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  • Writer's pictureAlice J Stewart

Small Church vs. Shrinking Mainline Church

Main Idea: Mainline Churches Hit Harder


I've been reading a book from 2013 called The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters. It's about small churches and small church pastors. I'm about halfway through the book, and I'm enjoying it.

I've looked at Karl Vaters online to see what else he has done, and he appears to be a real advocate for smaller churches. I look forward to learning more about him and his work.

However, I've noticed a few differences between the small churches Vaters talks about in The Grasshopper Myth and the churches with whom I work.

In The Grasshopper Myth, Vaters talks a good bit about small churches that are already small. They have small buildings and small congregations. They struggle to make ends meet.

The main difference that I see between the churches Vaters discusses and the mainline churches with whom and within I work is this: most mainline churches are in the process of shrinking.

On the surface, being in the process of shrinking is no big deal. But there are quite a few consequences of shrinking.

  • Building: Many mainline churches have buildings that tend to be older than those Vaters references, and they're larger too. Some have cemeteries attached, which complicates things. A shrinking congregation is required to foot an increasing proportion of maintenance and repair costs per capita.

  • Aging population: Mainline churches usually have more rapidly aging populations compared to the churches Vaters talks about. That means more fixed incomes.

  • Contributions: Those fixed incomes are not keeping pace with the real cost of living. Older parishioners have less and less extra income. They genuinely give until it hurts.

When we consider these three things, we can see that shrinking mainline churches are feeling the pinch much worse than an already small evangelical church (for example) or a mainline church that has always been small. We can see how the snowball begins to accelerate as congregations shrink.

If we combine that acceleration with increasingly rapid economic and cultural changes such as wage stagnation and secularization, then we can see that the snowball is about to turn into an avalanche.

I will, and am, doing everything I can to keep my beloved older church members from being crushed by this onslaught. I created Grow+Small Church Consulting to help. Others are helping too, such as Karl Vaters.

Who are your favorite advocates of small and shrinking mainline churches? Tell us in the comments!

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