Small churches keep the faith Congregations face changes threatening their existence

September 26, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Inside a small brick Baptist church by the side of the road in Cooksville, 35 souls clap their hands, stomp their feet and shout "amen" as an eight-member choir belts out "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow."

The 60-member Full Gospel Baptist Church still keeps the faith every Sunday, though it's not uncommon for the 18 wooden pews covered with red fabric to be less than full.

Unlike Howard County's larger churches -- some with thousands of members -- Full Gospel Baptist and many of the county's other small country churches get by on relatively few dollars and with relatively few members.

The smaller churches -- many of which are in western Howard -- are grappling with aging congregations, dwindling memberships and fear of change.

All of these factors can lead to churches closing their doors.

For example, about two years ago when membership at Grace Christian Church in Savage had fallen to an all-time low of eight from its high of 125, church members gave their building to a growing church, Countryside Fellowship, which had met in area elementary schools.

"I knew it would fall down if somebody else didn't have it," recalls 40-year member Doris White, 75, who attends Countryside Fellowship. "I was happy to turn it over to another, younger group that would take care of it."

Small churches enjoy plenty of positives.

Chief among them, many churchgoers say, are the family feeling of the churches and more opportunity for personal contact with pastors.

"When you have 1,000 members, I can't see how the pastor can pastor to 1,000 members," says Joyce King of Catonsville, a longtime member of West Liberty United Methodist Church in Marriottsville, which averages 60 worshipers on Sundays. "They

just get up there and preach."

But a seminary professor and author warns that if pastors and their small churches don't have a vision and reach out to new members, their churches' growth could be stymied and their futures doomed.

Ronald K. Crandall, professor of evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and author of two books on small churches, says the lack of funds and falling memberships are the main concerns of small churches across the nation.

Of the estimated 350,000 churches in the nation, most are small, experts say -- though they are unable to give an exact number, in part because definitions of small churches vary.

Usually, churches averaging fewer than 100 in attendance or fewer than 200 in membership are considered small.

Crandall says some of these congregations will continue to survive, but many might die or be forced to merge with others.

In Highland, the independent Community Bible Church, with 60 members, is working on its survival by reaching out to families who move into the new suburban developments in the once-rural area.

The church is "experiencing growth out here by way of housing," says the 12-year-old church's pastor, Steven Sorensen.

But he acknowledges: "We have a lot of empty seats, and it can be discouraging. I'm a human being, you like to see more people in the church. I'd like to see more people being fed by the word."

Sorensen says about 15 members left his church in recent years zTC because their needs weren't being met or for job-related reasons.

The church has survived partly because of a continuing core of members who regularly tithe and fill the offering plate, he says, and "primarily, because of God and the fact he's held it together."

In the meantime, he knows he must wait for more members -- and funds -- to provide wordly goods for the church, such as a new sound system and a baby grand piano.

In nearby Dayton, Foursquare Gospel Church -- after decades serving a farming community -- is starting to grow again, thanks to families moving into the suburban area. Since the Rev. Jonathan Wyns, senior pastor at the 30-member church, arrived in February, five new families have joined, he says.

"It's a little rough because we're a small church," he acknowledges. "Obviously, we don't have a lot of volunteers. We try to meet all the needs we can."

In this country, the roots of small churches go back to between 1607 and 1620, when Christians settled in North America, says Lyle E. Schaller, of Naperville, Ill., author of "Small Membership Church."

Some of the first pastors of small churches were "circuit riders," who preached to people from around the farming areas to worship, says Crandall, the Kentucky professor. "The small church," he adds, "was the center of community life."

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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