Defending Christ in a small church has its difficulties. It is a unique challenge to those who want to see the Church become faithful to her calling to give a reasonable defense for our hope in Christ. There are reasons to be concerned about this problem. One of which is the predominance of small churches.
Small church domination
Small churches make up most churches in North America. Over 40% of church-going adults attend churches with less than 100 adults. Only about 12% attend churches with over 1000. According to Barna Research, over 60% of churches have less than 100 adults while only about 2% have greater than 1000. Those are the facts. There are several reasons why those are important. One reason stands out. Small churches aren’t engaged in their communities.
The march of Cultural Marxism
Small churches, especially those in agrarian communities, are swimming upstream against a culture that has invaded their small towns and counties. With blitz Krieg speed, modernity is giving way to post-modernity slightly faster than generation x gives way to the millennials. The good ole days are gone with the wind.
The now pervasive cultural shift has overcome small communities like Sherman’s march to the sea. It has taken no prisoners, left a path of destruction behind it, and burned, stole, raped, and plundered all things innocent. It plays by no rules, at least none known to the remaining cavaliers who stand in its way. Rural communities are in a fight for their distinctive characteristics as traditional towns, counties, and regions, while cultural Marxism moves to ruin their diverse attributes as essential traditional sanctuaries.
In most of these communities, the only thing that stands for truth is a group of small churches. Yet, they remain disconnected with their communities and the Church at large. There are a few of them beginning to wake up, but many remain disengaged. They aren’t being equipped to defend the essentials of Christianity much less the aggregate of the Christian world-view.
Maybe more concerning is the lack of concern about this disengagement. It’s not a mere problem of logistics or infrastructure. The failure of small churches to engage the community in which they exist is a failed understanding of what it means to love your neighbor.
I fear that the command to love our neighbor has been relegated to a sort of neighbor Gnosticism. The word neighbor has been dislodged from reality in the minds of many small church Christians. Too many folks assume that they are loving their neighbor by giving to missions or even participating once a year in a mission trip. Our neighbors may include people in Africa, Asia, or Central America in some ambiguous way. They can never be less than the people that live with us in our own community though. That’s where small churches are in prime locations and it’s exactly where they have missed a prime opportunity.
As people equipped to engage communities who are themselves engaged in a cultural war, we ought to understand that to love our real neighbors well, we must love God with all our person. To bring the hope of Christ to bear on a community that has real ethical concerns, we can’t merely “love them into the Kingdom”. We must love God with all our mind so that we can do our duty to love our neighbors. We must begin to understand our own Faith as something other than religious existentialism. Our experience is nice. The culture has agreed to allow us to have our experience. The problem is that our Faith is true.
No mindless faith
Christianity is not uniquely an existential faith. Almost all faiths are experiential by nature. Christianity is first an historic Faith. It is an intellectual Faith. It is a Faith of the mind. The hope we must be ready to defend is an historic person who existed in time as the God/man, really died on the cross, and physically walked out of a tomb defeating death and securing our place as adopted sons and daughters of God. This historical person made ethical demands that cannot be ignored. He also called people to repent and believe on him. In that sense, his ethical and moral demands are gospel issues we must also defend. Small churches are ill equipped to do that inside of their own communities.
“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, ESV)
There are two things that hinder small churches when it comes to engaging their communities evangelically and apologetically.
First, small churches are inherently pastor-centric. Both the laity and the leadership lean heavily on the pastor to do basically everything. Everything includes evangelism and apologetics. My experience is my evidence. I know that’s a bit anecdotal but I challenge you to find an exception. If you do, you will have done enough looking to recognize your example as what I just called it…an exception.
It’s too easy in a church of less than 100 to “just let the pastor do it”. Pastors are the do all end all for most of the laity. Evangelism means inviting someone to church to most people. To the extent that someone might engage in apologetics almost always involves the sentence, “you need to ask my pastor”. People mean well when they do this, but they are shirking their own responsibility.
The same is true for small church leadership. Most elders and deacons are unpaid servants and expect the paid pastor to do most of the heavy lifting. Their vocation takes most of their time which is understandable. They usually have families that require their time as well. But, there is an attitude that lets them pass their duty to the man in the pulpit when they could probably do more to help.
Not much help
The other problem is not really the fault of small churches. There is a lack of evangelistic/apologetic resources for small churches, especially in agrarian communities. There is also a lack of infrastructure to unite these churches for the purpose of community engagement.
Ministries like TGC (The Gospel Coalition) do a good job at providing resources for church planting, apologetics, justice, and evangelism. Their books are valuable tools for any pastor or teacher. Much of their focus is on large churches located in cities though. There is only so much of their wisdom that can be gleaned as useful by a minister in a small rural church. Writers like Timothy Keller do a great job at communicating Biblical ideas for engagement. There is a limit to how it applies in the other America though. His passion is for the city. Mine, and a million others, is not.
Soup kitchens, large universities, and racial strife are not common in rural agrarian communities. Don’t get me wrong. Hunger, schools, and racism exist, but not to the extent that they do in large metropolitan areas. Engagement in rural society must look different than it does in Manhattan. That disconnect is enough to leave small churches wanting when it comes to resources that could help them engage.
It’s a real problem. I’m afraid that it’s one that folks in small churches aren’t going to get much help. The answer then is simple. Defending Christ in a small church is something small churches must do for themselves. How can they be equipped? Self-equip. How and where should they engage? It’s up to them.
Over the next couple of weeks though, I’d like to write down a few of my thoughts on how to get started defending Christ in a small church. It’s the foundation of how apologetics moves from the church to the community. Here’s a hint. Apologetics must first be practiced inside the church, in the pulpit, in the classroom, and in between the pews.
Defending Christ in a small church is essential to loving God with our minds and instrumental to loving our neighbors. It’s not an option. To do those things well we must tend to our own garden. As Brion McClanahan says, “think locally and act locally”. Ultimately, apart from Christ, we’re on our own.