I found this 2003 interview with Carl Dudley in SCUPE's archive where he talks about the wonderful qualities of small urban churches (Carl passed away last month). His words then about small urban churches and also about small churches still resonate today. I thought you would enjoy reading and reflecting on his comments.
Allowing the Small Urban Church to Thrive – Interview With Carl Dudley
CityVoices newsletter: October 25, 2003. This interview was conducted by Roger Johnson, editor of CityVoices. CityVoices is produced by the Seminarian Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE), Chicago.
For many years, Dr. Carl Dudley has served as a professor and congregational analyst, most recently at Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. In 1978, while teaching at McCormick Seminary in Chicago, he wrote “Making the Small Church Effective,” establishing his place as one of America’s experts on the dynamics of local church life. He has now published an update to that volume, “Effective Small Churches in the 21st Century.”
Many city churches (neighborhood, ethnic or storefront) are small
churches. What should we understand about these small congregations?
The small churches, let’s be clear, are the oldest form of Christian faith. When you say “small,” it’s usually in comparison to something else which is bigger. And the bigger churches are what have grown. What is new in the 20th and 21st century are the large, and now the megachurches that dwarf anything else. But in fact, the small churches are becoming more numerous.
The press likes to concentrate on the churches large enough to maintain a professional clergy and a program, and that kind of thing. Probably, only one-third of congregations in the United States are large enough to comfortably maintain a staff. Somewhere around two-thirds of the churches are below 125 in regular participating adults, fifty percent are below 100 in regular participating adults. So, it shouldn’t be thought of as unusual to be small. They’re the oldest and the most universal form of Christian faith.
Where the statistic is interesting, is a ratio that I call “50 to 15.” It works in two ways. Fifty percent of the members of most denominations, are in the largest 15 percent of the churches. And 50 percent of the churches have about 15 percent of the members, that’s 50 percent of the smaller churches have about 15 percent of the total membership of denominations. And they are served by about the same number of clergy.
So you’ve got a disparity that organizational types want to “clean up.” The reason it can’t be cleaned up is that small churches are not a continuous flow of congregations from large to small. Small churches are a different breed. They’re a different experience. It’s not like people don’t know they could go to large churches. They just decide they want to maintain small churches. And they do it because of intimacy. Because of the kind of caring that is typical in a small congregation.
When I say intimacy, caring or extended family, it doesn’t mean people are necessarily nice to each other. It just means they’re genuine to each other. They’re vulnerable; they’re exposed to each other. They accept diversity. Not only that, they don’t let people change. They almost enforce diversity. Somebody wants to be different than they used to be, and they still call them by their old name and put them back in the old box. They accept characters and they accept “kinkiness.” It’s just part of who somebody is.
What about the expectations of a new pastor coming into a church like this, especially if they feel they can make that small church grow?
It’s a different kind of experience because in the large congregation you can join a group. In the small congregation, you have to join the whole thing. In fact, it’s a lot more difficult to join the whole culture than it is to join a particular activity. Furthermore, you can’t earn your way in. One of the things that small churches do is exploit energy of outsiders as organizers, but never let them into the group. Yes, they can grow but they grow in a different style. They grow by adoption – people join the past, not the future. The pastor has got to help the church open up the past and be proud of it, before any joining takes place.
Carl, years back I heard a figure concerning small groups saying that about 11 percent growth in one year was about the most they could handle.
Small congregations can only absorb as many people as they can get to know. That means you introduce them fairly slowly. I’ve heard pastors tell me that they could take in half a dozens families a year, but that’s about all they could get in. The point is that they don’t grow fast, but they grow intimately. They want to know everything about the person. The nature of the small church is that they know, or they think they know, everything there is about everybody else. Or they’ll want to know it, or they’ll invent it.
You can make or help a small church to grow if they are willing to give up the essential character of being small. If you can break the church up into groups, if they will permit groups to exist in which they don’t know everybody, they can grow. And you can break them up by fracturing them, but that destroys the thing that many people like about being part of a small church. So they’ll fight it something awful, and they’ll fight it on a very emotional basis. The small church is hard to kill. One executive said to me, “They won’t grow and they won’t go away. They just stay there.” Sometimes they even come back in a different form. What sustains small churches is not organizational structure or even finances. Emotional ties sustain them, and that’s pretty powerful stuff. They can be rational about wanting to change, and still not able to do it.
Summarize the simple "graces" of the small congregation. What do small congregations in the city in particular, have to teach experts who seek steady, even exponential growth?
In some sense, they can’t teach them much of anything. The graces of the small church generally get in the way of growth. Now large churches can have intimate groups so long as they’re separate little cells to themselves. Large churches can have the strength of caring if they’ll put it into “caring cells.” But the small church is all one cell. Small churches can emphasize the uniqueness of individuals, and not make people conform either organizationally or structurally. Small churches have an affinity for “kinky” people.
Small churches are generally larger than their membership, and large churches are generally smaller than their membership. That suggests that small churches can grow by something like “kindred spirits.” Which is to say, having an extended membership – an extended group that’s already part of the membership, but doesn’t belong. In many cases, there are “vicarious members” – people that belong to the church by somebody else. Small churches can engender that consciousness.
Small churches have a kind of authenticity that’s very appealing to many people. They have a kind of earthiness and a natural sense of ecology of the rhythm of the soil and the soul. I think they have a kind of biblical basis and foundation. They’re not into great flights of spiritual worthiness. Rather it’s a kind of down-home, basic stuff.
America's cities have always been complex places. Do present urban dynamics (city zoning, big money, increasing technology) allow for continued small church ministry? Or, will more people simply either go downtown, or out to the suburbs for their spiritual needs?
Small churches have a sense of turf, which is related to that earthiness I was just talking about. They dig in, they tend to be very neighborhood, very local and specific in their focus. Now, that can be, and often becomes a kind of ethnic, racial, cultural enclave – our kind of people. But often the church sees itself as a journeying congregation, a pilgrim people, where they’ve been on a journey and they want to accept anybody else that’s been on their journey. They can often share that with another culture. But it’s not the liberal notion of pluralism. It’s a pluralism where people are named by their idiosyncrasies. People can also be called and named by their ethnic backgrounds; and it’s not an insult. It’s an affirmation to be somebody different in a group that accepts differences. I think small churches are really good at that in some urban neighborhoods where there’s a collection of humanity looking like the United Nations. They’ve got one big umbrella, but they keep their own cultural diversity as a gift. It’s not so self-conscious as liberals saying, “Gee, we’re all one.” It’s the recognition of their diversity that makes it possible for small churches to keep going.
Are you seeing any denominations or traditions doing a better job enhancing and supporting small church ministry than others?
I can’t point to any. Some denominations have produced very good literature that’s been sensitive to small congregations. But a lot of denominational literature urges small congregations to become something else, which I think is counterproductive. Some small churches can grow, but a lot of them are just not gonna grow. To say, “You’re small, but you really ought to be bigger,” doesn’t help much. But some denominations have put out some literature that’s really very affirming of the caring qualities of small congregations.
My reservations are that printed materials aren’t all that persuasive within the oral culture of small congregations. Some of the most effective things are done by denominational staff people, local and regional, who really know these characters. In fact, the most effective denominational people are those who know the church so well that when they come they can tell stories about the leading characters in the local church. And when they really know the church well, the stories often have just a tinge of something shady in them. Everybody can laugh about it! It’s fun and it affirms the earthiness of the small church. Now I don’t know where we’re training those kind of denominational people, because the dominant theme (and income) comes from the large, more efficient and more organizational style of churches.
Carl, you've studied, and written about, small congregations for a long time. Will you continue to do that in formal (or informal) ways?
Well, this last spring, I took what was a 30-year-old book and rewrote it (“Effective Small Churches for the 21st Century”). I rewrote it with a lot of new material that I’ve found accessible. One of the things that’s very interesting is how many of these small church pastors, disproportionately have access on the web to all sorts of new resources. When you compare it, you’d think that the large church with its highly technical staff would be quicker on the web, but in fact, by proportion of pastors, the number of small church pastors that use the computer and its tools is proportionately higher.
Any standard (or unsolicited) question or word of encouragement that you like to offer pastors in small urban churches around America?
I don’t have a standard word, but I do have an observation. The small church pastor learns about the whole world by going deeper into the lives of the people in their immediate community. And the deeper that you go with any one person, the more universal the experience is apt to be. Small church pastors have access to that in ways that many organizational and program-driven pastors don’t. There’s an openness and fullness of knowing the lives of your people that just never happens in larger churches. And it’s a grace, a great gift.