A few years back, Dennis Atwood was having a heck of a time getting his hands on a discipleship curriculum designed for small or even mid-sized congregations.
Most of what he found was tailored to churches much larger than the one of which he is pastor, First Baptist Church in Mount Olive, N.C.
“Either it was too in-depth and complex or too surface and simple,” Atwood said. So he took matters into his own hands.
“I did my own curriculum and turned it into a book.”
While small-church ministers don’t need to write books to instruct their congregations, Atwood and others say a willingness to innovate is a must in a religious culture dominated by mega- and other large churches.
“Sometimes you have to get creative and develop your own material,” Atwood said.
‘They don’t fit’
But frustration about the lack of resources for small churches is real — and increasing.
Karl Vaters unpacked the topic in his Christianity Today blog, “Pivot: Innovative Leadership from a Small Church Perspective.”
“You’re looking for help to make your church better, healthier, stronger and more kingdom-minded, but almost everything you find comes from a big church perspective,” Vaters wrote in the Dec. 1 post titled “They Just Don’t Get It: Why Big Church Solutions Can’t Fix Small Church Problems.”
Small-church leaders, eager to improve their churches and ministries, usually are bombarded with ideas beneficial largely to big churches with big staffs, he said.
Ideas Vaters said he read recently include holding regular staff visioning meetings, using video announcements, erecting professional signage, using parking lot attendants, and using only the most skilled people for ministry positions.
“I don’t disagree with any of those ideas. They all make sense,” Vaters wrote. “But none of these suggestions was tempered with recognition of small church realities and alternative solutions.”
And it’s not that smaller churches are unwilling to try those and other ideas.
“Most small churches would love to implement big church ideas, but like David trying on Saul’s armor, they don’t fit,” Vaters blogged.
‘We have a mental block’
The lack of materials geared for small congregations, which comprise the majority of American congregations, is a serious disconnect, said Eddie Hammett, a congregational consultant and president of Transforming Solutions in North Carolina.
“I think it’s a very pressing problem that covers a lot of arenas in church life,” he said.
Those arenas are curriculum, bridging gaps between generations, committee structures and operations and pastoral function.
Money, prestige and a belief that bigger is better drives the economics of what is, and isn’t, available to churches that don’t have a large— or any — staff, Hammett said.
Materials for Sunday school and other religious education are often the scarcest.
“We have a mental block there as educators and pastors, particularly in Baptist life,” he said. “We have always followed an age-graded curriculum.”
That doesn’t always work in a church with only enough members to fill one class.
And even when the material exists, a lot of churches can’t afford it, Hammett said.
Whether expense or lack of availability is the block, the way around requires ministers to know their churches and communities, Atwood said.
“The best advice I ever got in seminary was to remember that all ministry is contextual,” he said.
“For me that means I take the best of what I can learn from other people,” he said. “I try to read and listen and learn from other writers and books, and adapt things.”
That’s how his 2014 book Deep Faith was published.
Overcoming challenges always requires a knowledge and acceptance of a church’s setting, in addition to its size.
“I tell my people, let’s be who we are and be where we are, and live into that fully,” he said.