This week I visited with some laity and clergy of small membership congregations in the vicinity of Madison in north Florida. This was one of my "drop in visits." As my schedule permits, I want to visit various settings in our conference as the general pastor of the Church. The phrase, "drop in visit," is intended to express the informal nature of these visits. I do not come with a particular agenda for the visit, but I come to be in conversation with others about our life and our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Ours is a very diverse conference. Part of our diversity are the small membership congregations in the rural areas of our state. Often people who have grown up in the suburbs and who have always been members of relatively large congregations do not understand the small congregations in our rural communities. These congregations play a very important role in the life of their communities.
In my visit in Madison, I heard about some of the struggles and successes of our congregations in north Florida, which they like to call "the real Florida." Some acknowledged that they need to reach out evangelistically more than they have been doing, and they need to reach out to young people. Others talked about how they provide groceries and meals to the poor, festivals for the community, and various means of bringing revival to the Church. While it is not a small membership congregation, First United Methodist Church in Madison has broken the ethnic barrier and now is a congregation of both African-Americans and Euoropean-Americans, and this congregation has a large ministry to youth in the community and is planning to open a coffee house for young adults. There is exciting ministry going on in some of the rural areas of our state.
While I was in Madison, I handed out an article by Dr. Lew Parks of Wesley Theological Seminary. He asks, "Who is visiting small churches these days?" He gives five answers which might inspire those of you who are in small membership churches.
1. Persons seeking surrogate family.
2. Persons seeking an alternative to the anonymity of the work place and public square.
3. Persons weary of self-absorption and in search of an corporate story into which they can jump.
4. Persons who have a score to settle with God but want to settle it in a safe environment.
5. Persons who are looking for a place to give back for the blessings they have received.
There is nothing wrong with being a small membership congregation, especially in a rural area with low population, as long as the congregation is spiritually alive and growing in its mission to the community. We need to celebrate these congregations which are a part of the rich diversity of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.