By Mark A. Taylor
Barney Wells was speaking to leaders of smaller churches about the difference between “average” and “common.”
His inspiration was twofold. First, he quoted baseball great Satchel Paige whose words captioned a poster hanging in his room when he was a teenager:
“Ain’t no man can avoid being born average,” Paige said, “but there ain’t no man got to be common.”
Second, he reminded those attending the Energizing Smaller Churches Network (ESCN) conference in Lincoln, Illinois, of the uncommon accomplishment by the evangelist Philip in an unremarkable setting with an audience of just one (Acts 8:26-40).
Wells emphasized that smaller churches can have an uncommon influence by attempting exceptional ministry in settings that many may never note. In other words, “small” doesn’t need to equal “average.”
ESCN director Shawn McMullen has put together two books for smaller churches* that underline that truth. They describe a wide range of methods and outreach approaches that have worked for churches in out-of-the-way places: everything from revival meetings to recovery ministries, from pig roasts to VBS. Most of the churches telling these stories are average in size (most churches in America are smaller churches). None of them takes a common approach to ministry.
“The key is choosing methods that work with those you’re trying to reach.” That’s how McMullen put it to me when we were talking about what makes a congregation truly innovative.
That means “common” can describe a church of any size. Even a megachurch can have a “common” approach to ministry.
After visiting one megachurch this summer, a member of my group said, “You could find that same service—the same songs, the same style of preaching, the same approach to worship—at dozens of churches across America this morning. Frankly, I’m looking for something fresher.”
I wonder how many like her are out there. And I wonder how many churches of every size are deciding how to “do church” only by copying the ideas of others.
Of course, analyzing the communities we’re hoping to reach is only one way to avoid the common. If we’ll follow the example of Philip, we’ll also seek to understand what God wants us to do where we are—or where he may want to direct us.
“Being where God wants you is more important than being where it looks good,” Wells said in Lincoln. We might add, “Doing what God wants is more important than copying the approach of the last church we heard about.”
Not only is it more important. It’s uncommon.
*See Unleashing the Potential of the Smaller Church (item 40023) and Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church (item 40035) available from Standard Publishing.