Mister Rogers, Children, and the Small Church

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Andrew Taylor-Troutman is curating a conversation around small congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

by Mary Harris Todd

In his television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers approached children in such a gentle manner.  Except for the trolley bell, there were no bells and whistles on the show.   The tone was quiet and conversational.  At an unhurried pace, Mr. Rogers talked with adults and children on the show.  Often he was seeking to learn from them, as when he asked a young neighbor to show him some dance moves.  Mr. Rogers addressed his television neighbors about topics of interest or concern.  The Neighborhood of Make Believe was definitely low-tech, leaving lots of room for children’s imaginations.  Simple hand puppet characters interacted with people.  Some of the characters were children, and some were adults.  It was intergenerational.  Children loved Mr. Rogers, and I did, too, even though I only watched the show as an adult.  I am too old to have been one of his neighbors as a small child.

groupOur small congregation loves children.  We have no bells and whistles to offer, except that we love it when there are children present to ring the church steeple bell.  We can’t offer busy programs and sports leagues with crowds of excited children.  But we can be neighbors like Mr. Rogers, himself a Presbyterian minister who saw the children as his congregation.  We approach children with his gentleness and loving simplicity.   Like Mr. Rogers, we share Jesus’ love conversationally.  A child who comes to Morton will find many “grandfriends”–my daughter’s term–who will take genuine, ongoing interest in them.  We tell the gospel story.  We share our talents and encourage the children to share theirs.

Here are some pictures from our recent summer program for children.  God has given our church many talents in music, so we decided to share that with the children, both as an expression of love and an encouragement for them to give musical instruments a try.  We also invited them to express their creativity through art.  Adults and children alike were enthralled by Jesus’ story, and mixed together in a lovely way.  We are so grateful for this time God gave us with these children!  (Click here to see more photos.)

Now we’re working on developing more opportunities of this kind, with the dream and the hope of welcoming these and other children and their families fully into the family of God.   We long for them to join us on Sundays!  But even if they don’t, we are still going to do what we can to help them know that Jesus loves them, and encourage them to love him back  He is their nearest, dearest neighbor.  Living in God’s neighborhood means loving other neighbors as Christ loves us.

We are a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood kind of church, looking for ways to ask people of all ages, “Won’t you be our neighbor?”

todd copyMary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  As Advent approaches, the Morton congregation is looking forward to a blessed season with the handful of beloved children that God has brought to us since the summer.  Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Challenges of Membership

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Andrew Taylor-Troutman is curating a conversation around small congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian Church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership.  And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.”  In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that Elders, Deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in synch with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our Presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the Presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our Presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church USA as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church”. We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?”  This break allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us”, then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with Pastor to discuss faith and life in the church
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individual right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian Education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book, The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)

KingAfter serving in her first call, at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. 

2014 National Gathering

Register TODAY for the 2014 NEXT Church National Gathering!


In this era of change and uncertainty, we trust that God is leading us into the future. God desires us to seek the welfare of the all the various places God has planted us – from the sky-scrapers of Minneapolis to rural areas to university towns. The 2014 National Gathering explores conversations on Leadership, Creativity, and Culture. Worship will orient us toward God’s creative, disorienting, forward-looking movement among us.

March 31-April 2, 2014

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis, MN

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you • Jeremiah 29:7

Registration is available now. Click here to register!

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Download the flyer here.

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Holistic Nurture

medium_29174074By Loren Tate Mitchell

The church of the future should look much like the church of the past in my opinion. Let’s take it back to basics. The church was not about a building, it was not about how many programs were offered or even how many people were in the seats during worship. The church was about relationships, nurturing one another through both the good times and the bad.

This is actually something that Appomattox Court House Presbyterian Church does very well; and so, I lift up our model to you, not as the ultimate way of doing things, but as an example of being authentic in a way that works for us. I cannot take credit for many of the ways that this congregation cares for one another, as many of their methods were in place long before I arrived.

Our congregation has what we call a family ministry. Each month a different person or family is responsible for it. If anyone falls ill, is recovering from a recent surgery, is grieving a loss, or in the best of circumstances celebrating a joy; the family ministry reaches out to them through personal contact. This contact may be a card, phone call, or visit. They might send flowers or organize meals on behalf of the congregation. Any care that is given is documented and passed on each month. In this way the caregivers can see who has been cared for and if any follow up is needed.

We also have a member who sends everyone birthday cards on behalf of the church. I am sure many churches do this. It seems so simple but I think that the theology behind it speaks volumes. The gesture says, “Beloved Child of God, we are so thankful that you were born!”

In the past few years our Nurture Committee has really stepped it up a notch. The committee seeks to care for the wellness of our members in body, mind, and spirit. We meet regularly and identify the folks who need extra love. We then make efforts to call or visit with them. The committee may organize meal delivery or provide rides for people who are unable to drive. Currently, our chair and his wife take goody baskets to our shut-ins about twice a year, and their visits are highly anticipated among the members!

One of my favorite projects has been sending care packages to our college students. The first time we did this we had so many gifts to send to the students we had to purchase bigger boxes to mail them! We had such a positive response from our college students who were reassured that they are not forgotten.

We have joined with the local hospital system to facilitate a Congregational Health Program. The congregation took surveys to discern what health concerns we may have and discussed ways we might combat these issues. We have formed walking programs such as a Walk to Jerusalem and the ACHPC World Tour. We tally our mileage as a congregation to promote exercise. Every so often, we go on walking field trips together. Rather than having a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper last year, we had a Non-Fat Tuesday fellowship dinner. We shared healthy dishes and were invited to exchange recipes. Not only did we eat well, but we spent quality time together around the table.

We rally around growing families as well! We don’t have many children in our congregation so it is a joy to have little ones being born! We host showers for expecting parents, and this is not just for the women. Everyone is invited. The most thoughtful gifts we give however, are delivering meals to the family for several weeks after the baby comes home.

For many members here, it is the loving relationships expressed through acts of care that define our congregation. It is not that we have a lot of people in attendance, or that we have an activity every night of the week; rather the knowledge that, if you have a need for prayer, for assistance, or for people with whom you can celebrate, these are the people who will rally around you. Such nurture for the whole person is a beautiful aspect of a holy community.

Loren Tate Mitchell serves as teaching elder at Appomattox Presbyterian Church in Appomattox, Virginia. She blogs at http://preachingthumbelina.blogspot.com

stained glass window photo credit: drp via photopin cc

We’re a Praying Congregation

medium_3039881498By Jim Lunde

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our church over the years, it’s that we’re a praying congregation.” These were the words shared with me by a church member during my first hospital visit in my new congregation this summer. At first I thought it was a sweet statement to make about one’s church, but (as you’re likely thinking) isn’t every church a praying congregation? Over the next few months I would plunge past sentimentality and learn the true depth of this statement.

One Sunday school class exchanges prayer cards at the end of each lesson and commits to hold that person in prayer throughout the week. This class also maintains a prayer blanket ministry. The congregation’s monthly prayer group compiles a list of prayer concerns and creates a “calendar” for church members to lift specific people and places in their prayer lives throughout the month. One of the most powerful moments I witnessed was a prayer vigil that the congregation held for a member before a complicated surgery. At a moment’s notice, forty people came to the church one evening to pray and support this member and his family. I learned that this is a long-standing tradition of this congregation, as they often meet in hospital chapels and in the homes of members before tests, surgeries and procedures.

This practice has even become a community effort. Recently our congregation has joined with four other faith communities in the South Knoxville neighborhood to engage in combined mission efforts. At our monthly meetings, we basically ask one another: How can we be in prayer for your congregation? We gather to support one another in prayer as we discern how God is calling us to serve the South Knoxville community together. In this way, we have become living prayers for one another as well.

As stated earlier, every congregation prays, so what makes this one so different? To me, the difference is that prayer has become a self-defining characteristic of the congregation. It wasn’t a pastor-originated effort, but came organically through the needs and circumstances of the community. Over the generations, it has shaped their common life together. To become part of this congregation means that you are committing to praying for the community and, perhaps even more difficult for some, you are willing to be prayed for.

Whatever size your church might be, I believe herein lies something that can be transformative for any faith community. Having recently served in a large congregation, I realize that such practices would look much different in their context, but there are some common threads which could nourish any community. I think the biggest one is that prayer is not a program, it’s a ministry. It’s not something you can advertise or use as a hope to “draw” in new members, but when a praying ministry becomes part of your missional identity, the result is truly transformational. Rather than catchy programs or even charismatic leaders, across different demographics, people are seeking communities who genuinely care about them. Communities where more people than just the pastor promise to pray.

Every congregation prays, but the congregations for whom prayer becomes a defining characteristic can truly be transformational by reflecting Christ’s love. Blessings in your ministry of prayer.

Jim Lunde is pastor of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN.

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Dispatches from the Front Line

medium_8066700413By George Chapman

I often describe small church ministry as being on the “Front Line” of American Christianity, and it’s easy to see why. It can be a struggle, after all. The small church typically exists in close quarters to a plurality of Christian traditions, many of which are not “Reformed” in the classic sense of the word. Finding our distinctive voice within this ecclesiastical cacophony can prove somewhat daunting. Variable economic conditions have a drastic impact on giving and budgets. When times are tough, small churches are the first to feel the pinch, and when times are good, we are the last to experience relief. Work, play and school . . . those many obligations that distract younger persons and families from fully participating in church life are magnified among our pews every Sunday morning. Aging congregation members on increasingly fixed incomes present additional complexities for mission and outreach.

To put things more plainly, the greatest challenges facing the “next” church are being experienced by the small church in the here and now. Given their size, larger churches can prove relatively immune from such trends, but I’m certain they still experience them in some noticeable way. If they haven’t yet, I can almost guarantee you, they will! And I don’t say that to sound defeatist, but . . .

I do believe that our future success as a denomination will hinge upon our ability to bridge the divide between larger and smaller faith communities.

If larger churches in our denomination wish to see the future of the PC (USA), then they need look no further than the small church. There, they will observe no shortage of challenges, but they will also find countless servants wholly dedicated to the traditions of our Reformed faith, often under some pretty demanding circumstances. There, they will discover people practiced in the art of maintaining bonds within community while faithfully persevering through periods of uncertainty. There, they will encounter real friendship, true fellowship and genuine concern for one’s neighbor. For such persons, the relevance of the church has never fallen into question; rather the church maintains a central and revered place in the daily exercise of their lives.

So, where is the small church in the “next” church? This is the question I posed to NEXT Church’s fearless leader during a recent gathering in my native Shenandoah Presbytery. Patient and gracious as always, Jessica Tate affirmed the need for movements like NEXT Church to constructively engage small churches. At the same time, she also expressed a desire to build a more “relational” denomination with stronger connections between Presbyterian congregations of all sizes.

And I believe this is where the small church has a particular advantage, in that we are already relational! This is not an abstract ideal to which we aspire, but it is the everyday reality in which we live! Our congregation members see one another as family (sometimes literally), and are eager to respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ, often with little regard to cost. As a small church pastor, I’ve been blessed to see and experience this again and again and again. For this reason alone, I am wholeheartedly convinced that the small church possesses a meaningful contribution to this dialogue concerning our collective future. We have much to teach, but we also have much to learn, as we endeavor together to strengthen the body of Jesus Christ.

Rev. George W. Chapman III serves as a Teaching Elder at Buena Vista Presbyterian Church in Buena Vista, Virginia.


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Futuristic Traditionalism: Small Congregations and NEXT Church


By Andrew Taylor-Troutman

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox! Now we have some hope of making progress.

~Niels Bohr

Recently I came across an essay by Don Share, the new editor of Poetry, in which he cited a quote from the composer, Van Dyke Parks, as that of a “futuristic traditionalist.” This notion is a paradox by which two opposite notions, when thrown together, are somehow complementary. If the one holy catholic and apostolic church is engaged and invested in today’s world for the next generations, this paradox stems from a certain peripatetic Jew in ancient Palestine who was connected to his religious tradition, including its own cherished past; and yet likewise insisted that the basileia tou theou is an up-to-the-moment fulfillment of that tradition in each and every believer’s breath.

How then can we, as his disciples in next church, be futuristic traditionalists?

This month, our blog posts – though very different – will each engage this paradox through the lens of the “small church.” I place quotations around this term because it seems to me that, when used, it actually designates a characteristic spirit as manifested in beliefs and aspirations, not only pertaining to literal size. I think you know what I mean. Perhaps you have heard a wistful, elaborate description of someone’s memory of his or her “small church” from long ago, often uttered with a far-off gleam in the speaker’s eyes. Maybe you’ve heard stories of Dr. So-and-So preaching a loved one’s funeral, and Mrs. Saint teaching rambunctious children the Ten Commandments, and Mr. Rock quietly maintaining the building and grounds.

You can trust the voices gathered here this month to honor and respect such traditions. In her or his own way, our authors devout the majority of working hours, efforts, hopes, and prayers working side-by-side with such people and their living memories. And yet, with God’s grace, they labor with their communities as forces in our broken and badly battered world. Yes, “forces” – perhaps this strength-giving, mind-altering, soul-inspiring, heart-touching, life-giving ministry is greatest paradox of today’s small church, an unlikely power that is not ours but from the one who promised, For wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be also. I think that notion might be a paradox as well, and I hope and pray that, as we “meet” this month by encountering a wide range of voices, therein lies our hope.

Author photoAndrew Taylor-Troutman serves as teaching elder of New Dublin Presbyterian Church. His memoir about this experience, Take My Hand, is published by Wipf & Stock and can be ordered here: www.takemyhandmemoir.com  

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