. This one white frame building right out of the 19th century except for the siding that had been installed to save on paint. Only nine vehicles but maybe some of the country folks come late. How can a church survive with twenty or so in attendance? Easy. They are all older and are good givers. Offerings of 40 or 50 thousand can manage utilities and maintenance and you can get a bi-vo pastor (or a permanent supply preacher) for a few hundred per week. Someone dies, though, and things have to be recalibrated. This is local church autonomy at work and God bless this church for enduring. A financial reckoning may come in a decade or two.
OK, yet another rural church, cemetery in front. They have a modest building that could accommodate maybe 150 people in worship. Wow! The parking lot is slap full of cars. I wasn’t expecting this. There are cars parked along the driveway, on unpaved spots here and there. They are doggone near to parking in the cemetery. There must be 80 cars, 150 or more people. The pews (and I’d bet good bacon that they have pews) must be jammed full with folks sitting even on the front pew. What’s going on with this country church? I’d like to know. It’s late January, too early for any Homecoming, revival or anything like that. And way out in the country where the wild hog population is far larger than the people population. God bless these people! I’m tempted to stop and visit…but don’t.
Folks get PhDs in church growth, right? We have a couple of generations of seminarians with advanced degrees in leadership, don’t we? And you all get your DMins these days, don’t you? You study this stuff – why some churches prosper and why some die. You read books. Talk to scholars. Pontificate about this and that. You, uh, consult (for a tidy fee). How about trying a ride in the country for research, brethren. See what’s out there. Reality on the ground.
Addendum: My pastorates included country churches that were around the SBC median, 70 or so, or around the SBC average 125 or so. They were good people with a few grouches and goofballs. They had served the Lord and His work for generations (the ages of the churches were around 200, 110, and 120). They are all doing fine now, although no one knows what the future holds. It’s tougher these days, seems to me, but that might be my long-in-the-tooth attitude speaking.
Not often, but regularly, I hear some wag say that “the SBC” ought to embark on a church closing program, that we need to close ten thousand of these smaller congregations. Nonsense. Let the Lord handle the megachurch and the micro church. There have been large churches near me in a growing, ex-urban environment that have failed. I mean they were having 400-500 in attendance and within a couple of years crashed and burned.
…and, pastor, there’s nothing wrong with taking a Sunday or two off. Go to the beach. See what you find along the highway along the way.