Today’s article comes from my friend, Professor Ron Crandall, of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
I met Ron many years ago at an evangelism conference, and I’m thrilled that he’s submitted a guest article here about a congregational renewal program for smaller churches. Enjoy!
ABIDE: A Model for Renewing Smaller Congregations
By Ron Crandall
Recognizing a Problem in the smaller congregation.
For more than half of my life I’ve carried a special concern for older, established, traditional, and smaller congregations.
I suppose it all started when I discovered that my seminary education had contributed a great deal to my theological education but very little to my ability to either understand or withstand the small church reaction to the “revolutionary” mindset I brought with me to pastoral ministry.
Because my own life had been profoundly changed by Christ, my bias was to think that this sort of joyful revolution ought to be the experience of each and every Christian disciple.
I’m sure, therefore, that I came on “too strong” and almost totally lost my ability to pastor and lead that congregation.
This experience of “new pastor high expectation burnout” in smaller churches is far more common than I realized back then, but that early sense of confusion and near failure led me to read and research everything I could on the unique dynamics of smaller local churches.
Can turnaround changes in a small church survive a pastoral transition?
I’ve written three books and and multiple articles on the subject of ministry in smaller congregations. I thought I had discovered most of what produced congregational renewal.
My book Turnaround Strategies for the Small Church was first published by Abingdon Press 10 years ago, and still receives strong affirmation as a study of how 100 smaller congregations and their pastors came to the experience we called “turnaround.”
However, a follow up contact with these same 100 churches a decade after reporting on their success stories revealed that upwards of 75% had in fact “turned around again” or once more become churches struggling for survival.
Overwhelmingly, the decline was connected to pastoral transitions.
Something’s not right: Searching for a Solution
Concern for the future of struggling smaller churches led me along with a team of others to develop a new model of renewal that is proving to be helpful for a growing number of congregations.
In December 2004, Asbury Theological Seminary hosted a two day consultation on the future of the smaller church, from funds from a Lilly grant
The purpose of the occasion was to prayerfully ask the question “What might God be saying to some of us who value these hundreds of thousands of smaller congregations regarding their possible role in the kingdom over the next few decades?”
After securing additional grant funds from the Foundation for Evangelism in Lake Junaluska North Carolina, eight of us committed ourselves to meeting once a month for the next year to explore how we might design a renewal model and a revitalizing movement among thousands of smaller churches across the United States.
Each time we met we employed a variation of what has become known as the “L3 Incubator” (Loving, Learning, Leading) model of leadership development.
We spent time together in worship and prayer.
We held each other accountable for reporting on how well we had done at being faithful to a discipline we had named the month before that would “help enhance my relationship with Jesus Christ and result in becoming more Christ like and the leader God has in mind.”
We came prepared to examine specific areas of research and data related to our smaller congregations and to biblical and historical perspectives. And we tried to ask what “program” elements might assist in creating a true movement and not just a resource.
The fruit of prayerfully meeting: ABIDE
In time, we saw all of the pieces coming together around the John 15:1-17 passage of intimate relationship, discipleship, fruitfulness, and glorifying God.
As we sought to combine all of the lessons gleaned through15 months of work and prayer, we found the word to describe the new offering—ABIDE.
Our deep concern was to aid in the development of a discipleship-leadership team for each congregation that participated and developing “Churches Abiding in Christ, Advancing God’s Mission, and Alive in God’s Glory.” We incorporated as SCLI—Small Church Leadership Initiative—under the 501-c3 umbrella of SLI—Spiritual Leadership, Inc.
In brief, the model begins with a retreat involving teams of pastors and 3-8 lay persons from at least ten congregations coming together for an overnight retreat. The focus is on the John 15 passage and its meaning for our lives as individuals and as smaller congregations. The “L3 Incubator” model of leadership development is also introduced.
For the churches wishing to continue on to stage two, homework assignments are given in a notebook that require each teams to gather weekly to prayerfully reflect on the assignments. A month later, the teams return for a Saturday workshop reporting on their insights and rejoicing in what the Spirit of God had been teaching them. Review and additional perspectives focusing on issues faced by smaller congregations highlights this day apart.
The final piece of the ABIDE model is a continuing investment by each group to become a Loving-Learning-Leading core team over the next twelve to fifteen months receiving coaching and materials for the journey by trained ABIDE facilitators.
A look at its impact:
ABIDE has generated many testimonies, but the following capture something of the unique contribution it offers.
The ABIDE program has become a foundational piece of our ministry. This program has provided great opportunity in two venues of growth within our small rural churches. A growth in spirituality through a deepening personal relationship with Jesus Christ has been experienced by each ABIDE team member and they are sharing that growth with the congregation virtually on a daily basis. And…a growth in membership and attendance numbers has occurred as a direct correlation to the information and tools provided by the ABIDE program. ABIDE truly enables and empowers churches to achieve the goal that was set on the first day the program was introduced to me…Churches ABIDING in Christ, ADVANCING God’s mission, and ALIVE in God’s glory. Reverend Gregg Plott–Warrenville, NC
The Gamewell team sings the praises of ABIDE at any chance they have. If we accomplish no more than what we have already experienced, I call the time a success and I look forward to watching God work through this team in the future. Prior to enrolling in ABIDE our Church thought it had lost its luster. ABIDE taught us that the luster was still there and began to help us learn how to rub that luster to a sheen and experience God’s glory for the small Church.
Spirituality has made ALL the difference in the ABIDE experience. As a pastor, it is thrilling to watch Church members begin to grow in their personal walk, metamorphosing into a spiritually led leader within the Church & community. ABIDE understands that God wants glory for all Churches, regardless of size and that the Holy Spirit is excitingly active “wherever two or more are gathered” in Christ’s name. In fact, you just might hear one of your members cry out, “GLORY!” as they tell you what God is doing in their lives and in the life of the Church! – Rev. Renee K. Easter–Gamewell, NC
Not only are we in our Abide Group becoming better disciples and striving to live within the will of God, but we are starting to have a Vision for our Church and community, one that will bring glory to God and reach and teach the lost sheep. Before our Abide group began many of us were disconnected from God and did not have a unified direction, and now we do. It is an exciting time within our team! Josh Pruett—team member, Dalhart, TX
Future Development of SCLI Projects
Additional SCLI (Small Church Leadership Initiative) projects are also underway.
Several large churches in the United States have indicated an interest in partnering with us to invest their own leadership expertise, facilities and mission funds in serving the multitude of smaller churches in their ministry radius. Individual “turnaround” smaller churches are wanting to put on mini-versions of ABIDE and/or inspirational training events along with SCLI personnel and resources. Printed and Internet materials, website management, telephone-video conferences, and new books and published articles are on the horizon. We believe God is truly in this, and our prayers for having a part in creating a movement to revitalize smaller churches is beginning to bear fruit—much fruit.
Abide . . . .
[Ron Crandall is the Sundo Kim Professor of Practical Theology and Evangelism and Dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. If you are interested in learning more about ABIDE or receiving an electronic version of our brochure, visit the SLI website at http://spiritual-leadership.org.]